- The Washington Times - Friday, November 29, 2002

For most purposes, coupes are a pain. With only two doors, back-seat passengers must contort themselves to get in and out. To stash a package in back, you have to maneuver it around the seatback.

The only thing they've got going is that they look great, and therein lies the appeal of the 2003 Mercedes-Benz CLK320. Anybody who can afford to pay about 50 large for stylish personal transportation likely has other vehicles for chores and hauling.

Coupes they were once called hardtops looked especially great back in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when they were designed to mimic convertibles with their tops up. They had an airy, open, car feel because the windows dropped all the way down and there was no post dividing the front and back windows, which car people call the B-pillar.

But then those so-called hardtops morphed into plain old two-door sedans with B-pillars because manufacturers needed to keep the tops from crushing in rollover tests. Though designers tried hard to retain the coupes' former appeal, customers deserted them in favor of sport utility vehicles and some commentators predicted the demise of the two-door coupe.

Lately they've made something of a comeback, though not nearly in the numbers they once attained. They now are more of a specialty item for bons vivants who like their dash and panache and that is exactly the personality Mercedes aims at with the new CLK coupes.

At their introduction, these re-designed CLKs the first since Mercedes introduced the CLK lineup five years ago were the only production coupes available without B-pillars, recapturing some of the old romance of the hardtops of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It took creative engineering to make the roof crush-resistant.

There are two models the CLK500 and the tested CLK320, distinguished mainly by their powerplants and price tags.

The CLK500 runs with a 5-liter V-8 engine that delivers 302 horsepower to the rear wheels through a five-speed automatic transmission. It has a base price of $52,865. The CLK320 has a 3.2-liter V-6 engine with 215 horsepower and the same transmission with different gearing. Its base sticker price is $44,565.

Both cars come with a luxury level of standard equipment, including antilock brakes with brake assist, side air bags and head-protection side curtain air bags, leather upholstery, burl walnut interior trim, rain-sensing windshield wipers, heated windshield washers, a garage-door opener, automatic climate control, heated outside mirrors and power everything, including a tilt-and-telescope steering wheel and power seats with memory settings.

Yet with all that, there still is a substantial options list that can surprisingly distance the delivered price from the base sticker price. Among other things, Mercedes still charges extra for all but standard paint jobs, so the test car, for example, had a $655 "black opal" finish.

Curiously, Mercedes also continues to lag behind other makes in the sound department. At a time when some ordinary cars boast six-disc in-dash compact disc changers, the CLK320 still uses an older cartridge-type CD changer. It's mounted in the glove box, but still is not as convenient as the in-dash system. And on the CLK500, it's even more inconveniently located in the trunk.

As if that weren't enough, Mercedes charges extra for the CD changer. Only the tape player is standard. On the tested CLK320, the changer cost an additional $400. Along with other options, including heated front seats, an integrated mobile telephone system and the Mercedes Parktronic proximity warning system, that brought the suggested delivered price to $52,270, close to the base price of the CLK500.

None of this is likely to matter to the prospective CLK owner. Since the previous-generation coupes were introduced, buyers have been standing in line.

A caution: The 2003 CLK coupes are brand new. But the convertibles called cabriolets still use the older architecture for the 2003 model year. So if you want the newer version in a droptop, you will have to wait until the 2004 models.

Unless you have an excess of disposable income or are the sort of person who simply must have the top-of-the-line in everything, there's little reason to opt for the CLK500. There's no question that it's a quality piece of work, with a zero-to-60 acceleration time of 5.7 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph, according to the manufacturer's specifications.

But the CLK320, with two fewer cylinders, does zero-to-60 in 7.4 seconds and has a top speed of 130, which is more than respectable in almost any company. And it looks as snazzy, and handles and rides at least as well as its more powerful sibling.

However, when you play and preen in these circles, there are any number of people who simply must have the most expensive model. That's why, in the early stages, buyers had to wait longer for the CLK500 than its six-cylinder sibling. Eventually, the company expects about six in 10 customers to opt for the CLK320, which, as the old saying goes, is more than plenty.


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