1999 Mercedes-Benz CLK 320 Cabriolet Road Test

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1999 Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class Sedan

(3.2L V6 5-speed Automatic)

Mineral Green exterior paint and an oyster-toned interior may not be the most popular color combination in the automotive world, but it fits right in with the lush landscape of Washington state, which was where we found ourselves driving the latest passenger car from Mercedes-Benz. These mint-cool summer colors were only made cooler by the new car's remarkable ventilation system: the convertible top of the 1999 Mercedes-Benz CLK 320 Cabriolet.

Introduced last year as a coupe, the CLK boasts a level of luxury previously missing from two-door cars under $50,000. Luxury is synonymous with Mercedes, and the CLK Cabriolet lives up to that name. Competitors such as the Saab 9-3 or Volvo C70, while less expensive, but are front-wheel drive and relatively sparsely equipped. The BMW 328i or M3 convertibles are the CLK's closest competitors, but the CLK appeals to people who place sports car performance and the availability of manual transmissions secondary to comfort and convenience. Mercedes hopes to woo buyers with a long standard equipment list featuring both luxury and safety amenities.

We'll start with the luxuries. Leather? Check. Cruise control? Check. Heated windshield washing system? Uhh … check. Rear foglamp? Well, you get the point. Also standard are such "extras" as an integrated garage door opener, an outside temperature display, remote keyless entry, power everything, and a lot more which we'll talk about in due time.

Burl walnut trim covers the center console and adds elegance to both the dash and doors. A "new generation" fiber-optic radio (including a keypad for the optional cellular phone), complete with an amazing seven-speaker Bose sound system, means that music can be heard while driving at any speed with the top down. In addition, dual-zone climate controls are standard, theoretically allowing both front-seat occupants to set their own temperature. We say "theoretically" only because the climate control system is probably more effective with the top up.

Top up, the CLK Cabriolet could almost be mistaken for a coupe. The car has a slick .32 coefficient of drag, and wind noise is virtually absent. From inside, the roof looks like any other car roof, save for the small rear window that doesn't offer what we'd call superior visibility. But what impressed us most is the car's airtight seal. Slam the door while inside, and you feel like you're in a hermetic chamber. The top is made of three layers of material that help eliminate sound and keep the interior well insulated.

Top down, the car maintains an isolated pocket of air in the cabin, making conversation possible at normal speaking levels. And, if even the slightest bit of wind annoys you, a three-piece wind deflector can be installed to cover the rear seats and further eliminate wind noise and buffeting. Then again, if wind annoys anyone that much, why buy a convertible?

Trunk volume is 9.5 cu. ft. with the top up, a loss of 1.5 ft. compared to the coupe. Top down, trunk space drops to 5.8 cu. ft., or in layman's terms, "diddly squat." Don't plan on taking this car to the driving range unless you want to strap the clubs into the rear seat.

Getting the top up and down is not quite as simple as we expected. A latch must be turned and then the front of the roof must be forced up or down, depending on whether you're putting it up or taking it down. With that task done, simply push a button and the mechanical motors take over, opening the trunk and folding the top. Not quite the perfect automatic system of the Mercedes SLK or Jaguar XK series convertibles, but at least you never need to exit the car.

But who would ever want to exit such a comfortable ride? Plush leather seats are both attractive and supportive, equipped with ten-way power adjustments, three-position memory and forward-tilting headrests. The seats offer plenty of legroom for tall people, and the steering wheel telescopes to fit most driving positions.

Backseat passengers may not appreciate the front seat travel quite as much. On the plus side, the front seats slide out of the way for easy entry. On the down side, rear seating provides a scant 31 inches of legroom; good enough for short trips to the theatre, but not recommended for extended drives.

Mercedes cars are as safe as they are luxurious. The CLK Cabriolet was built to be as sound as its hardtop sibling, thanks to a number of structural and added safety features. First, the A-pillars and header were reinforced for rollover protection. The doors and B-pillars have also been reinforced for both structural rigidity and passenger protection. Rear roll bars are also an added feature, mounted on a reinforced rear bulkhead. The roll bars automatically pop up in three-tenths of a second if the car detects an imminent rollover situation. It's not the sort of feature you ever want to use, but it's nice to know it's there.

As in all Mercedes passenger cars, antilock brakes with brake assist and full-range Automatic Slip Control (ASR) traction control come standard. Other standard features include front and side airbags and BabySmart child-detection protection for the front passenger seat. Optional is the Electronic Stability Program (ESP), which reduces understeer and oversteer by applying braking force to the wheel that needs it.

All of these enhancements don't come cheap. At a cost of $7,000 more than the base price for the CLK coupe, and an additional curb weight of 410 lbs., the Cabriolet is no lightweight in either category. But from a driving standpoint, the car doesn't lose much in the way of handling.

The 3.2-liter SOHC engine (shared with the ML320, E320 and CLK coupe) uses six cylinders and 18 valves to generate 215 horsepower and 229 foot-pounds of torque. Mercedes asserts that the Cabriolet goes from 0-60 mph in 7.7 seconds, or about a half second slower than the CLK 320 coupe. The V6 uses a complex two-stage intake manifold, which makes excellent use of power across the engine's range. Low range is improved due to the long-intake design, and bypass valves increase power and efficiency at higher speeds. Too bad the engine is so completely covered up with black plastic; it's not every car that comes with two spark plugs per cylinder.

The CLK coupe will receive a 4.3-liter V8 engine this fall, which makes for some 275 horsepower and will doubtless be one helluva fun ride. Unfortunately, the convertible will not see such an enhancement unless buyers start screaming for more power. Generally, Mercedes buyers are looking for something other than pure performance, but we'd love a CLK 430 Cabriolet with a manual gearbox, just to see the look on the BMW M3 product planner's face.

The drive is what really counts, and the CLK does not disappoint. Straight-line acceleration is wonderful. The car feels well balanced in turns, but a little heavy. It drives more like a sedan than a sports car: surefooted and steady rather than agile and quick. Power-assisted recirculating-ball steering proves accurate, but there's not a lot of feedback from the road; again, that can be a good thing. Handling is not disrupted by the occasional bump in the road.

We were duly impressed with the car's 35.1-foot turning radius, which swung the CLK around tight turns (and the occasional two-lane road U-turn) with ease. Tires are 205/55HR-16 all-season performance treads, and they hold the road quite well.

The CLK shares its name with the FIA GT Championship-series sports car, the CLK-GTR. Both are rear-wheel drive, and both feature that distinctive front fascia with chrome grille and four large, oval high and low beam headlights. That's probably where the similarities end, because the CLK Cabriolet does not offer the GTR's 12-cylinder 560-horsepower engine, nor is it priced at one million dollars. However, the sporty relationship does not go unnoticed.

Instead of the GTR's six-speed manual sequential shifter technology, the CLK Cabriolet is equipped with Mercedes' five-speed driver-adaptive automatic transmission. This computer-controlled transmission avoids excessive shifting on uphill climbs, and uses engine braking on downhill descents. The result is a seamless flow of available power from one gear to the next.

So who, exactly, is going to buy this car? Initial analysis predicts that CLK Cabriolet buyers will be 45 years old, they will have a median income of $150,000, and most of them will be married. Translation: well-to-do empty nesters in search of a sporty convertible will line up around the block to buy the CLK 320 Cabriolet. An equal number of men and women are expected to find the CLK appealing, and why not? It's a fun-to-drive convertible with an all-season roof; it's powerful, safe and coddling all at once.

Then again, the Pacific Northwest does have its rainy season, and the CLK 430 coupe is due out this fall…

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