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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

snow.

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

like these.

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;

recirculating-ball steering.

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

BMWs do.

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

of control.

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

on CLK.

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

driving style.

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.

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