New Car Review: 2003 Mercedes-Benz CLK 320 Coupe


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SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD WITH CAREY RUSS

    Not long ago, Mercedes-Benz was the epitome of European 
conservatism. But, from the mid-1990s, the German manufacturer 
has been anything but conservative in styling and its product cycle 
strategy. Automobiles once designed for the older executive, and 
with very long product life cycles, have given way to progressively 
more youthful machinery, with rapid development and evolutionary 
cycles. The CLK luxury sports coupes are an excellent example of 
these trends. 

    Prior to the introduction of the CLK in 1998, Mercedes-Benz 
coupes were premium luxury cars, and luxury coupes in all 
segments were dying breeds. The CLK plays in the seriously-
competitive mid-luxury segment, and has been very successful since 
its debut. But, in the five years since the original CLK's launch, 
Mercedes-Benz came out with its flagship luxury coupe, the 
elegant, luxurious, and expensive CL class. No surprise, the 
second-generation CLK borrows heavily from the CL in style and 
appointment.

    Like its predecessor, the newest CLK is offered with a choice of 
V6 or V8 engines. The V6 in the CLK 320 is the familiar 215-hp 
3.2-liter, but the CLK 430 has become the CLK 500, with the old 
4.3-liter V8 replaced by the 5.0-liter engine also found in CL and 
SL models. Both feature new, more youthful styling, with subtle 
differences in exterior and interior trim between the two. I've been 
driving a new CLK 320 for the past week, and have been very 
favorably impressed. Coupes are often bought for style, and it has 
plenty of that. But it also scores high in real-world factors, building 
on the comfort and space offered in the first-generation CLK. It's a 
car that can be happily driven every day, not just on special 
weekends.

APPEARANCE: Even though it's actually slightly larger and 
heavier than its predecessor, the rounded masses of the original 
CLK have been replaced by crisper, more angular  bodywork that 
makes the new CLK look smaller and lighter. This is enhanced by 
its lack of B-pillars. At the front, the contemporary wide, low 
Mercedes-Benz coupe and roadster grille flanked by twin-oval 
headlights establishes identity even without the prominent three-
pointed star, and shows close kinship to the company's premium CL 
coupes and SL roadsters. The shape of the headlights is carried 
back through the front fenders. From the side, the CLK's classic 
long-hood, short-deck proportions are evident. The sloping 
windshield and backlight give the long passenger cabin a nearly 
symmetrical look. The rear of the trunk lid has a slight ducktail lip, 
and large, rounded triangular taillights show a relationship to the 
company's E-Class sedans.  

COMFORT: The passenger cabin's large expanse of glass and an 
elegant design unique to the CLK but inspired by the CL give the 
new CLK's interior a spacious, airy look. It's no illusion, as most 
interior dimensions have increased, especially in the oft-forgotten 
(in coupes) rear seat. In front are comfortable, firmly-supportive 
power-adjustable buckets. Rear access is helped by the ``Easy 
Entry'' system, which folds the front headrest down and moves the 
front seat forward when a lever on the front seat back is lifted. 
Power ``seatbelt presenters'' at the top of the B-pillar stubs keep the 
front shoulder straps out of the way until needed by the front 
occupants. There is good room for two medium-sized adults (5' 9") 
in the rear seat, and a 60/40 split seatback adds versatility. Back up 
front, the instrument panel is further away from the front seats than 
previously, which not only adds a feeling of space, but safety as 
well. The steering wheel is power-adjustable for both tilt and reach, 
and has auxiliary audio, phone, and trip info controls. If outfitted 
with the optional six-disc CD changer and Mercedes cell phone, as 
my test car was, interior storage takes a small hit, as the phone 
takes up all of the center console box and the CD changes uses 
most of the glove box. Still, there is much more space inside, and in 
the trunk, than is usually associated with a coupe. This is a practical 
everyday car.

SAFETY: Mercedes-Benz has always been at the forefront of 
safety research and engineering, and the new CLK reflects this. It 
features a strong central structure with front and rear crumple 
zones, eight airbags, antilock disc brakes with Brake Assist and 
ESP electronic stability control, and the TeleAid emergency 
response system.

ROADABILITY: Despite its lack of B-pillars, the new CLK's 
unibody structure is more rigid than that of the original, providing a 
solid base for the suspension. The front suspension is new, and is 
now a strut type with dual lower links designed to better deal with 
poor surfaces in comfort. Like the original CLK, the new one is 
strikes a balance between sports and touring that is biased toward 
long-distance comfort, but still with the ability to thoroughly enjoy 
the scenic route - in refined comfort, with plenty of room.

PERFORMANCE: The 2003 CLK 320's namesake 3.2-liter engine 
is one of the few major pieces that is largely unchanged from 
previous models. And change really wasn't needed. It's smooth, 
quiet, and unobtrusive, as a luxury powerplant should be, and its 
maximum 215 horsepower and 229 lb-ft of torque give the car 
good acceleration and high-speed cruising abilities. The 
sophisticated electronically-controlled five-speed automatic 
transmission features adaptive logic circuitry that adapts shifting to 
the driver's driving style, and also holds lower gears while climbing 
hills and shifts to a lower gear for engine braking when descending 
grades. It suits the CLK 320's character very well, with little need 
to shift manually for better performance. But, for those so inclined, 
``Touch Shift'' manual mode is standard, and allows easy manual 
control.

CONCLUSIONS: Mercedes-Benz has improved on an already very 
good automobile with the 2003 CLK.

SPECIFICATIONS
2003 Mercedes-Benz CLK 320 Coupe

Base Price			$ 43,900
Price As Tested		        $ 49,240
Engine Type			single overhead cam 18-valve V6
Engine Size			3.2 liters / 195 cu. in.
Horsepower			215 @ 5700 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			229 @ 3000-4600 rpm
Transmission			5-speed electronically-controlled 
                                 automatic with ``Touch Shift'' 
                                 manual mode
Wheelbase / Length		106.9 in. / 182.6 in.
Curb Weight			3,515 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	        16.3
Fuel Capacity			16.4 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires				Continental Conti Touring Contact
                                 F: P205/55 HR16 R: 225/50 HR16
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
                                 anti-lock and Brake Assist standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent strut /
                                 independent multilink
Drivetrain			front engine, rear-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		19 / 27 / 21
0 to 60 mph				7.4  sec (mfg)

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Desert Silver color				$   655
Integrated 6-disc CD changer			$   400
Motorola V60 phone				$ 1,595
Heated front seats				$   650
K3 value added package - includes: glass sunroof,
  power rear window sunshade		        $ 1,375
Destination and delivery			$   665
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