1998 Mercedes-Benz CLK320

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Reviewed By: Tony Swan
© 1998 NewCarTestDrive.com


If Romeo and Juliet were around today, their story might not end so unhappily because their families--the Montagues and the Capulets--would have something they could agree on: the new Mercedes-Benz CLK320.

But what, you may ask, do Romeo and Juliet have to do with a seductive luxury sport coupe? Well, Verona, Italy, is where their gloomy love story unfolded--Juliet's balcony is one of the city's principal tourist stops--and it was also the site for the worldwide press preview of the CLK.

Unfortunately, the unhappy couple missed it by about four centuries. Too bad, because they'd be just the kind of upscale young people Mercedes-Benz hopes to attract. Mercedes newest campaign is designed to make us fall in love with its newest line of cars. And few of them are as alluring as this handsome new CLK320 coupe, an impressive blend of graceful good looks, innovative technology, luxury, power, performance--and value.

We realize a $40,000 sport coupe isn't exactly a mainstream set of wheels. But in the luxury realm, its combination of features, quality, style, and revitalized Mercedes panache add up to a very good value.

Perhaps even more significant, the CLK is yet another signal that this is a changed company. As recently as five years ago, Mercedes was rapidly losing ground to longtime rival BMW as well as the newer Japanese luxury entries from Lexus, Acura and Infiniti. Mercedes-Benz cars began to be perceived--not inaccurately--as overweight, over-engineered and overpriced. And the parent company was perceived as arrogant and insular.

The CLK provides proof of a new corporate philosophy in development: leaner, quicker, more flexible, less expensive.

It's also a treat for the eyes and a blast for the senses when driving it.

With a formula like that, how can you lose?

Model Lineup

Walk Around

A replacement for the previous E-Class coupe, the CLK is slightly smaller, but it boasts room for four, outstanding seats, plenty of go-power and a much smaller number on its window sticker.

As with its underpinnings--an amalgam of modified C-Class sedan chassis pieces and E-Class suspension and brake components--the CLK's exterior uses design elements from other Mercedes lines to create a uniquely graceful presence. In particular, the four ovoid headlamps, which made their debut on the E-Class, lend an unmistakable Mercedes touch at the front, and the sweeping arc of the rearmost roof pillars sweetens the whole shape.

The CLK320 is powered by the first V6 in Mercedes-Benz history. It comes allied with an intelligent 5-speed automatic transmission. It's a superb combination that's capable of propelling the 3,240-pound CLK320 from 0 to 60 mph in less than seven seconds.

The new 3.2-liter engine is the most salient of the many technological features that distinguish this new rear-drive offering from Mercedes-Benz. Although it makes respectable horsepower and even more respectable torque--232 pound-feet--its real strengths are low weight and exceptionally good emissions performance. A lighter engine reduces weight over the front wheels, which improves balance and handling.

This engine weighs just 330 pounds. Its low weight was achieved through extensive use of lightweight materials: an aluminum block, cylinder heads and pistons, silicon aluminum cylinder liners, magnesium valve covers, and an aluminum oil pan.

The new Mercedes-Benz 3.2-liter V6 meets the requirements for California's tough Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV) classification. This unusual combination of plentiful power and low emissions is attributable to a number of unusual engineering elements: single overhead camshafts, rather than dual, reducing reciprocating mass and weight; three valves per cylinder (two intake, one exhaust), rather than four, enhancing catalytic converter light-off; two spark plugs per cylinder, capable of slightly staggered firing, to optimize combustion; one ignition coil per plug, to optimize the spark.

Its 90-degree V6 layout rather than the more common 60-degree design allows Mercedes to create V8s using the same basic tooling, which should lower the overall cost of producing a line of engines. The result is a family of advanced new engines that will be used throughout the Mercedes model line and will take the company well into the next century.

Mated to this powerful engine is a sophisticated 5-speed automatic transmission that uses computer magic to interpret your intentions and select the proper gear. That's the idea, anyway. In our driving we encountered a couple of situations--passing on narrow country roads--where we wanted maximum power right now. The computer seemed to think that this wasn't a good idea, and selected a gear that was one cog higher than what we had in mind, which left us out there in the oncoming lane a bit longer than we would have liked.

Some other noteworthy techno-wizardry:

Keyless ignition uses an infrared data transmitter that interfaces with the ignition system to start the car. The car's electronic ignition lock can still read the data in the key fob, even if the key fob transmitter is dead.

The computer that governs the antilock brake system (ABS) monitors your braking habits. It then senses when you're in an emergency braking situation, primarily on a basis of how quickly the brake pedal is depressed, and applies maximum hydraulic pressure to the brakes, up to and over the ABS threshold, even if you panic and ease pressure off the brakes. Mercedes claims that most of us don't apply maximum braking force in emergency situations, and that this system can reduce stopping distances by as much as 45 percent.

The CLK is equipped with front and side airbags for the front passengers. The front passenger seat uses a sensor that tells the airbag sensors whether it's occupied; if it's un

Interior

In terms of its firm comfort, luxury features, no-nonsense instrumentation, and excellent control layout, the CLK interior is like other Mercedes-Benz automobiles. But it's not traditional Mercedes in terms of decor: there's more warmth in the interior color scheme. Mercedes is emerging from its long tradition of funereal hues and dark wood trim into something more contemporary.

From the driver's point of view, we found the new coupe's sightlines to be very good, including the rear quarters. In addition to their elegant appearance, the slim rear roof pillars minimize the blind spots so common in sport coupes.

Driving Impressions

This is a technologically advanced automobile that also happens to be a treat to drive--sports car responses, including the most precise steering we've ever experienced in a Mercedes, European luxury sedan ride quality, and plenty of power.

Hard core enthusiasts will probably bemoan the absence of a manual transmission, something that's offered on Volvo's new C70 coupe, one of the CLK's few direct competitors. We've already registered our small reservations concerning the computer decisions of the Mercedes 5-speed automatic, and trying to operate the shifter manually just isn't much fun, thanks to the multiple doglegs in the shift gate.

That reservation aside, there's lots to like here, including the price tag, which is about half of what you would have to pay for the least expensive of previous Mercedes coupes.

And obviously, it's a treat to look at.

Mercedes plans to sell just 9,000 CLK320s in 1998 and nearly half of the buyers are expected to be women. We think Juliet might have fallen in love with the new CLK320. She would have liked its handsome looks and warm interior. That relationship would have deepened with its smooth ride, powerful responses and agile handling.

Well, why not? Who couldn't love a car like that?

2 Mercedes-Benz CLK320 vehicles in stock at carmax.com

2 Mercedes-Benz CLK320 vehicles in stock