2003 Mercedes-Benz CLK
Click image to enlarge

by Tony Whitney

When Mercedes-Benz invited me to travel to Lyon in France to sample the 2003 CLK coupe, the first thing to pass through my mind was: “the current one is such an outstanding car, why bother with a new one?”

The fact is that in recent times, Mercedes has been renewing models a little faster than it used to. As soon as one is getting used to a model lineup, it seems, the Stuttgart automaker is well advanced with its replacement. So it is with the CLK and for buyers of cars in this class, the good news is that the best just got even better.

It’s a common mistake for auto writers to assume that the CLK range of two-door coupes is based on the C-Class (entry-level) platform, but this is not the case. In fact, this stylish coupe is built on a unique platform that borrows from both the C-Class and E-class Mercedes-Benz ranges.

Although it looks similar in many ways to its predecessor, the 2003 CLK is, in fact, a little larger. It’s also a sleeker, more stylish, automobile, though this must have been a challenging job for the design team because the old model looked great right through its run.

2003 Mercedes-Benz CLK
Click image to enlarge

The new CLK is 71 mm longer, 18 mm wider and 42 mm higher than before. Also, the capacity of the trunk has been hiked to 435 litres – impressive for a coupe. This worthwhile increase in size is mostly translated into better elbow and shoulder room up front and more knee room in the back. In fact, the rear of this car is surprisingly roomy and even large adults can find comfort back there.

Visibility from the cockpit has been enhanced by getting rid of the B-pillars – the posts between front and rear side windows. The move has also resulted in a cleaner, more stylish side-on view. With front and rear windows wound down, there’s an almost convertible-like flow of fresh air.

In Canada, we’ll get three engine choices – a 3.2-litre V6 (CLK 320), a 5.0-litre V8 (CLK 500) and ultimately, an AMG 5.5-litre V8 (CLK 55). In Europe, they get a 5-cylinder diesel and a new 2.6-litre V6 – plus a CLK 200 4-cylinder Kompressor (with direct gasoline injection), which I tried and really liked. Generally, only those models thought to be saleable in our market are imported – partly due to the high cost of federal certification.

2003 Mercedes-Benz CLK
Click image to enlarge

The interior of the car is a delight and represents Mercedes’ latest efforts to further refine what has become one of the best cockpit layouts in the upscale automotive sector. The seating is superb and everything has a feel and look of excellent quality – no surprise really, with this automaker. My only criticism was with noisy windshield wipers – and it rained for every kilometre of my test in France.

The car handled very well indeed and although it’s fairly large, it can be pushed through tight corners like a much smaller sportster. Hopefully, the suspension settings won’t be changed too much to meet “North American tastes” – often a failing of import vehicles.

The car is fast in any form – my CLK 500 was easily capable of topping 100 km/h in around six seconds and the six was quick too. The AMG version will, of course, be even faster than the “500.”

2003 Mercedes-Benz CLK
Click image to enlarge

The CLK class has been very successful for Mercedes-Benz with 39,000 of the coupes sold in 2001 alone. Also sold were 26,000 cabriolets, which are based on the coupe. There’s no news yet on a convertible based on the new CLK and for the time being, the current model will continue to be marketed. Some time in the future I would expect an upgrade of the ragtop, but as with the “old” CLK, it’s hard to believe that Mercedes could improve on the current model.

Prices for the new CLK models were announced last week. The base price for the 2003 CLK 320 is $61,900, the CLK 500 is $75,900, and the high-performance CLK55 AMG starts at $99,450.

Connect with Autos.ca