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2009 Mercedes-Benz CLK550 Cabriolet Review

2009 Mercedes-Benz CLK550 Cabriolet  (select to view enlarged photo)
2009 Mercedes-Benz CLK550 Cabriolet

2009 Mercedes-Benz CLK550 Cabriolet

Power and luxury mean wasteful fuel use, right?

But of course. That would explain the woeful 26-mpg average that showed on the trip computer during a 40-mile highway jaunt in the 2009 Mercedes-Benz CLK 550 Cabriolet that was my test car for the past week. This was at real-world highway speeds, averaging over 60 mph, in a luxury-sports cabriolet powered by a 382-horsepower 5.5-liter V8. True, it was light-throttle, steady-speed driving in light traffic, no stop-and-go misery, and no flat-out throttle or heavy braking. Just pleasant moderately high speed cruising, with indicated fuel economy easily in excess of the EPA-listed 21mpg.

Not bad for a car subject to a $1,000 gas guzzler tax.

Why such a light thirst for such a powerful machine? Efficient engine design, to be sure, but I'd give at least equal credit to the seven-speed automatic transmission. Fifth is direct-drive, while both sixth and seventh are overdrives, of 0.82:1 and 0.73:1 respectively. American-spec highway speeds, between 60 and 75 mph, mean the engine is barely above idle in top gear. Like nearly every German car with any degree of performance, the CLK V8 is, for the most part, seriously underemployed on this side of the Atlantic. And, of course, heavy use of the throttle pedal can make the gas gauge drop almost as quickly as the speedometer and tach needles rise.

But all of that makes the CLK, in coupe or cabrio form, an excellent long-distance touring machine. Grand touring, really, in the original meaning of that oft-misused term. The cabrio's insulated, multi-layer top keeps the elements at bay when necessary, and with one-touch, no manual latching operation, it goes up or down quickly and easily. Yes, there is a trunk size penalty, but two carry-on bags will fit even with the top down. The V8 models have the sport suspension as standard equipment, but it's more "sport-touring" in calibration, firm and precise but still quite civilized and completely appropriate for the car's character.

Yes, with a base price of $63,500 when tested, the CLK 550 cabrio is expensive. However, when I think back to the previous CLK V8 cabrio driven, the new one is a bargain, in relative terms anyway. In 2005, the then-current CLK55 AMG had an $80,850 base price and 362 horsepower out of its hand-assembled 5.5-liter V8 and a five-speed transmission. Twenty more horsepower, twenty thousand dollars less, and if a regular production 2009 CLK 550 is less exclusive than a limited-production AMG car, so be it. There is always the CLK 63 AMG for that, 475 horsepower and considerably more sport tuning to the chassis. Or, for the ultimate, the CLK 63 Black Series, in coupe form only, with 500 hp and a DTM-feelalike chassis. I had the opportunity for a short drive in one about a year ago, and while it was wickedly quick, with handling to match, it wouldn't be pleasant for a 500-mile day. The standard CLK 550, on the other hand, would fill that bill quite pleasantly, thank you. For a long day on the road, in comfort and style, it would be hard to beat.

APPEARANCE: In both coupe and cabrio form, the CLK 550 gets the AMG treatment. That means a lower-body aero kit, consisting of a front fascia that emulates the look of the McLaren-Mercedes Formula One cars with a hint of front wings, plus flared rocker panels and a diffuser-look rear fascia. 18-inch AMG-branded alloy wheels shod with low-profile performance tires are also part of the package. It's not at all a "boy racer" look, but subtle enough to be appropriate to the CLK's station in life, and it adds to the appearance created by the wide and low Mercedes coupe grille and twin-oval headlamps. In side profile, the cabrio has a definite wedge shape top down. Top-up it's similar to the coupe, and just as handsome. Large triangular taillamps distinguish it from the rear.

COMFORT: Get in, close the door, and the "seatbelt presenter" will move the shoulder strap holder closer to the seat for easy use. Thank you, Thing! Mercedes-Benzes haven't been austerely Teutonic for a while. The CLK is elegantly styled and appointed inside, with all of the contemporary materials and conveniences expected in a premium luxury car even though it's really in the upper-mid luxury category. Front seat comfort is excellent, especially for the driver with the optional "multicontour" seat as fitted to my test car. This allows adjustment of bolster and lumbar parameters as well as the usual height, back angle, and distance. The steering wheel is adjustable for both tilt and reach for the perfect driving position, and also has information and auxiliary audio controls. Shift paddles are mounted behind its spokes, or use the lever in the console. The CLK is a 2+2, but unlike many cars with that description, in this case that means four adults, not two adults plus two small children. Trunk space, as mentioned, is impacted by the folding top, but is adequate.

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 CLK 550 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. Add auxiliary turn signals in the outside rear-view mirrors to the long list of Mercedes innovations now copied widely.

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, with no noticeable cowl shake. The sport suspension is firm enough for handling appropriate to the car's considerable 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: The biggest changes to the second-generation CLK since its debut are hidden from direct view, but readily apparent when driving. The 215-hp 3.2-liter V6 has morphed into a 3.5-liter, 268-hp powerplant, while the once-5.0 liter, 302-hp V8 now has 5.5 liters displacement and 382 hp (at 6000 rpm), with a healthy 391 lb-ft of torque between 2800 and 4800 rpm. The transmission is now a seven-speed automatic, with low lower gears for acceleration and high upper gears for effortless - and surprisingly economical - highway cruising. Of course, hard use of the throttle pedal will result in large fuel bills and exhilarating acceleration. Because of the engine's wide, strong torque spread, precise gear choice is never really necessary, but when manual operation is desired, it's quick and easy with the steering wheel paddles or shift lever. Still, in all but the most enthusiastic driving, D works very well.

CONCLUSIONS: Drivetrain and detail improvements make the Mercedes-Benz CLK 550 cabriolet an even better car than its predecessors.

SPECIFICATIONS: 2009 Mercedes-Benz CLK 550

Base Price			$ 63,500
Price As Tested			$ 73,605
Engine Type			dual overhead cam 32-valve V8
Engine Size			5.5 liters / 332 cu. in.
Horsepower			382 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			391 @ 2800-4800 rpm
Transmission			7-speed automatic
Wheelbase / Length		106.9 in. / 183.2 in.
Curb Weight			3765 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		9.9
Fuel Capacity			16.4 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91-octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires				Continental Sport Contact 3
				f: 225/40 ZR18 r: 255/35 ZR18
Brakes, front/rear		4-wheel vented disc, 4-piston front,
				 dual-piston rear calipers,
				 ABS, BA, ESP standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent strut /
				  independent multilink
Drivetrain			longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		15 / 21 / 15 to 26
0 to 60 mph				5.2  sec (mfg)

Storm Red paint					$   720
Driver multicontour seat			$   540
DVD COMAND navigation				$ 2,320
Electronic trunk closer				$   540
Keyless Go					$ 1,130
P02 Premium Package - includes:
  bi-xenon active headlamp system, cornering 
  fog lamps, headlamp washing system, 
  heated windshield washer system, harmon/kardon
  sound system, Sirius satellite radio, iPod integration,
  pre-wiring for dealer-installed hands-free
  communication					$ 2,980
Destination and delivery			$   875
Gas Guzzler Tax					$ 1,000