- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2003

My attraction to this automobile was immediate. It shows well from every angle, in rain or in the sun, at morning or at night. With attractive 17-inch AMG “Monoblock” alloy wheels, the car elicits responses from every demographic.

Young Honda-driving boy racers gave me the “thumbs-up.” So did the Buick and Ford Crown Victoria set.

The 5.0-liter, 302-horsepower, 24-valve aluminum V-8 delivers 339 foot-pounds of torque. Power is channeled to the road though a five-speed electronic automatic transmission with “Touch Shift” manual shifting.

Road manners are tamed by 225 and 245 section tires mounted to the aforementioned Monoblocks, a three-link front suspension with twin-tube gas shocks, and a rear multilink suspension also with gas shocks. It’s a fun car to drive and brings out the enthusiast in you.

The CLK is a “pillarless” coupe, meaning that the traditional “B” pillar is absent. This results in excellent side vision when checking blind spots for lane changes. Front and rear vision are also good.

A unique feature and a carryover from previous CLKs is the seat-belt “presenter.” When the vehicle starts, the driver and front passenger are “handed” their seat belts by a motorized arm. Not only is this way cool, it keeps the seat belt out of the way so rear-seat passengers can enter and exit the vehicle without tripping over the seat belt.

Because this is a pillarless coupe, Mercedes-Benz reinforces the “B” pillar and upper and lower body structure so that the CLK models can maintain an excellent level of side impact protection.

While we are on the subject of safety, you can expect in the CLK the safety acronyms standard on Mercedes-Benz cars across all model lines.

Eight air bags, including head protection curtains, an Electronic Stability Program (ESP), anti-lock brakes (ABS), and Brake Assist, which engages maximum braking when a panic stop is sensed are among myriad safety features.

Optional on the test car are two systems that could also be benefits from a safety perspective — Distronic and Parktronic. Distronic, an intelligent adaptive cruise-control system, uses a front mounted radar sensor behind the grille to automatically maintain a constant distance from the vehicle in front of it.

Mercedes-Benz claims this significantly enhances driver comfort, especially on heavily congested stretches of road, by reducing stress at the wheel and making driving more relaxing.

Studies by DaimlerChrysler (parent company for Mercedes-Benz) show that the reaction time of drivers using Distronic is up to 40 percent faster than that of those who don’t use the system.

On the road, I found the system extremely impressive. While traveling on the George Washington Memorial Parkway heading out of the District, I found out how good this Distronic system is. Without warning, another driver in the lane adjacent to me suddenly cut right in front of me.

Before I could hit the brakes, Distronic had slowed my vehicle to a safe distance by automatically applying the brake. The driver can preset the distance he or she wants from the vehicle ahead, and the status is displayed in a “pictogram” that shows this distance.

The only drawback is that I found myself looking at the pictogram sometimes, fascinated by how accurate the system is. I stopped doing this after I came to realize I could trust Distronic.

For safety reasons, Mercedes-Benz recommends that Distronic not be used on snowy or icy roads, or in heavy rain, fog, or sleet that could confuse the radar sensor. If you are the kind of driver prone to bouts of sleepiness on the road, Distronic could save your life.

I’m not saying that this system is a substitute for common sense — if you are sleepy you should not be on the road — but all of us at some point or another have gotten drowsy while driving, and that’s where a system like this one can add a measure of safety.

The other system is called “Parktronic” and it also uses radar to assist. Sensors mounted in the front and rear bumpers “sound out” obstacles front and rear and report their findings through lighted dual readouts and audible beeps.

As you approach parking obstacles, dash or rear ceiling mounted monitors illuminate to let you know you are too close. You also hear a steadily increasing series of beeps that turn into a solid warning tone when you’ve reached the limits of safety.

Not a failsafe system, but a big help to those who are very short, or who have limited mobility to turn their necks repeatedly during parking and other low-speed maneuvers. The system can be defeated if you desire.

Priced at $2,950 and $1,035 respectively, Distronic and Parktronic are pricey options, but I think both are worth the extra cost.

The CLK 500 also comes with a host of standard comfort and convenience features you would expect in a Mercedes-Benz.

I found no significant flaws in this vehicle during a week of spirited testing.

Priced at $52,200 base and $63,675 as tested, this automobile is an excellent buy in the performance luxury coupe segment.

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