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2005 Mercedes-Benz CLK55 AMG Cabriolet Review

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2005 Mercedes-Benz CLK55 AMG Cabriolet For aficionados of Mercedes-Benz performance, the letters AMG are magic. They stand for the names of the company founders, Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher, and Aufrecht's hometown of Grossapach, Germany. Aufrecht and Melcher were long-time Mercedes-Benz employees who left in 1967 to found AMG, primarily to build racing cars based on Mercedes-Benz sedans.

Success came in the early 1970s, and by the middle of that decade, AMG began to develop cars for the street. Based on contemporary Mercedes-Benz sedans and coupes, they found a ready market in Europe and Asia. None of the early AMG cars were U.S.-legal, but some came in through ``gray market'' special import channels. There is nothing like prohibition to increase exclusivity and make something more sought after. The premier late-1980s AMG, the 1987 E-Class-based 300E 5.6 ``Hammer'', powered by a 360-horsepower 5.6-liter V8, became legendary.

In 1990, AMG signed an agreement with Mercedes-Benz allowing AMG cars to be sold in Mercedes-Benz dealerships outside of Germany. Cooperation between the two companies increased, and the 1993 introduction of the C-class saw the C36 AMG. The C36 became the first AMG to be officially imported into the U.S. in 1995. In 1999, DaimlerChrysler became the majority owner of AMG. Cash infusion equals greater production capacity, and that led to AMG versions, including U.S.-legal versions, as the top model of nearly every Mercedes-Benz class. One of these is the CLK55 AMG.

As can be guessed from the name, the CLK55 is the performance leader of the CLK class of mid-sized coupes and cabriolets. As with other AMG vehicles, AMG takes the basic Mercedes-Benz and substitutes its own engine, transmission, suspension, and brakes, and makes changes to both interior and exterior styling. Where other CLK models have a 215-hp 3.2-liter V6 (CLK320) or 302-hp 5.0-liter V8 (CLK500), the CLK55 AMG has a specially-tuned 5.5-liter, 362-hp V8. The transmission and suspension are specially modified, and there are subtle (and not so subtle) changes to the bodywork and interior.

But all CLK models share the basic platform, and that's good news. The second-generation CLK chassis, introduced in coupe form in 2003 and as a cabriolet in 2004, is significantly more rigid than the first generation chassis. I recently spent a week with a CLK55 AMG cabrio. The original CLK cabrio had noticeable cowl shake. Even with 362 horses and 376 lb-ft of torque, and an exquisitely sport-tuned suspension, the CLK55 AMG cabrio was bank-vault solid, even on bumpy roads. My time with the CLK55 cabrio was not exactly classic convertible weather - the top stayed up except for one 20-minute window between showers. No matter - any convertible is good when it's sunny and the top is down, but bad weather is the best time to tell just how well-made a drop-top car is. In any form, the newest CLK cabrio offers first-class comfort and style. In CLK55 trim, add near-supercar performance.

APPEARANCE: Although the second-generation CLK's styling is mostly evolutionary, there is one difference. The grille, instead of being a modification of the Mercedes-Benz passenger car grille as before, is now based on the company's coupe and roadster grille, as developed in the SL class from 1955 to today. It's wider and lower, for a lower hood line, and prominently features the trademark three-pointed star in the center. As has been Mercedes style for the past few years, the front fender line sweeps back from the twin-oval headlamps. In profile, with the top up the cabrio is very similar to the coupe in roofline, and the higher rear fenders give a wedge-shaped look of performance. The rear window is heated glass, and visibility, top-up, is little less than in the coupe. The AMG models have unique lower styling. Echoing styling also seen on the SL and SLK, the front apron has the look of the nose wings of one of the McLaren-Mercedes Formula One race cars, while lower side sill extensions and a ``diffuser''-type rear treatment give the look of contemporary performance. The 17-inch wheels, with ultra-low profile tires, fill the wheel wells but are not excessive. The brakes, with six piston front and four-piston rear calipers, and large vented, cross-drilled, and slotted rotors, look impressive. They work as well as they look, too.

