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Review: 2003 Mercedes-Benz CLK500 Coupe

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SEE ALSO: Mercedes Buyer's Guide

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MODEL: Mercedes-Benz CLK500 Coupe
ENGINE: 5.0-liter V8
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 302 hp @ 5,600 rpm/339 lb-ft @ 2,700-4,250 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed automatic with Touch Shift
WHEELBASE: 106.9 in.
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 182.6 x 68.5 x 55.4 in.
STICKER PRICE: $52,865 (base)

One of the models Mercedes-Benz surprised us with at its introduction last summer was the CLK coupe. Many of the reporters in attendance had driven (and enjoyed) the CLK cabriolet, but the same car with a hard top was something new from Stuttgart.

What impressed me the most about the CLK coupe was not necessarily its styling, which I'll get into later. What I liked were some of the innovations, in particular the seat belt "presenters."

We all know the problems seat belts can present in a coupe. They're hard to find for the driver and front passenger, for one thing. In order to place them in a position where the rear passengers don't get strangled upon entering the car, they end up so far back that you almost have to be a contortionist to reach them. This could be a problem that's exacerbated by age, but it's still a problem.

In the CLK coupe, though, Mercedes-Benz has "presenters." When you enter the car and sit down and put the key in the ignition, the seat belt hook moves the belt forward so that you merely have to reach over your shoulder to get the belt and then latch it in. When you're connected, the "presenter" moves back into the side of the car and you can drive away. I first had a problem with this convenience, because I always put my seat belt on first, then start the car. But by the end of the week, I had it right. Of course, the next week, when I was in another car, I missed the presenters and it was back to being a contortionist again. Oh, life is so hard.

The CLK coupe is a beautiful machine in my eyes. Mercedes has grafted the E-Type front end, with its twin oval headlamps, onto a C-Type-size body to create the coupe. Actually, the platform for the CLK is not the C-Type, but the final product end up being C-Type size, as is the Cabriolet.

And, as in the "hardtop coupes" of the past, there is no B pillar. When all four windows are down (power adjustable, of course) there is no post at the center to obstruct vision and fresh air. This gives the CLK a clean look that isn't available in many cars. The B pillars returned to cars because of safety considerations, but Mercedes-Benz has strengthened the A pillar around the windshield and made the entire roof structure so strong that the B pillar isn't necessary.

Our tester was powered by the 5.0-liter V8 engine rated at 302 hp. A 215-hp 3.2-liter V6 is available in the CLK320 as well, and Mercedes-Benz hot-rodder AMG offers a CLK55 AMG that is, well, hot. The CLK320 is priced at $44,565, while the AMG version has yet to be priced. The models differ in exterior details, primarily in the grille and lower valence areas. The Cabriolet versions of the same cars (the Cabriolet only has a 4.2-liter V8) are about $8,000 more.

Power reached the rear wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission with Touch Shift, which allows the driver to operate it as a manual gearbox if he or she feels the need for more control. In most of the situations we encountered, the automatic was ideally suited, although we tried the Touch Shift on my favorite winding road just for kicks.

Mercedes quotes a 0-60 time for the CLK500 of 5.7 seconds, 7.4 seconds in the CLK320. Top speed is electronically limited to 130. Fuel economy is 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway.

What makes the CLK500 practical is its ability to carry four passengers in comfort. The rear seat is not an afterthought as in some coupes, or as in the SL-Type sports cars. The trunk is also a decent size, rated at 10.4 cubic feet. With judicious packing, there's room for the luggage of four people. If you can leave the other two at home, the rear seat folds flat to increase capacity.

Mercedes has also installed its new-style instrument package in the CLK, with a round speedometer and tachometer and "thermometer-style" fuel level and water temperature gauges. I loved the white-on-black precision-looking round dials, and once I learned how to read the other tow I liked them as well.

As with most Mercedes-Benz models, the CLK500 is pricey. But it is a strong player in the luxury coupe market that will attract envious glances as you drive down the highway.

© 2003 The Auto Page Syndicate