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Review and photos by John LeBlanc
The 1997 independent film ‘Swingers’ had everything associated with guys going out for a night in Las Vegas, lame parties, too much drinking, skirt chasing, profitless gambling, early-morning breakfasts, fisticuffs, and of course, cruising the Vegas strip in a convertible. Perhaps the best feature of the film was the unique vernacular spoken between the two characters played by Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn. According to these wise guys, if something was “cool” it was “money”.
If originally given the choice to cruise the Vegas strip in Mercedes-Benz’s newest soft-top, would the characters have considered it worthy? In other words, is the CLK500 Cabriolet “money”?
The original 1998-2002 CLK Class put the German automaker’s rear-wheel-drive luxury attributes into a sporty Coupe and Cabriolet. Last year Mercedes introduced the second generation CLK Coupe, and similar to the previous model, it’s slightly lower and longer than the contemporary C-Class platform it’s based on.
For 2004, the CLK Cabriolet joins the two other convertibles in Mercedes’ line-up: the SLK, and the SL. The “500” in my car’s moniker stands for the displacement of the 5.0-litre V-8 engine, and has a base price of $84,900. Within the CLK Cabriolet family there’s also a so-called “entry” model with a 215 horsepower, 3.2-litre V-6 ($73,800), and the head-of-the-class CLK55 AMG model, with its thumping 362 horsepower, 5.4-litre V-8 going hammer and tong against BMW’s new 645Ci Cabriolet ($108,500).
Unlike the SLK and SL, the 2004 CLK Cabriolet is a four-seater. It is more practical and comfortable as it is larger in every dimension than the previous version. Compared to the tight confines of a Lexus SC430 ($86,800), the rear seats are more accommodating for your larger buddies to cruise the strip, whether in Vegas or Vancouver. For other swingers out there – that is, golfers — the increased size also provides for best-in-class trunk volume, says Mercedes.
Stowing golf bags in this convertible would not be possible if Mercedes decided to go with a power-folding hardtop, like the aforementioned Mercedes roadsters. Cloth tops, even fully powered units like the CLK Cabriolet, take up less trunk space when stowed. Mercedes boasts the new top, plus improved aerodynamics (the drag coefficient improves from 0.32 to 0.30), bequeaths the CLK’s interior with best-in-class quietness.
Of course, winters in Las Vegas are a little different than winters in Labrador City. Nevertheless, Mercedes is so confident of the inch-thick, six-ply layer insulated top that a detachable hardtop is not available as an option.
No worry of flurries when I had the CLK500 Cabriolet here in Ottawa this past July. The last CLK Cabriolet required one to manually unlatch the roof at the windshield header before powering down the top. Like Audi’s A4 3.0 Cabriolet ($61,700), stowing the 2004 Cabriolet’s top is now a completely one-touch operation that simply involves pressing a button.
Either with the top raised, or lowered, the last CLK looked bulky and masculine, whereas the new CLK is prettier, with long, graceful lines making it look for all the world like its CL two-door big brother. The new Cabriolet certainly looks “money” with its top down and a pair of sleek fairings behind the rear seat headrests that also pop up as roll bars if the unthinkable happens. The CLK500 Cabriolet’s standard AMG-design lower bodywork and staggered-width 17″ alloy wheels adds a dash of bling. When cruising around, don’t underestimate the effect on passers-by of the Benz star in the front grille, either.
The CLK500 Cabriolet’s interior is a good example of how Mercedes has been gradually moving away from their somewhat austere interior designs of the past. Pushed mainly by the popular pushiness of competitors like Lexus and Audi, my car’s interior was laden with strips of burl walnut trim with chrome inlays. The delicate instrumentation consisted of two black-face dials, one of them the analog clock, and vertical bar graphs for the fuel gauge and oil water temperature.
All the mechanical bits, from the gear shifter to the door handles to the air vents, had a solid, precise feel to the touch. The leather stitching on the seats was exquisite, but the seats themselves were flat and not as supportive as those found in a BMW 330i Cabriolet ($63,950). Where one would normally find plastic, like on the doorsills, one finds cloth.
Cloth doorsills, or not, for over $80,000 I would expect a CD changer and the optional heated seats thrown in for free. But there’s that three-pointed star in the grille, right?
Also not “money”, is the available wind deflector that can be installed over the back seat area and flips up behind the front passenger’s headrests. Oh, the wind deflector does its job alright, it’s just that I assume if you spend the additional $7,950 over a CLK Coupe you want the wind in your hair!
