1998 Mercedes Benz CLK
Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away
The coupe market has been moribund in the past few years,
partly because there hasn't been much new in a segment which
almost by definition thrives on novelty.
Also, today's upscale customer looking for something different
and trendy is more likely to snap up a sportute. Mercedes-Benz
has that field covered with the new M-Class but it's hedging
its bets with the recently-introduced CLK coupe.
Coupes have long been a part of Mercedes tradition, offering
conservative engineering with a bit of flair.
The CLK and such competitors as the lovely Volvo C70 show that
at least some manufacturers understand that these sportute
buyers must come to their senses eventually, and return to cars.
When they do, they have a treat in store with the CLK.
Remember the blizzard three weeks ago Friday? Perfect time to
be picking up a four-wheel drive vehicle. But I was picking up a
CLK instead and an errand in Bowmanville that afternoon
couldn't wait. I had no choice but to go dashing through the
Ironically, this subarctic trek reinforced my prejudices
against sportutes. Well, they aren't "prejudices," since that
word implies not liking something before you try it. What I have
are more like postjudices.
My point: if a lowslung, high-style, rear-wheel drive
two-door sports coupe like the CLK can handle the first blizzard
of the year with no problems whatsoever, why would anyone drive
around in a truck other than at metaphorical gunpoint?
I have never understood it, and never will. Especially after
driving an M-Class myself, but that's another story.
The CLK is another example of how Mercedes-Benz has changed
from an engineering-only company (zis is zee car you need; buy
it und you vill enjoy it) to a marketing-savvy company. The
brochure is filled with pictures of people, with not an engine
or suspension component in sight.
The tag line for the car is "a balance between what you
require and what you desire." Certainly, the styling makes it
desirable — this is a gorgeous car.
Essentially, Mercedes has taken entrylevel C-Class
mechanicals and platform, and grafted on a sleek coupe body with
a dual-ovoid headlamp front end that mimics the mid-range
E-Class. Instant upward mobility.
There's decent room inside for four, by coupe standards,
anyway. Adults won't want to drive to Halifax in the back seat.
The rear seatback split folds in 60-40 proportion, to expand
the already sizable trunk as needed.
Access to the rear is eased by front seats that power-glide
forward when you pull on a handle on the side of the backrest,
then return to their former position when you release the
handle. Most of the time, anyway. A couple of times when I tried
to show this feature off, it didn't work.
There was probably a reason for this; I just don't know what
it was. Mercedes still marches to its own drummer in instances
For example, the power-adjustable seats work only if the door
is open or the ignition is on. For me, the usual drill is: get
in, shut the door, adjust the seat. Can't do it in a Benz until
you switch on. Huh?
Try to remove the key with your foot on the brake pedal? It
won't let you. A Mercedes spokesperson explained it had to do
with making sure the brakes are set before taking the key out,
but I still don't get it.
Did I say "key"? Nope. The CLK has Mercedes' trick new
fully-electronic SmartKey. It's a normal-looking remote key fob
without the traditional key, just a small red window on the end
of the module. Insert this into the ignition slot, twist, and
let go. No need to hold it against spring pressure, as the
starter motor spins on its own until the engine starts.
You have no idea how cool this is until you try it out on a
few of your friends.
The SmartKey is also the transmitter for the standard-fitment
remote keyless entry system and theft alarm.
Otherwise, the interior will be familiar to all Benz fans:
park-bench-hard seats whose firmness you only begin to
appreciate after a few hours in the saddle; white-on-black
gauges with orange pointers; burl walnut trim so polished it
looks like plastic; and soft-touch rocker switches whose
positioning appears haphazard to the uninitiated.
Again, with Mercedes, we assume there's a reason, although
they'll never convince me the
one-steering-column-stalk-does-it-all concept (turn signals, wipers, high beams) makes sense.
Hosannas for the Nobel prize-winner of cup holders, carried
over from the E-Class, which has more engineering in it than
most cars' suspensions.
One trick that's conspicuous by its absence is windows that
automatically drop a few millimetres when the door is opened, so
they exert less pressure on the sealing rubbers when you close
the doors again.
BMW started this with the 850, and uses it on most of its
two-door cars. Mercedes has it on the SLK roadster too, but not
on the CLK. As a result, you really have to slam these doors to
get them closed.
The chassis is pretty much straight C-Class: double wishbone
front suspension; five-link setup at the rear;
As with the C-Class, there's firm ride and fine handling.
Although like most Benzes, you have to dig deep to find the
car's brilliance; it doesn't invite you to play the way most
New on the CLK is a brake assist system designed to compensate
for the fact that most drivers don't hit the pedal hard enough
in an emergency.
If the system senses a rapid but not particularly forceful
push on the brake pedal, it automatically increases brake
pressure to get the car slowed down as quickly as possible.
I tried various combinations of brake pedal application speed
and force but couldn't actually feel this system working.
The most I can say is that it's transparent to the driver.
The standard traction control (Mercedes calls it Acceleration
Slip Regulation) uses a combination of brake application and
engine power reduction, should it detect wheelspin. The trick
with these systems is balance.
If it kicks in too soon and too hard, as Mercedes systems
usually do, it can kill your momentum in deep snow and cause
more trouble than it prevents.
If it comes on too late, the car may already be spinning out
Mercedes must have calibrated the CLK's ASR in weather like my
blizzard, because it seemed about right.
Benz's supertrick Electronic Stability Program, which can
brake individual wheels as required to keep the car going in
whichever direction the steering wheel is pointed, is optional
The 3.2-litre V6 engine belongs to a new family of engines
that will power a wide range of Benzes over the next decade,
e.g. the M-Class sportute.
The vee concept makes the engine more compact than the inline
six it replaces, as Benz is constantly looking for more crush
space for crash protection.
This engine family will also include a V8, so the V6 is stuck
with a 90-degree vee angle between banks of cylinders.
This isn't ideal for a six, since it imparts second-order
vibrations which must be tamed with a counter-rotating balance
shaft. This adds weight and saps power.
Benz deals with the former by using aluminum alloy for block
and head castings, and magnesium for the variable-length intake
manifold and valve covers.
Each combustion chamber is a busy place, housing three valves
per cylinder (two intake, one exhaust) and two spark plugs.
These help Benz engineers achieve their two major objectives:
a flat torque curve peak torque is 228 lb.ft. at 3,000 rpm,
with over 193 lb.ft. available from 2,000 rpm; and reduced
emissions the engine is well below California's Low Emissions
Vehicle (LEV) standard, and is considered capable of meeting the
UltraLow (ULEV) standard although it hasn't yet been so
certified. Peak power is a competitive 215 horses at 5,700 rpm.
The CLK's only available transmission is a five-speed
automatic with variable shift strategies that adapt to your
Lean on it, and shifts are delayed and executed more crisply,
for more performance.
Waft along, and the shifts come sooner and slower, for
improved comfort and economy.
The powertrain does a fine job, with decent acceleration and
even a sporty exhaust note when you stomp on it.
It may not be as silky-smooth as the former twin-cam six, but
there is no cause for complaint.
The base suggested retail price for a 320 CLK is $56,950. The
Electronic Stability Program is an extra $1,525.
Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on
driving experiences with a CLK provided by MercedesBenz Canada.
You can catch Kenzie each Saturday on Talk 640 Radio at noon.