Sears and Roebuck once qualified catalog merchandise items as "Good, Better, Best." Mercedes-Benz could easily use those clear, simple terms for the three CLK cabriolet versions coming to our market. The CLK320 with its 215-horsepower V-6 is Good--very good. Solid, quick, comfortable, shake-free with the top down, and reasonably quiet at speed with the top raised, it is a splendid, stylish personal vehicle, worth the expected $50,000 price.
Still, based on the traditional American mantra "If a little is good, more is better," it is hard to resist the appeal of a V-8 with 302 horsepower in the CLK500. It has the same sleek appearance, the same not-quite-real rear seats--better than the last CLK's but not nearly as good as those in the 1993-95 W124-series E-class convertible--the same sense of solidity, and the same smooth-shifting five-speed automatic gearbox, but it also has a few options not offered on the CLK320: three special-order leather interiors with optional aluminum rather than wood trim, one-inch-bigger wheels (seventeen over sixteen), and a different grille color. There is also an AMG sport package not available with the V-6. The V-8 isn't any faster--both the CLK320 and the CLK500 are electronically limited to 130 mph in the U.S. market--but it provides livelier acceleration.
Then there is Best: the incredible CLK55 AMG. It's good for an additional 25 mph, and it takes a lot less time getting to "Go directly to Jail, do not pass Go" speeds. Call us power junkies; we can't help preferring 362 horsepower, 0 to 62 mph in 5.4 seconds, and electronic nannies just a tiny bit slower to intercede on slippery roads. Our test drives took us over polished-stone roads in an olive-growing (and olive-oil-spilling) region, slippery as ice when wet. In the base models, the ESP seemed to come in much too soon. Perhaps if you can afford the $76,000 price of the CLK55 AMG, you have sharper reactions and greater skill. Or a stronger sense of self-preservation.
Actually, skill level is almost immaterial. All CLKs will take good care of you no matter what happens; there are even automatic roll bars that pop up if you get too far off horizontal. Europeans can buy the AMG car with 175-mph speed potential but only after signing a personal contract promising to use only tires approved by AMG and to keep the car in perfect condition, among various other covenants. That might make Americans feel discriminated against, but not everything with the CLK favors Europeans. We tried a six-speed, four-cylinder CLK200 Kom-pressor, and, believe us, you don't want one. Mercedes seems to have long since forgotten how to make a slick manual gearbox--and why should they, given the excellence of their automatics? Nor could you live with the lawyers a 175-mph speeding contract would involve. No, Mercedes gives us three absolutely wonderful cars that are just fine the way they come.
But, as with Orwell's animals, some are finer than others. Go for the power. You won't regret it.