The Mercedes-Benz CLK55 AMG proves that the muscle car is not a purely American art form. AMG's modern equivalent of those notorious cars of the '60s hews to the formula: a relatively small coupe body wrapped around a high-output V-8 engine and rear-wheel drive. All of AMG's models are muscle cars, but the bawdiest is the CLK55 AMG.
The new model adopts the new-for-2003 CLK body, whose lack of B-pillars adds grace to the roofline and recalls coupes from an era before rollover considerations. The requisite AMG wheels and body kit enhance the aggressiveness of the CLK, but the elegant new styling has lost some of the previous generation's cocky swagger. Also gone is the old model's recirculating-ball steering, replaced by a quicker and more communicative rack-and-pinion setup. Inside, AMG's touches are subtle but effective: New gauges, steering-wheel-mounted shift buttons, and handsome sport seats spice up the cabin.
Some Hockenheim hot laps displayed the strength and stamina of the handbuilt 362-horsepower, 5.4-liter V-8. The normally aspirated V-8 has the power to move scenery at an astonishing pace. Curbing the engine's enthusiasm are large brake rotors at every corner clamped by four-piston calipers in front. Stopping power is inexhaustible, and pedal feel is firm and easily modulated. Fast corners expose inexorable understeer-lifting off the gas mid-corner only reduces the howling of the front tires as they search in vain for grip, and legging the throttle only increases the slippage of the front tires. However, booting the throttle in slow corners brings easily controllable oversteer.
Muscle cars assault the senses; they look and sound surly and shove you in the chest like a schoolyard bully. The CLK55 will do all of those things while offering Mercedes-Benz refinement and prestige. Unlike the muscle cars of the past, the CLK55 has high limits and is easy to drive fast. Unfortunately, its at-the-limit handling characteristics are almost too tame and predictable, not in keeping with the aggressiveness of the rest of the car. Thus, the AMG coupe is a more accessible and less demanding car than its rivals; it's like a bully who went to finishing school. A muscle car with manners-what'll they think of next?