Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - CLK-class - CLK500 Avantgarde coupe
Performance, refinement, styling, ride comfort, interior
Room for improvement
Price, weight, auto-only transmission, optional safety
7 Mar 2003
By TIM BRITTEN
PLEASE feel free to be slightly overwhelmed by the plethora of two-door coupes offered by Mercedes-Benz in Australia.
It starts with the C-class Sports Coupe, a $50,000-plus challenger to BMW's 3 Series Compact hatch that arrived here in 2001, and winds up with the stratospherically expensive CL Coupe.
In between there's the SLK convertible hardtop, the new SL convertible and, from mid-2002, the new CLK Coupe.
The CLK, like the CL Coupe and C-class Sports Coupe, differs from the SLK and SL models in that sedan underpinnings and more than two seats are involved, but you see what we're getting at.
The subject of this discussion, the new C209 CLK series, owes its basic running gear to the C-class sedan, just like the smaller C-class Sports Coupe.
Also just like its predecessor, except that this model is larger and even more refined, with a spacious, aerodynamic body and a host of new systems and standard fittings aimed at making it a more credible challenger to BMW's very successful 3 Series coupe.
The new range starts around $90,000, beginning with the CLK240 and topping out with the 270kW CLK55 AMG that nudges $200,000.
It might compete with the 3 Series BMW coupe for sales, but the actual substance is a little different - not least the fact that the Benz is available with V8 power, right up to the $190,000, 270kW CLK55 AMG.
A huge range of variants is available, typically Mercedes and undoubtedly destined to keep the Australian homologation department busy.
Our test car was the 225kW CLK500 version, which is tagged at a virtual M3-equivalent $139,000, although there's no way it is really a direct competitor with more weight, less power and the availability only of an automatic gearbox.
If you were to attempt finding an M3 competitor in the CLK range you'd really need to look at the AMG version but that of course is a lot dearer and considerably more endowed, what with 5.5 litres and 270 kiloWatts of alloy V8.
The CLK500 is more a (very) swift, luxurious coupe, aimed at indolent types rather than those who opt for the screwed-down, hyped up, focussed feel of the M3.
Still, with no less than 460Nm to heft it along, the CLK500 has no trouble pinning occupants deeply into the leather seats (six seconds from zero to 100km/h), and the suspension, though much more absorbent than an M3, does a fine job of mixing ride quality with exemplary handling and road holding abilities.
And at least the auto offers five ratios along with sequential shifting.
With its increased body dimensions (slightly narrower, yet taller, longer and heavier than a 3 Series coupe), the CLK is able to offer German-style stretching room inside although, of course, it can get slightly less generous in the back if tall people are riding in the front.
The leather seats, all-way power-adjustable (including head restraints) and provided with three-position memory in the CLK500, are substantial and supportive.
A split-fold backrest that creates a close-to-flat load area makes for handy luggage carrying. It's especially easy to operate because the rear headrests slot neatly into special recesses when folded down and don't need to be removed.
Mercedes doesn't hold back on active safety with any of its models, but the CLK500 utilises all available technologies to keep it tracking straight and true.
Underlying all the systems is the now almost-universal electronic stability control - Electronic Stability Program in Mercedes parlance - backed up by traction control and four-channel anti-lock brakes combined with brake assist to deliver extra braking force in emergencies.
Dynamically, the CLK picks up the multi-link rear suspension of the C-class, plus MacPherson strut front suspension and rack-and-pinion steering to add new precision and deftness to the handling and roadholding.
As well as that, the CLK500 gets some serious brake hardware with SL500-style four-piston fixed-caliper 345mm discs on the front and two-piston fixed-caliper 300mm discs on the back. Both front and rear systems use ventilated rotors.
The result is a car that, although it undoubtedly feels bigger and heavier than before, is quite nimble and responsive to driver commands. It also offers the underlying reassurance that, even if it begins to step out of line, there are all sorts of idiot-proof systems that will do their best to cancel out any driver misdemeanours.
It won't perform miracles, but not much gets past the CLK's electronics.
And, speaking of electronics, the in-car systems in the CLK500, both from practical and entertainment viewpoints, promise many hours of studying in-depth the thick and meaty driver's handbook.
Forming the backbone of the systems is the Mercedes 'Comand', which acts as a command centre for audio, telematics and telecommunications. It controls the sound system, CD, navigation and (optional) car phone and TV.
Also optional is the company's Distronic cruise control, which controls the gap between other cars on the road when the cruise control is operating.
You'll also have to pay more for the Linguatronic voice-operated controls for telephone and audio systems and the Parktronic ultrasonic park-assist system.
And, even in the CLK500, sunroof and TV are listed as optional extras. So, surprisingly, are rear side airbags - although a full-length "curtain" airbag is standard.
The impressive array of options includes AMG suspension, bodykit and wheels to bring it closer, in appearance at least, to the M3. The company allows a generous degree of personalisation that, once again, must have Mercedes-Benz departments running in constant overdrive.
The AMG gear might give it a more aggressive stance but the CLK500 is an altogether different breed of coupe to the BMW M3 and undoubtedly will appeal to a good cross-section of buyers keen to at least project a sporty image even if the substance isn't quite there.
At the same time, it's not a wise idea to take on a well-driven CLK500 in any on-road joust.
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