2003 Mercedes-Benz CLK500

Driver Side Front View

If every moment you spend in a car needs to be a screamer, buy a BMW. But if you are inclined to appreciate the many other subtleties of fine motoring, you'll find the new Mercedes-Benz CLK500 to be a real sweetheart.

We are pleased to say the pillarless hardtop CLK looks better in person than we were led to believe; it's not as fluffy as pictures had indicated. The hood dips dramatically between twin bulges that open into a robust collection of headlamps (Bi-xenon are a must-have option), and the ubiquitous three-pointed star has dropped from hoodtop to mid-grille.

The interior sports a higher level of cush than your basic Spartan Bimmer, with puckered-leather door inserts, vents and gauges ringed in chrome, and flared chrome that sweeps across the glovebox and the burl walnut door trim panels.

Instrumentation is black and white; the speedo, tachometer, and clock are all round and boldly numbered, and auxiliary instruments are vertically hashed. The air bag housing in the center of the steering wheel is smaller than usual, and four big oval thumbpads offer remote control of the radio and telephone.

The CLK seats fit snugly, and we can say that, as luxurious as you would describe its ride, the CLK is far from a mere luxo-barge. Our morning commute includes a nicely cambered set of turns that the CLK flew through neatly, with not a bobble or sidestep. We have emerged faster in Porsches and Bimmers from that section of road, but we didn't miss the extra exit speed once we saw the county sheriff parked in the weeds aimed directly at our driver's license. He pulled behind us, ruining the fun for another five miles, but eventually gave up and let us have our head for the rest of the drive.

Full Driver Side Rear View

This sounds a little stupid, but we also had a fun time this weekend showing off the CLK's bag of little tricks. It's been a long time since a car's features have so cracked us up that we've wanted to tug on people's sleeves and say, 'You have got to check this out!"

So it is with M-B's Keyless Go, which works like this: You walk up to the locked CLK with the key still parked in your pocket and you pull open the securely locked door— a wonderful bonus when your arms are full of groceries. You jump in (key still in pocket), put your foot on the brake, and press the button on top of the shifter, and the 302-hp, 5.0-liter V-8 (a 212-hp, 3.2-liter V-6 is standard) roars to life. Shift back in Park, press the button on top again, and the CLK shuts down. Hop out, press the tiny square on the outside of the door handle, and the CLK is locked up tight once again. Great party trick, along with demos of the dash-controlled rear-window sunshade and the seatbelt presenter—a robot arm that pops out to hand you your shoulder harness when you get in either front seat.

Our test car's options also included Distronic cruise control which automatically keeps you at a safe distance from the car in front despite your speed setting. We had it set at 80 mph, marked on the speedo by a small glowing hash mark, and it slowed almost imperceptibly to 65—like a squeeze of the brakes—as we neared a bulge in the traffic. A couple more hash marks popped up on the speedo to show the adjustment. Once the traffic cleared, the CLK took itself back to 80 mph.

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