As a way to enjoy top-down cruising, the CLK500 Cabriolet definitely has the luxury details well in hand. What if the lads from Swingers (having recovered appropriately from the night before) decided to take in some of the twistier roads in the Nevada hills situated outside of Las Vegas?
One of the first things our Swingers would have noticed about the new CLK500 Cabriolet is its imposing solidity. The Cabriolet’s body, according to Mercedes, is just as stiff as that of the CLK Coupe. In addition to keeping rattles and cowl shake at bay, the CLK500 Cabriolet’s suspension does an okay job on a winding road, allowing a touch of body lean before safe understeer appears. The 45-series front tires, and even lower-profile 40-series tires out back, have more grip than a losing gambler on a pair of dice. There’s a bit of suspension float on more severe road undulations, but for a non-AMG Mercedes, the balance of handling capabilities and ride comfort is fine, making the CLK500 Cabriolet a great choice if the boys wanted to keep heading east to Atlantic City for a few games of craps.
All CLKs benefit from the new rack-and-pinion steering that replaces the old recirculating ball set-up delivering a more precise feel at the wheel. There’s lots of weight at the wheel, but it still doesn’t communicate what’s going on at road level as well as a BMW 3 Series.
However, what you can’t find in any BMW 3 Series is a V-8. If you can afford the premium, you won’t regret paying extra for the 5.0-litre engine as it recognizes your requests for power with a sophisticated wailing followed by a forceful thrust in your back. Mercedes boasts that the 5.0-litre model is as speedy as last year’s CLK55 AMG Cabriolet (6.2 seconds to 100 km/h) while fuel economy now equals last year’s CLK430 V-8.
Whatever CLK Cabriolet model you choose, you get Mercedes’ mandatory, but well-mated, 5-speed manu-matic transmission. It delivers smooth gear changes when cruising around town, and when pushed over to Sport mode, it changed down more promptly and held gears higher in the rev range.
Swingers was probably made for less money than the CLK500 Cabriolet’s as-tested price of $86,681. That’s more than a BMW M3 Cabriolet ($83,950), or Germany’s other V-8 cabriolet, Audi’s rambunctious S4 ($81,350). However, both of those four-seaters are borderline sports cars, much harder edged than the grand touring CLK.
If you’re in the mood for a luxury four-seater convertible, you could save a few bucks at purchase time by opting for Saab’s lightly powered 9-3 Aero Convertible ($59,500), or Volvo’s aging C70 Convertible ($63,996). Keep in mind that according to Edmunds.com the 2004 CLK Class is ranked second only to the Porsche 911 as one of the least likely cars to depreciate during the ownership period.
Like the swinging club scene in the movie, the CLK500 Cabriolet’s convertible styling is a throwback from the 1950’s with its absence of B-pillars and sleek looks. And let’s get real folks, convertibles are emotional buys, with styling playing a huge influence on a purchaser’s decision.
With its graceful looks, rigid body, tasteful cabin, stimulating horsepower at your beck and call, and a half decent trunk for, er, incidentals, if I was handed a script that called on me to cruise the Vegas strip, the 2004 CLK500 Cabriolet would be my first choice.
In fact, it would be “money”.
Technical Data: 2004 Mercedes-Benz CLK500 Cabriolet
|Options||$730 (heated seats)|
|Price as tested||$86,681|
|Type||2-door, 4-passenger convertible|
|Layout||longitudinal front engine/rear-wheel-drive|
|Engine||5.0 litre V-8, SOHC, 24-valves|
|Horsepower||302 @ 5600|
|Torque||339 lb-ft @ 2700|
|Tires||Front: 225/45R17 Rear: 245/40R17|
|Curb weight||1,770 kg (3902 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||2,715 mm (106.9 in.)|
|Length||4,638 mm (182.6 in.)|
|Width||1,740 mm (68.5 in.)|
|Height||1,381 mm ( 54.4 in.)|
|Cargo capacity||Top up: 350 L (12.4 cu. ft.)|
|Top down: 251 L (8.7 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 14.1 l/100 km (20 mpg) (Imperial gallons)|
|Hwy: 9.6 l/100 km (29 mpg) (Imperial gallons)|
|Fuel type||Regular unleaded|
|Warranty||4 yrs/80,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||5 yrs/120,000 km|