3004 Mercedes-Benz CLK500
Click image to enlarge

by Greg Wilson

Roomy luxury coupe is comfortable, powerful

If you want a 2+2 luxury coupe with a V8 engine, you won’t have to do a lot of comparison-shopping. Other than the Jaguar XK8, or perhaps the Lexus SC430
convertible hardtop, the just-redesigned Mercedes-Benz CLK500 Coupe is the only luxury eight-banger in its class. Checking in at $75,900, not including options, the CLK 500 is laden with most of the luxury and safety features that you’ll find on larger Mercedes-Benz vehicles, but in a more compact, two-door four-passenger package.

As before, 2003 CLK’s are also available with a 3.2 litre V6 (CLK 320) and a honking 5.5 litre V8 (CLK 55 AMG), but it should be noted that 2003 CLK 320 Cabriolet and CLK 430 Cabriolet’s retain the 2002 body style for at least one more year.

Though it’s easily recognizable as a CLK coupe, the 2003 CLK500 is all-new inside and out. While the previous CLK had four separate oval-shaped headlamps (two large ones and two small ones), the new CLK features four oval headlamps which merge together, like those of the C-Class sedans. Astute observers will also notice the new air vents in the hood, a tri-star badge instead of a raised emblem, larger wraparound rear taillights, and a lower front air dam on the CLK500 and CLK 55 AMG (which is likely to come in contact with concrete curbs if the driver is not careful).

Click image to enlarge

The most interesting styling change is the elimination of the centre ‘B’ pillar. Like the big CL500 coupe, the 2003 CLK is now ‘pillarless’ and has a cleaner, more streamlined appearance without sacrificing structural safety, according to Mercedes-Benz. I believe them.

With a slightly longer wheelbase, a wider body and a taller roof, the 2003 CLK is noticeably roomier inside. Mercedes-Benz claims a 7 mm increase in the distance between the front and rear seat and a 40 mm increase in rear seat knee room. Rear headroom has increased by 12 mm, and front shoulder and elbowroom have both improved by 9 mm.

For 2003, a 302 horsepower five litre V8 engine replaces the 275 horsepower 4.3 litre V8 engine in the CLK430. As well, the CLK 500 includes a new rack and pinion steering system (replacing recirculating ball), 17 inch AMG wheels and design package, plus larger brakes and a special bodywork package.

Base price for the V6-powered CLK320 coupe is $61,900, the CLK500 $75,900, and the high-performance CLK55 AMG starts at $99,450. With options and Freight, my LK500 test car came to $83,040.

Interior is roomier

Click image to enlarge

The 2003 CLK is roomy enough for four adults – there’s plenty of front and rear legroom and adequate rear headroom for two average-sized adults – although anyone over six feet tall will have a problem with rear headroom. It should also be noted that with the optional sunroof installed, headroom decreases by 35 mm (1.4 inches).

The front doors are longer than before, providing a wider entry to the front and rear seats. The bad news is that the doors feel heavier and more cumbersome, and are not parking-lot-friendly. Like some other high-priced German cars, when you pull the door handle, the side windows automatically lower a centimetre to release air pressure, and raise again when you close the door. Personally, I don’t like windows that move by themselves – but it’s standard, so what do you do?

The front seats are covered in a very sturdy leather and have good side bolstering to keep the front passengers secure during cornering. The front seats are multi-adjustable using a door-mounted power seat adjuster, and include dual-temperature seat heaters. As well, the steering wheel has power tilt/telescoping adjustments, so different sized drivers can find a good seating position. Unique to Mercedes-Benz, the front seatbelts extend automatically from behind the front seats in order to make it easier to grab them and not strain your back when turning around.

Click image to enlarge

The CLK’s new gauge cluster, similar to other 2003 Mercedes-Benz models, features three round gauges (clock, speedo, tachometer) with large white numerals which are bright and easy to see, thanks to backlighting. In the centre of the speedometer is a digital readout which supplies information such as outside temperature, and average fuel consumption – it can be controlled simply by pushing a button on the steering wheel. The instrument cluster also includes two new vertical bargraph gauges for fuel and coolant.

A new centre dashboard design reverses the positions of the radio and heater – the dual zone automatic climate control is now below the stereo instead of above it. As well, the power window buttons are now on the doors rather than on the centre console, and the power mirror controls have been moved to the left side of the dash from the centre console. This was probably done to satisfy North American tastes, as Europeans generally prefer window buttons in the centre.

I really enjoyed the optional Bose sound sytem in my test car ($1,150) – it uses eight speakers and digital processing to actively adjust the output to compensate for ambient noise. However, I found the radio’s orange liquid crystal information display hard to see in reflected sunlight. And I wondered why a six-disc CD changer, which goes in the glovebox, is optional on an $80,000 car..

The dual-zone electronic climate control includes separate temperature and ventilation controls for driver and front passenger, air vents for the rear seat area, and a separate rear fan control. I’ll also mention that the rear electric defogger works very quickly to clear fog and ice.

Unlike most coupes, both front and rear side windows will roll all the way down, giving the car an open-air feeling when the weather is warm. This can be magnified by opening the optional tilt/slide glass sunroof ($1,960). With the sunroof open, I noticed very little wind buffeting or wind noise, even at speeds of up to 120 km/h.

If you want to drink on the go, there is one cupholder which slides out of the right side of the dashboard – it was previously located between the seats.

Getting in to the rear seat from either side is relatively easy because the front seats pivot forwards in a two-step process which opens up a wide passageway. As well, the CLK’s longer doors provide a longer gap between the door jamb and the front seats. The two rear seats have a storage divider between them, and a centre rear armrest which folds down complete with two built-in cupholders.

