2003 Mercedes-Benz CLK - Print Version
Read the Full Review here: http://mercedes.jbcarpages.com/CLK/2003/

All-new coupe matches stunning styling with stellar performance

written by Mark Phelan


The Mercedes-Benz CLK coupe turned heads when it went on sale five years ago, but it didn't exactly snap them back when blasting down a twisty road. The CLK was lovely to behold, but its performance never quite lived up to its looks, and its cramped interior belied Mercedes' promise that it was a real four-passenger coupe.

Say hello to the all-new 2003 CLK, and goodbye to all that.

Mercedes' new coupe is stunning sitting still, and a delight on the road. It goes immediately to the head of the class for looks, performance and passenger space.

In many ways, the CLK is in a class by itself. Its sleek lines were carefully sculpted to make a statement different from sedan-derived coupes like the BMW 330 Ci. Intended to evoke luxury coupes of the past, the CLK is all about style, and from Mercedes' point of view, its direct competitors aren't even on the road yet. Mercedes thinks the CLK puts it a lap up on competition from the upcoming BMW 6 Series, Audi A4 coupe and Infiniti G35 coupe.


Model Lineup

Two models are initially available: CLK320 and CLK500. We expect them to retail between $43,500 and $54,500.

A convertible will join the lineup in about a year. A very early guess puts prices for that around $52,500 for the CLK320 cabrio and $61,500 for the CLK500 cabrio. A high-performance AMG CLK55 coupe goes on sale in December, with an estimated MSRP of around $71,500. An AMG CLK 55 convertible is also in the pipeline

The CLK320 features Mercedes' 3.2-liter V-6, which develops 215 hp at 5700 rpm and 221 lb.-ft. of torque from 3000 to 4600 rpm. The CLK500's 5.0-liter V8 produces 302 hp at 5600 rpm and 339 lb.-ft. of torque from 2700 to 4250 rpm. Both engines are mated to Mercedes' smooth-shifting 5-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission, which features software to adapt its shift points to suit the driver's style and TouchShift for quick manual shifting.

The two models differ in little but their engines and a few cosmetic touches. Both have a long list of standard equipment including: 10-way adjustable power seats with three memory settings; ABS with emergency brake assist; electronic stability control; and dual-zone climate control with pollen and dust filter.

Exterior differences are minimal. The CLK320 has green-tinted glass and gray vanes on its grille; the CLK 500 gets blue-tinted glass and high-gloss black vanes with chrome trim on its grille. Below the grille, the CLK500's front valance has mesh grillwork and three separate sections.

Both models boast extremely well-equipped and attractive interiors, with two-tone leather and aluminum trim available as an option only on the CLK500. An exterior appearance package featuring 17-inch five-spoke wheels, low-profile tires and aluminum interior trim is optional on the CLK320. The CLK320 has standard 16x7-inch 205/55 HR16 front and 16x8-in 225/50 HR16 rear tires. The CLK500 uses 17x7.5-inch front 225/45 ZR17 and 17x8.5-inch 245/40 ZR17 rear tires. The CLK500 tires are part of the CLK320's optional appearance package.



The new Mercedes-Benz CLK raises the ante for automotive elegance. The design is restrained and sophisticated and simply reeks of high-end European class.

One particularly welcome touch is Mercedes' return to the big proud three-pointed star in the grille. That emblem was a hallmark of previous Mercedes coupes, making them immediately identifiable on the highway, and suggesting that drivers of lesser cars skedaddle into the right-hand lane. The CLK's front also features optional bi-Xenon headlights in an attractive package that bears a strong family resemblance to the SL and CL.

The coupe disposes entirely of the B-pillar, another attractive element reminiscent of an earlier age of sporty coupes. As in the Mercedes CL, the rear windows slide all the way down into body, providing an exceptionally open environment.

It's a tribute to the CLK's design that the car looks much smaller than it actually is. The CLK shares its platform with the C-Class, and despite its relatively compact appearance the coupe is actually longer than the sedan.


Interior Features

The 2003 Mercedes-Benz CLK is almost two inches longer than its predecessor, and all the benefits accrue to interior space. Mercedes claims to have increased interior space by two inches, but it feels like considerably more.