COMFORT: At all levels, the CLK's interior combines luxury comfort and style with a sporty look, but no more so than in the CLK55. An elegantly simple design is enhanced by aluminum trim around the VDO/AMG gauges, on the center stack, and on the door and glovebox handles. The interface for Mercedes-Benz's COMAND navigation and control system has gotten progressively simpler over the years, to the point of being almost intuitive. Interior storage spaces, including a locking two-layer center console and glovebox, add convenience. The CLK55 gets special AMG seats, and they are firm and supportive for fatigue-free driving. There is more interior room than in the first-generation CLK, especially in the 2+2 rear seat. Four medium-sized adults fit in the car easily. And there is a reasonably-sized trunk, although with the top down some space will be sacrificed. The top goes up or down at the touch of a button, with no manual latching necessary.

SAFETY: Think of a safety feature in a modern car, and you're likely thinking of a Mercedes-Benz innovation. Standard passive safety equipment on the CLK55 cabrio includes front and rear crumple zones, automatic rollover bars, side-impact beams, dual-stage front, rear side, and front head/thorax airbags. Active safety is enhanced by good handling, strong antilock brakes with electronic brake force distribution, traction control, and the ESP electronic stability enhancement system.

RIDE AND HANDLING: Compared to the CLK coupe, the cabrio has reinforcements to its lower unibody structure to compensate for rigidity lost by removing the top. It's on a par with the coupe for rigidity, and has noticeably less cowl shake than its predecessor. AMG has taken advantage of the CLK cabrio's rigid structure with a finely-tuned suspension that is firm enough for handling appropriate to its performance level, with virtually no body roll in hard cornering, yet is supple, with absolutely no harshness. It's a fine car for any distance, in any reasonable weather, not merely a short-term, sunny-day convertible.

PERFORMANCE: There is a technique in race engine building called ``blueprinting,'' in which each moving part is matched for weight and dimension. Connecting rods are as close to each other in weight as possible; ditto for pistons and valves. This is pretty much what AMG does to each engine in an AMG Mercedes, and each is hand-assembled by one technician. The result is an engine as smooth and refined as possible, and one that can reliably make more power. And there is no power shortage in the CLK55, with 362 horsepower at 5750 rpm and a very healthy 376 lb-ft of torque peaking at 4000. That torque gets to the rear wheels by way of an AMG-modified five-speed automatic with adaptive shift logic and ``Speedshift'' manual mode controlled by buttons on the steering wheel. It shifts significantly more quickly and authoritatively than the standard Mercedes transmission upon which it is based. With all that torque, shifting is an option, not a necessity, but it does add to driving enjoyment. The massive brakes allow the CLK55 to stop as easily as it goes.

CONCLUSIONS: The original CLK was oriented more toward luxury than performance. In the new generation, both are about equal, except in the CLK55 AMG, where the same luxury level is accompanied by serious performance.


2005 Mercedes-Benz CLK55 AMG Cabriolet

Base Price			$ 80,850
Price As Tested			$ 87,550
Engine Type			single overhead cam aluminum alloy
				 24-valve V8
Engine Size			5.5 liters / 332 cu. in.
Horsepower			362 @ 5750 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			376 @ 4000 rpm
Transmission			5-speed driver-adaptive automatic
				 with manual-shift mode
Wheelbase / Length		106.9 in. / 182.6 in.
Curb Weight			3,960 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		10.9
Fuel Capacity			16.4 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires				225/40 ZR18 F, 255/35 ZR18 R 
				 Continental Sport Contact
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc, 6-piston calipers /
				 vented disc, 4-piston calipers; ABS, EBD, ESP standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent 3-link strut /
				  independent 5-link
Drivetrain			front engine, rear-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		16 / 22 / 17
0 to 60 mph				5.2  sec

COMAND Navigation system		$ 2,210
6-disc CD changer			$   420
Keyless Go				$ 1,060
Destination charge			$   720
Gas guzzler tax				$ 1,300