Ingrid Loeffler Palmer, Contributor
After flying into Detroit International Airport two hours later than expected due to a string of delays, I found myself tired and irritated as I threw my suitcase into the spacious trunk of the 1998 Mercedes-Benz CLK 320. One quick glance up at the gray, cloud-filled July sky reminded me why I'd left the Midwest for Colorado a year earlier. Just at that moment, almost mockingly, a single raindrop fell into my eye. To make matters worse, construction on I-94, the main highway leading to and from the airport, made road congestion unbearable, until I was finally far enough away from the traffic to utilize my yoga breathing and try to relax. It wasn't working.
With one touch, I opened the car's sunroof, switched the radio to a rock station, turned the volume dial far to the right, then stomped on the gas. Within seconds, my mood brightened. Driving Mercedes' sporty little coupe fast along Michigan's highways toward my parents' home provided more fun than just about anything I'd ever experienced in the lower portion of Michigan's flatlands.
The 1998 CLK 320 is pure machine. With a 3.2-liter Twin Spark V6 engine pumping out 215 ponies and 229 foot-pounds of torque throughout a wide rpm range, the CLK can sprint from 0 to 60 in 6.9 seconds. Highway driving was pure bliss, as was maneuvering the car through the twisties in the northern part of the state later that week-even with the standard five-speed automatic transmission, though we would've liked a manual, which isn't available on this car.
The automatic, though, is built to adapt to changes in road grade-delaying upshifts on ascents and downshifting on descents (which we didn't have to worry about in Michigan)-as well as to an individual's driving style. Since our particular test car sees hundreds of different drivers per year, it must be schizophrenic by now from trying to figure out its true "owner." Maybe that's why the car seemed to take on a life of its own, hugging the road with certainty and accelerating like it knew where it was going, after we loaded it up the next day and headed "up north" toward the pristine lakes dotting northwest Michigan.
Touted as a hybrid between a sports car and a luxury car, the CLK certainly handled like a pro, keeping up easily with a souped-up Toyota Avalon sporting high-performance stickers. (Why anyone would soup up an Avalon is beyond us, but that's a different story.) Though Mercedes claims the CLK has the smooth, seamless ride of a luxury vehicle, occupants still felt some road bumps at higher speeds in true sports car style.
The CLK coupe will receive a 4.3-liter V8 engine in the fall of 1998, enabling the car to gobble up miles with an amazing output of 275 horsepower, though the 3.2-liter coupe that we lived with for a week certainly wasn't lacking in any way. Fast and furious, Mercedes' little coupe tore up the roads without much urging from its driver. Toward the end of the week, however, after logging 1,000 miles on the odometer, we noticed a rattling sound when the car idled.
Once off the highways and onto two-lane roads that wound through woods and farms, the coupe, like a sleepy child, seemed to settle down. Steering was responsive and solid, and the wheel felt meaty, but it wasn't too big or too small. Inside the cabin, wind noise was virtually nonexistent and, though the electric adjustable driver's seat moves in ten different directions, including up, I could never seem to get high enough to see the corners of the car or the three-pointed star glinting on the hood. Bummer.
Garnering plenty of stares and admiring walk-arounds from locals in the quaint town of Glen Arbor, Mich., our shiny black CLK was a standout. Front styling is classy and dramatic, resembling the E-Class with the almost-round, bulbous four-headlight face and large, silver-toothed grille accented by the silver hood ornament that sits like a king atop his throne. The rear of the car is steeply slanted with a nice sloping greenhouse in between the front and back of the vehicle. Consequently, the rear has a short, stout look that makes the huge trunk a pleasant surprise when you first open it up. The CLK's trunk was large enough for anything I could imagine carting around. Four bags of golf clubs were placed neatly inside with plenty of extra room on one early morning drive to the Mistwood golf courses.
Interior room was ample for four riders, but forget about sticking a fifth passenger in the backseat, even for a trip to the market; the middle section of the rear seat has a plastic cubby that would be uncomfortable no matter how small you are. A First Aid Kit is packed up against the seat behind the fold-down armrest for emergencies. There was also a change holder that jiggled out of place easily, due to a defective spring on our test car. One 6-foot tall rider in the backseat said he had plenty of legroom, but noted that the driver was quite short and the front seat was positioned almost all the way forward on its track. With a larger driver in front of him, he would have been eating his knees.
Exiting the vehicle from the backseat is made simple by Mercedes' Easy Entry System, a red strap that can be pulled from the rear and automatically tilts the front seat over and slides it forward. Entering the backseat is a bit trickier. Passengers consistently pulled down, instead of up, to release the seat lock. The release ring's circular frame makes it appear to belong to the seatbelt mechanism rather than the seat itself and I always had to explain how to use it to first-time passengers.
Mercedes cars are known for luxury, and the CLK is no exception. Standard features include leather upholstery, burl walnut trim, Bose eight-speaker audio system with cassette and weatherband radio, dual-zone automatic climate controls, ten-way power adjustable front seats with three position memory, express up/down windows, heated side mirrors, an anti-theft system, cruise control, and an integrated garage door opener. The burl walnut trim looked nice with the black interior, though the black leather seats and floor mats showed every spec of dirt that was brought into the car by a six-year-old who had spent the afternoon canoeing.
Mercedes expects the CLK 320 Coupe to attract younger buyers to the marque than ever before; in the 30 to 50 age range. Most will be college graduates, half will be single, and women will make up 45 percent of those plunking down some greenbacks for a bit of fun.
We found one teenage girl who already has her heart set on purchasing the CLK. "That's it. That's the car I want someday," she declared to her young friend, pointing to our sleek black vehicle parked in front of a rustic cabin.
"Yeah," her skeptical companion scoffed, "Ya better be rich." Unfazed, she replied, "Oh, I will be rich. Don't worry, and that's exactly the car I'm gonna buy."
Well, by then Mercedes designers will probably have come out with another beautiful, must-have vehicle, complete with power, luxury and style. They always do.
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