The first-generation CLK was a classic coupe in both its exterior appearance and a rather cramped cockpit. The new CLK offers generous headroom even for tall drivers.

Even better, the back seat actually does have enough room for two adults to travel comfortably over distances greater than to the end of the owner's driveway. You might not want to take three friends for a daylong jaunt, but no one is going to get out of the backseat looking like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Rear seat knee room has grown 1.57 inches, while rear headroom increases nearly a half-inch.

Mercedes made ingress and egress to the rear seat easier with handy quick release front seats that slide forward and up. In another welcome change, the rear seats split 60/40, providing access to the capacious 10.4 cu.-ft. trunk and making the new CLK as practical for daily fetching and carrying as it is for well as dinner outings.

The interior materials are the finest in any recent Mercedes. Soft polyurethane sprayed onto the dashboard provides an attractive appearance and a luxurious feel. While there have been complaints about the use of plastic in the M-Class and C-Class, it's hard to imagine anyone not being seduced by the look and feel of the CLK's interior.

The instrument panel is a departure for Mercedes, but it works admirably. A large round speedometer and tachometer dominate the center of the gauge cluster. Two small vertical gauges for the fuel level and coolant temperature flank them. Those two gauges resemble nothing so much as an old mercury thermometer. While they take some getting used to in a brief test drive, the design has the look of something so intuitive for daily use that it's a wonder nobody else uses it.


Driving Impressions

The Mercedes-Benz CLK is a luxury coupe you can drive hard without even realizing it. The chassis has the kind of stiffness Mercedes has only graced its SL roadsters with in recent years. Torsional rigidity has increased a very welcome 40 percent compared to the pre-2003 CLK.

In mixed driving along a stretch of Detroit's Woodward Avenue that varied from 1900-style brick to pool-table smooth asphalt, the CLK's suspension swallowed the unpleasant bumps without complaint while communicating steering input fluently back to the steering wheel.

A few miles north of downtown Detroit, on the winding lakeside roads of Oakland County, the car handled curves at speed with the easy grace of a thoroughbred horse stretching out in the home stretch.

The CLK's front suspension combines two low-mass lower control arms with a strut, coil springs, dual-tube shocks and a stabilizer bar. Mercedes chose to use the two lower control arms to improve impact absorption for better wheel control and damping. The rear suspension is the latest refinement of Mercedes proven multi-link design. It has been tuned for improved absorption of vibration and more predictable handling when driven hard. The CLK has very little squat or dive during hard acceleration or braking.

Another welcome improvement to the new CLK is the addition of rack and pinion steering. It was the last Mercedes car to abandon the automaker's old recirculating ball system, and the steering response and feel are a massive improvement over the previous model.

Mercedes continues to improve its ESP electronic stability program. In the CLK, the system is virtually transparent, intervening unobtrusively to prevent wheel spin, but without the heavy-handed reduction in power that marred some of its early applications.

The Mercedes V6 and V8 engines perform admirably and both benefit from a 5-speed automatic transmission. The 215-hp CLK320 has all the power most drivers will ever really need, accelerating ably from a stoplight and driving the car smoothly through the gears. The 302-hp CLK500 is a refined German muscle car, offering pin-your-head-back acceleration with barely any deterioration in handling due to its greater weight. The 5-speed automatic offers a TouchShift manual shifting mode.


Final Word

The 2003 Mercedes-Benz CLK hits the market as the best luxury coupe in the world. The CLK marks a gracious return to a design philosophy that demands that a coupe make a special statement about style and elegance, rather than simply being a truncated sedan.

The CLK marks a further evolution of the specialty coupe, one that rises above some of the limitations that undid the coupe market in the past. The CLK can't match a small sport sedan for passenger room, but it does not have the crippling impracticality and cramped cockpit of older coupes.

The CLK is a rolling statement of style and taste, and a design that's likely to age well. The Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class should only get better as more models join the lineup. The company struggled to meet demand for the outgoing CLK, but the lines that will probably form for the new model are likely to dwarf what Mercedes dealers have seen until now.


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