New Car/Review

1998 Mercedes-Benz CLK 320 Coupe

by Carey Russ

mercedes

SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide


There is a metamorphosis taking place in the coupe segments of the automotive world. At all price and performance levels once- popular coupes have recently become extinct, and many of the survivors face a questionable future. But, surprisingly, there are new entries breathing life into the class.

One of these is the Mercedes-Benz CLK 320. It's Mercedes- Benz's first coupe since the E320 coupe that was discontinued after 1995. Only the "320" numeric designator is the same, though. The E320 coupe was based on the previous-generation E-class sedan, and was nearly a two-door sedan in style. It used the old 3.2-liter inline 6- cylinder engine, and was priced at a premium. Excepting the SL roadster-based SLC of the 1970s, the CLK is the first Mercedes coupe since the 540K of the late 1930s not to be based on a sedan. Although it borrows chassis components from the C-Class sedans and SLK roadster, Mercedes-Benz considers the CLK to be a separate vehicle line. U. S. examples use the 3.2-liter V6 also found in the E-Class sedans this year. While the CLK is not exactly inexpensive, it is far less costly than the old E320 coupe, much sportier-looking, roomier, and targeted at a much younger buyer.

Time spent driving the CLK through the mountains of Southern California at the press introduction and on the highways, byways, and city streets around my home made a good impression. The Mercedes- Benz CLK combines luxury comfort, sporty style and performance, and practical room to make it a functional and fun car.

APPEARANCE: If the face is familiar, take a closer look. The CLK design is based on the "Design Studie Coupe" show car from 1993, which was also the inspiration for the front styling of the current E- Class. But no body panels interchange between the CLK and E-Class. The CLK is much lower and sleeker than the E-Class (or C-Class) sedans, and its grille, headlights, and windshield are more raked. The "Design Studie Coupe" contributed the near-fastback roofline; the lip on the trailing edge of the rear deck looks much like that of the E- Class. In those and many other styling details, the CLK is very identifiably a contemporary Mercedes-Benz product but separate from any other of the company's product lines - which was the design goal.

COMFORT: Like its grille and headlights outside, the inside of the CLK is similar to that of other current Benzes, but just slightly different. The appointment level is comparable to that of the E-Class sedans. Leather upholstery and burled walnut trim grace the interior. Supportive, multi-adjustable front seats both have 3-position memory. The front passenger seat has the "BabySmart" automatic child safety seat detection system. Both front seats automatically move forward to ease access to the two contoured rear seats, which will comfortably hold medium-sized people and fold for carrying extra cargo or large items such as a bicycle. Dual-zone climate control with air filtration, and a high-grade Bose sound system, express down and up power windows, and a very functional trunk add convenience and mean that the CLK can be an only car, not a weekend toy.

SAFETY: Mercedes-Benz has a long history of innovation in safety, and the CLK uses all current safety technology. Safety -cell chassis construction, dual front and side airbags, 4-wheel antilock disc brakes, and 3-point safety belts for all occupants are no longer Mercedes exclusives, but the "BabySmart" child seat recognition system and Brake Assist emergency stopping system are. ESP stability control is available.

ROADABILITY: One design goal for the CLK was luxury car comfort with sports car handling. Mercedes was successful there, although luxury comfort predominates over serious sports handling. This is not necessarily bad, especially in the real world of speed limits and traffic. The fully-independent double wishbone front, multilink rear suspension is tuned for a supple, comfortable ride and sporty, but not hard-core sports-car, handling. The CLK is as good for distance as any other Benz, and great fun on a twisting mountain road.

PERFORMANCE: Although other, lesser-powered engines are offered for the European market, American customers get the top-of-the-line 3.2-liter V6. This is the same unusual 90-degree vee, single overhead cam, 3-valve per cylinder powerplant used in the current E-Class. Although it has the same power output - a maximum of 215 horsepower and 229 lb-ft of torque - as the old inline six, the new engine is lighter, more fuel-efficient, and makes its power at lower, more commonly used engine speeds. Matched with Mercedes's sophisticated, computer controlled adaptive 5-speed automatic transmission, the V6 makes the CLK a very refined touring car.

CONCLUSIONS: Are coupes dead? Not according to Mercedes-Benz, which has the class covered with the CLK, its most stylish and sporty luxury coupe ever.

SPECIFICATIONS

Base Price               $ 39,850
Price As Tested          $ 46,105
Engine Type              aluminum alloy, single overhead cam,
                         18 valve, 90-degreeV6
Engine Size              3.2 liters / 195 cu. in. 
Horsepower               215 @ 5700 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)           229 @ 3000 rpm
Transmission             5-speed electronically-controlled
                         automatic
Wheelbase / Length       105.9 in. / 180.2 in.
Curb Weight              3240 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower    15.1
Fuel Capacity            16.4 gal.
Fuel Requirement         unleaded premium, 92 octane
Tires                    P205/55 HR16 Continental Touring
Contact
Brakes, front/rear       vented disc / solid disc, antilock and
                         Brake Assist standard
Suspension, front/rear   independent double wishbone /
                         independent multilink
Drivetrain               front engine, rear-wheel drive 

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      21 / 29 / 23
0 to 60 mph                    6.9 sec
1/4 mile (E.T.)               15.2 sec
Coefficient of Drag (cd)       0.31

OPTIONS AND CHARGES

Mineral Green paint                $    600
Integrated CD changer              $    865
Ski sack with trunk passthrough    $    175
Multi-contour front seats $390 x 2 $    780
Automatic dimming rearview
  mirror and glass sunroof         $  1,290
Rain sensor, ESP stability program,
  headlamp wiper/washers, 
  xenon headlamps                  $  1,950
Destination charge                 $    595

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