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New models - Mercedes-Benz - CLK-class

First drive: Benz drop-top a quiet achiever

Follower of tradition: The CLK cabriolet is a solidly engineered car in the Benz tradition, with no particular evidence of the quality glitches that even the company's execs occasionally admit to.

Demand is already outstripping supply for the Benz CLK cabriolet

16 May 2003

FANCY the look of the new Mercedes-Benz CLK cabriolet and considering putting a deposit down for some summer drop-top motoring?Well, unless you're thinking about the summer of 2004/05 you can forget it.

Mercedes-Benz Australia already has 500 orders for the second generation CLK (codenamed A209) which goes on sale in June, but it will receive only 300 cars from the factory for the rest of the year.

It's a dilemma, but a happy one, for MBA which has resisted the temptation to exploit the new car's popularity with a hefty price rise.

At least for the time being the entry level is the CLK320 3.2-litre V6 at $129,900 in either Elegance or Avantgarde trim, basically splitting the price difference between these two models in the old line-up.

Move up into V8 territory and the CLK500 5.0-litre V8 is $154,900 for either trim choice. That's about $7000 more than the old CLK430 Avantgarde and $5000 more than the old Elegance.

Added over the top of this lot is the CLK 55 AMG at $204,900. No price comparison here because it is the first time the 270kW drop-top hot-rod has been sold in Australia.

In each case that's a $14,000 price premium over the coupe version of CLK.

So for virtually the same money as the old cabriolet what do you get that's new? A lot actually.

That's no surprise considering CLK cabriolet is virtually identical under the skin to the CLK coupe introduced last year. That means it is also based on the latest C-class architecture - with a bit of E-class thrown in for good measure.

It means the same three-link MacPherson strut front and well known multi-link rear-end as the coupe and C-class, and the steering system swaps from the old recirculating ball type to rack and pinion for this generation.

The V8 engine is also a substantial boost, climbing nearly a litre in capacity as well as 20kW to 225kW and 60Nm to 460Nm of torque compared to the old unit. But the V6 is unchanged at 160kW and 310Nm.

Both mate to an adaptive electronically-controlled five-speed automatic with tip-shift (semi-manual) control.

The comparison between coupe and cabrio deviates dramatically when you get to the skin. Classically evolved from the previous car, A209 retains the key elements of four seats, two doors and a soft top roof. Yet because of the change of underpinnings it is bigger in all dimensions than its predecessor and with a longer wheelbase to boot.

Speaking of which - the boot that is - Benz proudly claims that at 390 litres with the roof in place it's the best in class. It is also claiming a class-leading 0.30 aerodynamic drag figure - 0.30 Cd.

The CLK cabrio's body has been strengthened 12 per cent compared to its predecessor and new safety features include head/thorax sidebags as standard, adaptive airbags for the driver and front passenger, and belt tensioners on all seats. There's also a sensor-controlled rollover bar in case things go rubber-side up.

Mercedes says the newly developed, multi-layered fabric roof is designed for optimal noise damping and convenience, opening and closing fully automatically at the touch of a button or by remote control.

In terms of standard equipment, you can expect to find all the usual goodies in the cabrios like alloy wheels, dual zone climate control, multi-disc CD changer, full leather upholstery, the Comand control system and a full suite of electronic driving aids including ABS, BAS and ESP.

New equipment added to both models includes a rain sensor, adjustable steering wheel, head/thorax bag, mixed profile tyres, Keyless-Go access system and fully automatic soft-top with remote control. The CLK500 also gets the speed-sensitive parameter steering system.

Options are Distronic proximity control, Linguatronic voice control, Thermatronic automatic climate control system and bi-xenon headlights.

And then there's the CLK 55 AMG, which is in its own little world, tuned by Benz's hot-rod division to deliver a more sporting and focussed drive. It gets the CLK500's level of equipment but adds some AMG dress-up gear and 18-inch alloy wheels, compared to 17s for the 500 and 16s for the 320.

In 2004 MBA says it should get 500 CLKs but believes it could sell at least 600 if it could get the supply. Sometime next year the range could grow to include the CLK240 2.6-litre V6 cabrio, and beyond that maybe even the CLK200, the 1.8-litre supercharged four-cylinder.

PRICING:
Mercedes-Benz CLK 320 cabriolet: $129,900
Mercedes-Benz CLK 500 cabriolet: $154,900
Mercedes-Benz CLK 55 AMG cabriolet: $204,900

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

AH Queensland, wet one day, drowned the next. If there's one thing we can assure you about the new CLK it's that the roof is most assuredly water-proof.

The rain simply did not relent during our day sampling the CLK in south-east Queensland, which is a pity considering it's a convertible.

Not that you'd know it from inside. This is one quiet car. Benz claims it is class leading and we believe them.

Some convertibles - even some German ones - are akin to rattling along in a tin drum being beaten by a stick (the drum not you). Noise aplenty, you're certainly in touch with your environment!No such issues with the CLK. Engine noise was but a distant thrum, water splashing around under the guards was no more than a dull hiss and wind noise was about the same as a hard-top.

All that's complemented by a lovely driving environment that is comfortable to sit in and utilise, except for Comand which continues to confuse with its array of knobs and buttons. It's pretty tight in the back as well - kids only for all but short trips we'd say.

Unfortunately, all that rain means we can't tell you what the driving experience was like with the roof down.

Other impressions are that this is one solidly engineered car in the Benz tradition, with no particular evidence of the quality glitches that even the company's execs occasionally admit to. Maybe that's because the cabrio is built by independent coachbuilder Karmann rather than in a big plant.

Our driving experience concentrated on the CLK320, which drove solidly rather than with any level of excitement. The engine seemed to struggle with the 1730kg kerb weight, up by 35kg from the old model. While adequate enough it simply did not go that hard or sound at all soulful.

Benz claims a 0-100km/h dash time of 8.2 seconds - one tenth slower than the old car. Sounds about right.

The driving experience was highlighted by an excellent ride over big corrugations and road trauma. It was less impressive on the never-ending series of minor irritants Australian roads serve up, tending to be a little joggly, transmitting too much road shock back to the driver.

The steering was not the most communicative we have ever experienced but there was only a little sign of twist from the body, a couple of groans seeping out over rougher surfaces when cornering.

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