Mercedes-Benz CLK500

Mercedes-Benz CLK500 Mercedes-Benz CLK500
Road Test

Since our polling capabilities are no match for Gallup's, we can't tell you exactly how alluring this CLK500 looks to adolescents of today's droopy-dungaree generation - maybe it moves their needles not an angstrom - nor can we assess its gotta-have-one quotient among males in their later 20s and 30s who actually have disposable income. They seem to be aroused by SUVs as much as anything.

But to those of us who were swept into car-cuckoodom in the '50s, when Bel Airs and Bonnevilles set the style, this sweetly curvaceous two-door hardtop triggers a significant rise in boiler pressure.

It's like coming across an old love who's been to all the right plastic surgeons.

"You doing anything tonight?" (pant-pant)

This number has the look of a hard body, with smooth muscles that know how to run. It's dressed for aero motion, and it wears just enough jewelry to be classy. The Benz star in the grille is a suggestive choice, a reminder of those past SLs and SLRs that earned respect against all comers.

The CLK's shape is more than just a look - it works, the aero drag coefficient is a low 0.28.

Two-door hardtops are a throwback to the days before air conditioning. Summer was a time for windows down. With no door pillars to visually chop up the roofline, the hardtop convertible, as it was called originally, had the look.

Against the old benchmarks, this new-for-'03 CLK500 is something of an extremist. It packs very reasonable room for four adults into a package that's downright compact, not quite 183 inches long, nearly a foot shorter than a Camaro. Extreme, too, is the 5.0-liter V-8's thrust; 0 to 60 in 5.7 seconds will get you the last word in most exchanges. Back on those long-ago summer nights, this Benz would have shown its taillights to all the bad boys on the blacktop and had the girls paying for rides.

Today? Well, when's the last time you saw a hardtop with all the side windows down? Air conditioning is pretty much standard equipment on anything priced over $20,000, and if you really want fresh air, convertibles have never been better.

Although hardtops have been an American fascination, Mercedes-Benz is one of the few foreign makers to regularly have had them in the lineup over the past 40-some years. This one replaces the previous CLK originally introduced in 1997 as a '98 model. With sales of 19,423 units (coupe and convertible) last year, each one ringing up $40,000 plus on the cash register, it has been a winner. This second-generation two-door, which debuted in August, will be followed soon by the 362-hp CLK55 AMG and a convertible in 2003. All are built on the latest C-class (small sedan) platform first seen in the U.S. two years ago.

So you won't get the wrong idea, let us plainly state that the CLK500 doesn't depend on windows-down motoring to satisfy. The mood here is " sports coupe." The hood ramps down smartly, serving up a great view of the road on what looks like a thin body-colored tray. The 302-hp V-8 responds to the toe with a disciplined ripping sound and a serious push in the back. The five-speed automatic presents you with the most perfectly simple manumatic shifter yet invented. Forget prepositioning the lever into some "manual" slot, the usual requirement in other brands. Once you've got this Benz in D, a tug leftward on the lever gets you a downshift, a nudge to the right changes up. You'll feel taut suspension muscles, not to Porsche levels, but about as firm as anyone with $53,000 to spend on a four-seater will tolerate.