1999 Mercedes-Benz CLK430 First Drive

1999 Mercedes-Benz CLK430 First Drive

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1999 Mercedes-Benz CLK-Class Coupe

(4.3L V8 5-speed Automatic)

According to the Chinese lunar calendar, 1999 is the Year of the Rabbit. Although the rabbit is one of the smaller of the 12 animals represented in the ancient tradition, it is also one of the quickest. It seems appropriate, then, that this is the year Mercedes-Benz chose to debut a fast-as-lightning V8 engine in its zippy little CLK.

When Mercedes-Benz invited journalists to test drive the new CLK 430 in Vermont, we conjured up visions of deserted, twisty two-lane roads that would be perfect for putting the coupe and its powerful engine to the test. Unfortunately, September in Vermont is sort of like Vail at Christmas, Disneyland in July or Times Square on New Year's Eve ... you get the picture; everyone wants to be there. While we certainly enjoyed piloting the coupe along rolling country roads bordered by colorful fall foliage, we were unable to push the speedometer needle much past 80 due to the convoys of tourists blocking the roads. Still, we learned many things from Mercedes' latest CLK, not the least of which is to never underestimate its big, new V8 engine.

Making 275 horsepower, the 4.3-liter V8 jets from zero to 60 mph in a breathless 6.1 seconds. Meeting Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV) standards, the CLK 430's V8 shares its basic architecture and twin-spark, three-valve technology with the V6 engines found in several other Benzes. But what really got us moving was the engine's output of low-end torque. With a peak torque rate of 295 foot-pounds that is sustained over 3,000 to 4,400 rpm, the engine is exceptionally responsive. A dual resonance intake system assists in producing this broad torque range. Here's how it works: flaps in the intake manifold remain closed in order to direct air through a longer route, boosting torque at low engine speeds. At higher speeds, the flaps open, giving air a more direct route to the cylinders for efficiency and passing power.

Mated to a five-speed automatic transmission that adapts to changes in road grade and to each person's driving style, the V8 shines bright. Though the car felt a bit heavy, it handled the twisties with confidence and smoothly sailed over bumps in the road. Standard for 1999 on the CLK 430 is the Electronic Stability Program (ESP), which detects tire spin and sliding, and applies selective braking to keep the car headed where the driver is pointing it in adverse driving conditions.

To create the CLK 430, engineers took the CLK 320 with all of its standard features and added the extraordinary V8 engine and ESP. Then, they threw in an exclusive AMG-designed sport package that includes super-large, high-performance tires and 17-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels. Side skirts and low front and rear aprons were also added to produce a mean, road-hungry stance. Despite their efforts, the CLK 430 still looks more like a soft, plump bunny rabbit than anything too ferocious. Still, this bunny's got some bite when pushed to the limit.

Inside the 430, consumers will find a new-generation stereo that uses fiber-optic technology and has integrated controls for the radio, CD changer and cellular phone; the phone's keypad is built right into the radio faceplate. Buyers will also find leather upholstery, power windows and door locks, and the wood trim that is usually slathered all over the interiors of cars in this price range.

Although coupe sales declined during the 1990s, the segment is now rebounding, according to Mercedes public relations execs. With coupe sales on the rise since 1997, Mercedes is creating a strong line of vehicles that will be tough to beat. Building on a tradition of reliability, power and styling, Mercedes expects the CLK 430 to appeal to 45-year-olds with an annual household income of $150,000. The company is calling the 430 "a muscle car that's been to finishing school" and believes that 75 percent of its owners will be male.

Priced $7,300 higher than its 320 sibling, the 430 will cost $47,900 in 1999. Though not exactly cheap, the 430 is still priced 13 percent lower than the competing Lexus SC400 and $17,000 less than the Jaguar XK8.

While the CLK 430's power is certainly jaw dropping, our only lingering question is: who needs it? We were duly impressed a few months ago with the CLK 320's 3.2-liter V6 engine, which makes 215 horsepower and 229 foot-pounds of torque. Granted, zero to 60 times are about two second slower than the CLK 430 coupe, but we had just as much fun maneuvering the 320 around in the twisties, and we'd rather put those extra 7,300 bucks in the bank.

One word of caution if you spring for the 430: don't let all the technology and finesse of this supercoupe lull you into feeling as if you're king of the road. There's usually something or someone right on your tail ... we all know how the fable about the tortoise and the hare turned out. In China, they may be celebrating the Year of the Rabbit, but to simplify things here in the U.S., let's just call 1999 the Year of the V8.
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