Many baby boomers are having "some work done" on their sagging bodies — getting a tuck here and a nip there — and some of their cars are going under the scalpel, too. The wraps have come off the Mercedes-Benz CLK, a favorite coupe of the country club set, and the results are stunning.
Mercedes introduced the CLK in 1997 as a ‘98 model, confident that the withered market for two-door luxury cars would bloom again as aging boomers traded minivans and sport utilities for sportier, more personal cars. Engineers based the CLK on the compact C-Class sedan, but they designed the car as a coupe from the ground up, avoiding the compromises that would have been inherent in adapting a four-door car to a two-door design.
The bet paid off. Affluent boomers love the CLK, which is especially popular among women. The car has been in short supply and commanded premium prices in both the new- and used-car markets. Undoubtedly, the second-generation CLK, introduced this fall model, will be another hit, especially since the minor flaws of the previous car seem to have been corrected.
The new CLK will initially come in two versions: the top-of-the-line CLK500, powered by the 5-liter V-8 engine used in larger Mercedes sedans, and the less expensive CLK320, with a 3.2-liter V-6. The CLK convertibles remain largely unchanged for another year, when they will be updated with a new style similar to the coupe’s. A high-performance version of the coupe, the CLK55 AMG, goes on sale later this year.
The face-lifted CLK500 that arrived in my driveway was drop-dead gorgeous in its elegant "ice blue" paint — which looked like pale green to me. This time, the coupe borrows more flourishes from the exclusive SL roadster, which was redone last year, than from the midsize E-Class sedan, which has also been redesigned for 2003.
It is impossible not to notice the huge three-pointed star on the grille. Lights encircle the mirrors like a dainty bracelet of sparkling diamonds, and the theme is repeated with a boomerang-shaped band of white inside the taillamp modules.
The new CLK looks as if it spent time at the gym, toning its muscles. Or did it simply get a tummy tuck? While the original design had bulging sides like a man who pumps too much iron, the new model has a more sculptured physique with a taut waist and curved lines that add interest and shape. The back end, trimmer and more tapered than its predecessor’s, looks as if it underwent liposuction. The car is nearly 3 inches longer and has a thinner, more elongated silhouette. Other dimensions, including width and height, have increased slightly as well, adding to the interior room.
For a coupe, the cabin is relatively spacious. It also feels more airy than before — partly because of the higher roof and partly because there are no pillars between the side windows. Like the larger, top-of-the-line CL coupe, the CLK has returned to the pillarless hardtop look common on sporty cars of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
The CLK provides generous space for two rear-seat passengers, and it eases the pain of getting in with polite seat belts — what Mercedes calls an easy entry system. When you fold the front seatback forward, the shoulder belts automatically pull to the rear, out of the way, as the front seat moves forward. After the supportive, highly adjustable front seat returns to its upright position, a mechanical arm extends to hand the shoulder strap to the driver.
The rear seatback is split, and it folds to expand cargo capacity. The trunk measures just 10.4 cubic feet.
Inside, subtle touches, like an oval chrome ring around the glovebox handle and matching rings on the gauges, soften the dashboard and unify the interior and exterior.
The CLK’s gauges offer visual interest. While the speedometer and tachometer are round, the smaller gauges on either side are vertical ovals with hash marks like a mercury thermometer. CLK passengers luxuriate in soft two-tone leather. There is burl walnut trim or, optional with the CLK500, aluminum accents.
The CLK320’s V-6 produces 215 horsepower and peak torque of 221 pounds-feet. The CLK500’s V-8 is rated at 302 horsepower and 339 pounds-feet. (The CLK55 will have more than 350 horsepower.) Both powertrains are paired to a silky five-speed automatic transmission that adapts the shifts to the way the car is being driven. A TouchShift feature lets the driver make gear changes by nudging the shifter.
The CLK320 starts at $44,565, including delivery charges, and the CLK500 lists at $52,865. The options on my test car cost nearly $6,000, including a whopping $1,595 for a built-in phone. The total sticker price was $59,690, which seems a lot for a coupe of this size, even if it is gorgeous and even if it is a Mercedes.
The CLK’s beauty is more than skin deep, thanks to some mechanical improvements. Mercedes swapped the previous recirculating-ball steering system for more direct rack-and-pinion steering. Engineers tuned the suspension to make it more predictable in handling maneuvers.
The improvements are significant. The previous CLK felt heavy, with ponderous steering. The new car’s handling is more responsive, matching the svelte new body, and the steering is lighter and more precise. My test car, which smoothly delivered incredible power — Motor Trend clocked the CLK500 at 5.8 seconds from zero to 60 mph — was far more fun to drive on curving roads.
You can order a "smart" cruise control, which maintains a preset distance between the CLK and the vehicle it is following, and a sonar parking sensor, which beeps when the CLK gets close to another object at low speed. Safety features include side air bags for the back seat and air bag curtains that cover the windows in a side-impact crash.
The CLK doesn’t quite get a perfect 10. The center armrest, which cleverly opens from the front or from either side, jiggled — an affront from a company once known for its painstaking engineering and rock-solid build. The blower for the back seat is annoyingly loud, especially since it is so close to the driver’s ear. Anyone juggling a purse and a tall latte will find the front cup holder, which slides out from the center of the dash, too well hidden.
Yet the CLK is certainly the best of its breed. In a word, the car is lovely — like the well-heeled, well-coiffed women who will drive it to their spas.