Mercedes-Benz redesigned its CLK-Class coupe for the 2003 model year. At a glance, the new version looked similar to models from 1998 – 2002, but B-pillars were absent in the 2003 sports car.
The CLK-Class coupe is heavier and more upright than before; it measures 1.5 inches taller and 2.7 inches longer. Despite the pillarless coupe body, the automaker said torsional stiffness improved by 40 percent.
The CLK-Class Cabriolet (convertible) continued in its prior form for an extra season before enjoying a comparable redesign as a 2004 model. Cabriolets have a fully automatic soft-top and sensor-controlled roll bars that are disguised as head restraints. The top can be operated remotely. Three engines are available.
Mercedes-Benz said the new pillarless coupe design was inspired by the premium-luxury CL-Class coupe. The rear windows retract fully to create an open, airy feeling. A modern version of the traditional Mercedes-Benz front-end design positions the three-pointed star at the center of a low, wide grille. What appear to be four headlights are actually twin ellipses that form a single unit on each side of the car.
Elegance is the front-end theme for the CLK320, while sportiness takes precedence in the CLK500. The CLK320 grille uses atlas gray vanes, and high-gloss black vanes with chrome highlights identify the CLK500. The CLK320 features green-tinted glass, and the CLK500 gets blue-tinted glass.
In addition to a larger engine, the CLK500 gets bigger brakes and an AMG wheel and body design package. An optional CLK320 Appearance Package adds bigger, lower-profile tires and a larger chrome exhaust. Seven-spoke wheels on the CLK320 coupe hold 16-inch tires, and the CLK500 is equipped with 17-inch tires that are wider and lower-profiled at the rear.
Both the CLK-Class coupe and the Cabriolet provide ample space for four occupants on leather-upholstered seats; the rear seat is split and folds. When front occupants close their doors, an arm extends to deliver the seat belt buckle. Vertical LCD bar graphs are used for fuel and coolant-temperature gauges.
All CLK-Class models have a Tele Aid emergency assistance system. Standard equipment includes automatic dual-zone air conditioning with a sun sensor, 10-way power front seats and rain-sensing windshield wipers. A premium eight-speaker music system uses digital processing to compensate for ambient noise.
An optional Keyless Go system unlocks and starts the car by touching buttons on the door handles and gearshift knob. Other options include bi-xenon headlights, Distronic cruise control and a Parktronic system that detects obstacles to the rear while backing up.
Under the Hood
A 215-horsepower, 3.2-liter V-6 engine goes into the CLK320 coupe and Cabriolet, while a 302-hp, 5.0-liter V-8 powers the CLK500 coupe. The CLK55 AMG holds a 5.5-liter V-8 that generates 362 hp. A five-speed-automatic transmission uses TouchShift for manually controlled gear changes.
Coupe models have four side-impact airbags and two full-length side curtain-type airbags. Cabriolets contain new side-impact airbags that are designed for head and thorax protection. Traction control, antilock brakes, Mercedes’ Electronic Stability Program, Brake Assist and a BabySmart child-seat recognition system are standard.
The CLK500 Cabriolet is close to flawless. It delivers fierce acceleration, super stability, and expert steering and handling. The automatic transmission responds well and with only a brief delay. The carefully controlled, absorbent suspension provides an enjoyable ride. Performance is less energetic in the CLK320, but it’s wholly sufficient except when compared to the V-8-powered CLKs.
Visibility is impaired when the top is up, but conversations are easy with the top down. Firm, snug-fitting seats feel like they’re custom-made. Front space is ample, even though the car is rather narrow. Each CLK model has a solid, tight feel, with little sense of heaviness. The powered seat belt extension arm is helpful, but it has a tendency to snap into position.