The Mercedes-Benz CLK320, a two-door, four-passenger luxury coupe, is one more in a long line of well-engineered, conservatively styled cars from the German manufacturer. Though small-looking, it packs all the performance and amenities one expects in a $44,000 vehicle.
A 215-hp, 3.2-liter engine is under the hood, buried beneath a layer or two of heat-resistant plastic. All that black plastic makes for a spic-and-span appearance, but doesn't give you much of a look at or access to the hardware. The aluminum engine, a 90° V6, produces about 230 lb-ft of torque at 5,700 rpm, which gets channeled through a five-speed automatic transmission.
The car rides smoothly on a strut suspension with split lower links up front. The rear suspension is a tuned version of the multilink setup used on all Mercedes passenger cars. The CLK320 sports a new rack-and-pinion steering system designed to be responsive and precise. And Mercedes decided to stagger the tires on all CLKs, putting wider, lower-profile tires on the rear. The car also has speed-sensitive steering, which increases power assist for low-speed tasks such as parking and reduces the boost at normal speeds for better road feel. All this translates into a car that is effortless to drive, but capable of meeting almost every driver expectation.
On the inside, it's all comfort and convenience, maybe too much. For example, the steering wheel has four rocker switches, each with eight detents. The switches control over 50 functions, including the entertainment center, trip odometers, interior and exterior lighting, and a message center. Some additional buttons let drivers scroll through comments and menus on the message center. I needed more than a week to get really comfortable with all the convenience.
The coupe had an optional lighting package that consists of a combination of bi-xenon headlights and a high-pressure water-jet headlight washer. The high-intensity, gas-discharge lights use a shutter to switch from high to low beams. There are also controls that change the angle of the headlight beam in response to the car's body movements.
One option our test car didn't have, radar-based cruise control, is one of the newer technologies I would like to check out. It is supposed to maintain a set distance from the vehicle in front of you.
The CLK320 is a great car for the well-heeled single person or professional couple, and Mercedes certainly makes a great product. But I'm not sure how they come up with prices for options. They seem a little steep. Our car came with the following options: a pewter silver paint job ($670); upgraded stereo with a CD changer ($2,680, which would buy a lot of stereo gear at Circuit City); heated front seats ($670); the xenon headlights and washer ($975); a sunroof and powered rear-window shade ($1,410); and some special wheels ($1,080). This brings the total to $52,455, including $720 in delivery charges.
-- Stephen Mraz