- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

At the dawn of automotive history, cars were as open as their horse-drawn wagon ancestors. But soon the closed car took over and relegated the roadsters, touring cars and convertibles to minority status for the sporting set.

By the mid-1970s, advances in heating, ventilation and air conditioning almost killed off the open car. Every major automaker in the United States dropped convertibles. They did not return for a decade.

But some manufacturers did not go with the flow. Mercedes-Benz is proud of its claim that it has been the only major car builder to offer convertibles without interruption since the 1950s.

The latest in that line is the 2004 CLK Cabriolet, which fulfills both open- and closed-car needs as well as anything, and better than most. An all-new model, it is based on the CLK coupe that was introduced a year earlier. The test car, a CLK320 model, had a base price of $52,120 and, with only a couple of options, had a suggested delivered price of $53,200.

One of the extra-cost items came about because of the European luxury-car practice of charging extra for most paint jobs. In this case, it was “pewter silver,” which cost $670.

The CLK320 comes standard with such items as antilock brakes with brake assist, electronic stability control, automatic pop-up roll bars behind the front seats, side air bags for all passengers, automatic climate control, power seats with memory settings, auto-dimming rear view mirrors, an AM-FM cassette stereo (a CD changer costs $410 extra), remote locking with a security system, rain-sensing windshield wipers and Mercedes’ Tele Aid communications system.

Because it can carry four comfortably, the CLK Cabrio is much less of a toy than most of the ragtops currently available. In fact, it is so tightly designed and constructed that it could easily pass for a steel-top coupe, and serve as an only car — as long as the owner doesn’t have to haul too much stuff.

The fabric top is cleverly padded and upholstered, and it fits so snugly that there’s almost no hint that the touch of a button and a few seconds’ wait brings open-air motoring. Everything works automatically; there are no levers to pull or latches to latch.

There’s only one drawback. When the top goes down, it disappears into part of the trunk. The trunk space shrinks to 5.4 cubic feet from 8.6 cubic feet, which means that four persons who plan to travel with the top down better pack to go nearly naked.

Moreover, at least two of them should not be very large people. Although there’s plenty of space up front for a driver and passenger of almost any size, the back seat is more suited to lightweights of smaller stature.

Mercedes-Benz is a luxury car and truck manufacturer, and the CLK Cabrio fits in nicely. The exterior styling is, by most lights, handsomely conservative, and the interior is an amalgamation of quality materials and textures, with polished wood trim on the doors, dash and console, and upholstery of fine leather. On the test Cabrio, however, the leather was a light beige that seemed as if it could be headed for terminal soiling down the road.

Three versions of the CLK Cabrio, all with rear-wheel drive, are available: The tested CLK320, with a 215-horsepower 3.2-liter V-6 engine, the CLK500, powered by a 302-horsepower 5.0-liter V-8, and the limited-edition CLK55 produced by AMG, the hot-rod division of Mercedes-Benz. It delivers 362 horsepower from a 5.5-liter V-8.

Sure, the AMG can scoot to 60 mph in five seconds flat, with a governed top speed of 155, and the CLK500 can get to 60 in 5.7 seconds with a top speed of 130, according to the manufacturer. But the CLK320 should be plenty for almost anybody. It also can run up to 130, with a zero-to-60 time of 7.4 seconds.

All three models use a five-speed automatic transmission that is calibrated differently for the various engines. All employ a manual-shift mode, first used on cars in the company’s Chrysler division, that is arguably the most intuitive on the market.

Where some manual shifters require a nudge forward for upshifting and backward for downshifting, others do it exactly the opposite. But Mercedes, like Chrysler, uses a side-to-side motion. To downshift, you tap the lever to the left; to upshift, tap it to the right. It feels natural.

Despite its decent performance characteristics, the CLK320 is more of a boulevardier than a sports car. The suspension system is biased more toward a comfortable ride than squat-down handling on twisting roads.

But the handling is still sharp, despite a somewhat heavy feel to the steering that will not surprise Mercedes owners.

Like its siblings in the Mercedes lineup, the CLK320 has controls, especially those on the steering wheel, that are somewhat complicated.

The test car did not have the even-more-complicated navigation and cockpit management and data (COMAND) system, which requires even more instruction.

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