Click image to enlarge

60/40 split folding rear seatbacks are standard, and for security, they can only be opened from inside the trunk. Unique for a coupe, the rear seat cushions pivot up towards the front seatbacks allowing the rear seatbacks to fold down flat level with the trunk floor. The 294 litre trunk is spacious and includes a hidden under-floor storage area. However, it is slightly smaller than last year’s model.

My test car had the optional Keyless Go system ($1,810) which allows the driver to unlock and lock the driver’s or passenger door and start and stop the engine without using a key. The driver simply presses a button on the door handle to unlock or lock the doors, and presses a button on the shift lever to start or stop the car. This feature saves a lot of time that’s normally spent fumbling around in your pocket (or purse) for the key.

In terms of safety, the CLK500 is very well-equipped. It’s got eight airbags: two front, four side airbags and two full-length side curtain head protection airbags. As well, it includes four wheel disc brakes with (ABS), traction control, Electronic Stability Program (ESP) and Brake Assist for faster emergency stops.

Driving impressions

Click image to enlarge

Compared to coupes like the Jaguar XK8, BMW 3-Series coupe, and the Nissan G35 Coupe, the CLK coupe emphasizes luxury more than performance. The Benz has a plusher ride, a little more lean, and less communicative steering – despite the fact that it has now switched to rack and pinion from recirculating ball type. However, the CLK500’s powerful 302 horsepower V8 engine combined with a relatively light curb weight produces an excellent 0 to 100 km/h time of just under 6 seconds – better than the XK8 and the SC430.

The ride is comfortable and nicely damped, and despite some lean it has very high cornering limits thanks to its balanced rear-drive layout, revised fully independent suspension (front double wishbone/rear multi-link), and sticky P-Zero Pirelli tires. For the first time, the CLK features “staggered” wheels and tires – wider, lower-profile tires on the rear – as standard equipment. The front tires are Pirelli P-Zero P225/45ZR-17 inch mounted on five-spoke AMG ultrathin spoke 7.5 x 17-inch wheels. At the rear are P245/40ZR-17 Pirellis with 8.5 x 17-inch wheels.

The CLK500’s 5.0 litre V8, equipped with two single overhead cams, 3 valves per cylinder and twin sparkplugs per cylinder, produces 302 horses @ 5600 rpm, and a substantial 339 lb-ft of torque between 2700 and 4250 rpm – the latter providing a lot of muscle when the pedal is depressed at just about any speed. Yet, the car doesn’t feel like it’s going that fast! I suspect its computerized throttle control has been programmed to minimize sudden acceleration.

Click image to enlarge

At freeway speeds, the engine hums along quietly at just 2000 rpm at 100 km/h, and 2,400 rpm at 120 km/h. Wind noise and road noise are also minimal. Its standard 5-speed automatic is very responsive, but there is a slight pause when downshifting at very slow speeds. Equipped with Touch Shift, the shift lever can be tapped left to shift down manually or tapped right to shift up manually. Since there isn’t a separate gate, the driver has to be careful not to downshift inadvertantly. By the way, a traditional manual transmission is not offered on the CLK500.

Fuel consumption is pretty good for a 302 horsepower V8-powered car: 14.5 l/100 km (20 mpg) in the city and 9.4 l/100 km (30 mpg) on the highway.

I found the CLK500’s speed-sensitive variable-assist rack and pinion steering a touch heavy at slower speeds and somewhat numb – but not as stiff as the E500 I tested recently. The car’s short turning radius of 35.3 feet (10.76 metres) makes parking and tight turns in the city quite manageable.

Competitor overview

The CLK500’s only real V8 competitors are the 290 horsepower Jaguar XK8 ($95,950) and 300 horsepower Lexus SC430 ($85,500), and you might also include the 280 horsepower Infiniti G35 Coupe ($47,000), or even the 333 horsepower BMW M3 Coupe ($73,800).

Compared to these competitors, the CLK500 is roomier, particularly in the rear seat – which makes it a more practical car when there’s more than two people to be transported. But while the CLK500 is quicker in a straight line than all but the M3, its comfortable ride and less-than-communicative steering make it more of a luxury performance car than a performance coupe.

Click image to enlarge


A solid, safe, quick, comfortable and luxurious four passenger coupe, the Mercedes-Benz CLK500 is comparatively roomy in its class, and more stylish and comfortable than some its performance-oriented competitors.

Technical Data: 2003 Mercedes-Benz CLK500

Base price $75,900
Freight & PDI $1,500
Options $ 5,640 (Sunroof ($1,960), Bose sound system ($1,150), heated front seats ($720), Keyless Go ($1,810)
Price as tested $83,040
Type 2-door, 4-passenger coupe
Layout longitudinal front engine/rear-wheel-drive
Engine 5.0 litre V8, SOHC, 24 valves, twin sparkplugs per cylinder
Horsepower 302 @ 5600 rpm
Torque 339 lb-ft @ 2700 – 4250 rpm
Transmission 5-speed automatic ‘Touch Shift’
Curb weight 1,626 kg (3,585 lb.)
Wheelbase 2,715 mm (106.9 in.)
Length 4,638 mm (182.6 in.)
Width 1,740 mm (68.5 in.)
Height 1,406 mm (55.4 in.)
Cargo volume 294 litres (10.4 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 14.5 l/100 km (20 mpg)
  Hwy: 9.4 l/100 km (30 mpg)
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km
Powertrain Warranty 5 yrs/120,000 km

Connect with Autos.ca