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First drive: AMG Benzes are mind benders

On the go: The CLK 55 AMG is an exciting and involving drive.

We taste the latest and greatest Benz horsepower heroes

24 Mar 2003

EVERY year Mercedes-Benz re-acquaints the local media with the hot-rod AMG range, usually with a day of hot laps at the Phillip Island grand prix circuit. But this year the venue changed to the Snowy Mountains and some of Australis's best driving roads.

Who could resist that? Certainly not us. The chance was there to sample virtually the entire AMG range - bar the off-roader ML - including the latest model arrivals.

That lot included the SL 55 AMG metal-roofed convertible launched last November, the E 55 AMG that went on sale in December, the S and CL 55 AMG that appeared in February and the most recent arrival, the CLK 55 AMG.

In effect, the Snowy drive was the CLK coupe's Australian launch and even though amongs this elite lot it is the cheapest - albeit at $190,900 - it's got a couple of important distinguishing points.

For a start, it is now the basis for the Formula One Safety Car that whizzes around the track before the big boys come out to play at grands prix, replacing the SL used for the past two years.

It is also the only one of the top gun AMG's that is not supercharged and that's because the extra plumbing could not fit under the bonnet along with the 5.43-litre V8 engine.

But in normally-aspirated form it still pumps out a healthy 270kW at 5750rpm and 510Nm at 4000rpm, pushing the car to 100km/h in 5.2 seconds. By comparison, the top-spec standard car, the CLK500, powered by a 5.0-litre V8, produces 225kW/460Nm and 0-100km/h time of 6.0 seconds. It is also about $50,000 cheaper than the AMG.

The CLK AMG's engine is mated to AMG's five-speed "Speedshift" transmission with steering wheel change buttons or the touchshift semi-manual gear lever.

The gearbox is retuned compared to the 500 with faster gearchanges, different shift points and an active downshift system that helps select the appropriate lower gear when driving aggressively in semi-manual mode.

Underpinning all that is an uprated sports suspension - which comprises larger torsion bars, tuned springs and shock absorbers - assisted by the ESP stability system. Stopping power is provided by an uprated brake system that includes perforated discs with four-piston callipers up-front. AMG claims the CLK can pull up from 100km/h in just 36 metres.

The package is completed by a typically subtle AMG bodykit, which includes front and rear bumper sections, side skirts and a discrete rear wing. There are also 17-inch twin-spoke alloy wheels mounting different size low profile rubber front and rear and twin chromed exhaust pipes.

Inside the look is appropriately sporty and luxurious with AMG's sporty leather and aluminium presentation, complemented by the 500's already high level of kit which includes adaptive front airbags, front side airbags, full-length windowbags, six-CD sound system, foglights, cruise control and dual zone "Thermotronic" climate control.

ML 55 AMG $139,900
C 32 AMG $150,900
SLK 32 AMG $154,074
CLK 55 AMG $190,900
E 55 AMG $221,900
S 55 AMG $349,900
SL 55 AMG $369,900
CL 55 AMG $372,900


THIS is going to sound sacrilegious, but the AMG CLK 55 reminds me of the Holden Torana A9X of the 1970s.

If you're a bit of an Aussie performance car fan, you'll remember the A9X, the limited run basis for Holden's touring car of the time, piloted by Peter Brock to a series of famous - or infamous if you were a Ford fan - Bathurst victories.

On the surface there does not seem to be a connection between A9X and AMG. The Holden was rough, raw and challenging - and exhilarating - to drive.

The AMG is exhilarating as well, but by no means rough and raw, or even challenging.

But across the years both of them share a weld-like connection straight to the driver's central nervous system. Communication in all its forms is the name of the game.

The point is the AMG is the car A9X might have eventually matured into if it had continued to evolve over 20 years.

The CLK 55 AMG is well balanced, as intimate and as involving as any Benz I have ever sampled. No, it does not have the same straightline capability as some of its stablemates, but its sheer poise on rough, wet, winding and difficult mountain roads is beyond reproach.

The throttle response is instant, revealing a crackling guttural exhaust note and an impressive - but not overwhelming - surge forward. The steering response is just as sharp and even the steering wheel itself is the right size.

And those large shift buttons work smoothly and swiftly but expose the car's one real flaw - a large gap between second and third gear, the two key cogs for mountain blazing.

The rear-wheel drive chassis is sharp but also subtle, only jolting over the worst of the road corrugations and potholes. The brakes are outstanding for their power and their feel.

The CLK proves you do not need the most power, torque or supercharging to be the quickest car in the real world, not that it struggles in either engine measurement department.

Don't believe me? Then how's the word of Domingos Piedade, the world boss of AMG, who says the CLK is two seconds quicker than the SL 55 AMG around the Hockenheim grand prix circuit, sans supercharger, sans Active Body Control, etcetera.

"We were really surprised, but the CLK is 200kg lighter than the SL," he said.

"The CLK was quicker accelerating and, of course, what you have to accelerate you also have to brake."And he says in safety car spec the two cars ran identical times at the old Nurburgring, the legendary test of a car's ability that is used as a performance benchmark by manufacturers across the globe.

Now as much as we enjoyed the CLK on those Snowy Mountain roads, the Nurburgring sounds like even more of a hoot!

Going all the way

OUR admiration for the CLK does not mean E55 AMG and SL 55 AMG were not enjoyed as well - far from it.

Both share the supercharged version of the same 5.43-litre engine under the bonnet of the CLK. In E-class sedan trim it pumps out 350kW and 700Nm, while with a change of exhaust and ECU revisions, the SL's power climbs 18kW but torque stays the same.

Impressive figures, but so are the prices which are listed above ...

Both cars are awesome machines, a fact vouched for by making it into Motor magazine's highly rated Performance Car Of The Year top six, the E finishing fourth and the SL only beaten by the Porsche Boxster S.

There's no doubt Motor got the order of Benzes right. The E feels like a very fast sedan stretched towards its limit - certainly not beyond it - with an amount of body movement and sway along with a remote steering feel.

But the SL is entering another stratosphere.

Not only does it have a fabulous engine that delivers massive go anywhere and everywhere, but also advanced technology like the Active Body Control system that sits the car flat while cornering hard through tight corners.

It feels weird at first, but combine it with that massive 18x8-inch wheel and tyre package and an unobtrusive but powerful ESP system - and you have grip galore.

The brakes are perhaps the only weakness, not for their power but their wooden feel. Here the electro aid is called Sensotronic Brake Control, which in emergency applications actually clamps the pads harder to the discs for you.

For all the enjoyment the SL delivered from the driver's seat, my best moment with it was from the passenger seat of the E-class, as we headed down a mountain pass at a fair clip. In a blur the SL came rushing by, low and wide and lethal, hugging the road and going maybe 100km/h an hour faster.

In a second it was gone into the distance, but the memory will endure.

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