Both Mercedes and Benz made their early reputations with cars that had no tops or folding tops, and after the merger it was ever thus. Convertibles and roadsters are as integral to the brand DNA of Mercedes-Benz as durability, reliability and quality, and racing and customer service. And now Mercedes-Benz has just reintroduced another, the popular four-seater CLK Cabriolet, the bulk of which will be sold in the sunny parts of the United States, the company's largest single market. This new CLK-C is so blatantly wonderful that it should easily eclipse the sales performance of the previous model, which accumulated 115,000 deliriously windblown, tangle-haired customers in its three years on the market.
The new CLK Cabriolet, built for Mercedes-Benz by the very experienced and very competent German bodybuilding specialist firm Karmann, in Osnabruck, Germany, starts out as most of a CLK hardtop coupe, the only true hardtop coupe on the market at any price, and goes from there.
The fully automatic convertible top deploys in just a few seconds, folding up as the steel top cover behind the second row of bucket seats rises, then lowers automatically and locks in place when the top is fully stowed. A very cool addition to its electronic capabilities is that, if you press and hold down the "Unlock" button on the electronic key, the convertible top will deploy as you walk toward the car. There is no manual master latch on the top that you have to lift or twist by hand to start the process, so the car puts its own top down for you. How's that for cool? And, if disaster should cross the path of the CLK Cabriolet and create a rollover situation, an electronic sensor in the body automatically deploys a rollover protection system.
The slick style of the lower body and the smooth curvatures of the fabric top combine for a drag coefficient of only 0.30, by far the best aero performance of any car in the class.
Unlike any previous C- or E-Class Mercedes-Benz convertibles, the new CLK has rear-seat head restraints integrated into the top's steel cover panel and beautifully designed and crafted nacelles trailing away from the head restraints, a styling touch that makes for a very sporty look when the top is stashed.
When the convertible top is in the up position, the CLK Cabriolet's fabulously decked-out and roomy interior is nearly as quiet as the hardtop coupe's, even at speeds as high as 100 mph, due to the extensive padding in the top itself and the tight-fitting soft rubber-alloy seals between the four window edges and the top. With the top down, the windows up and the conversation panel snapped in place atop the rear seats, normal conversation is possible at speeds in excess of 80 mph. There isn't a trace of wind buffeting at speed, and the sunvisors can be swung out sideways as well as up and down for top-down motoring early or late in the day when the sun can be a navigation hazard.
The new bucket front and rear seats are sportier in design than those in the hardtop version, with hefty, form-fitting side bolsters on all four seats and inserts that can ordered in both solid and two-tone combinations. During the course of our first drive in and around the streets and byways of Palma, Majorca, in the balmy Bealeric Islands, I saw some very tasty color combinations, including a special designo (Mercedes-Benz's in-house custom design firm) version with black paint, a wood steering wheel, black seats, tan seat inserts and tan stitching. Dealers can arrange designo versions from a large palette of interior materials and colors when the car is ordered.
Either way, because the CLK Cabriolet is a derivative of a true hardtop coupe with no B pillar, you get your seatbelts handed to you by the automatic proferring mechanism built into the body just aft of the door opening, just like the CLK coupe. And because it has a convertible top, the car comes with a special seat-mounted head-and-thorax airbag system for the front positions, a safety system that the coupe doesn't have.
The Mercedes-Benz engineers reported that, since the coupe and the Cabriolet were developed at the same time, provisions were made in the design for structural rigidity-which in this car is substantial-so that the Karmann engineers would not have to add weight and complexity to the car in the conversion process. This second version of the CLK Cabriolet is a hefty 12% stiffer in torsional rigidity than the original CLK Cabriolet that was built from a coupe with a B-pillar and a completely different structural signature. Some 40% of the body is made from HSLA steel to provide a strength and weight offset for the missing hardtop and the heavier convertible mechanism. And, because the CLK coupe is longer, wider and taller on a longer wheelbase than the original CLK, there is just a whole lot more lebensraum inside the car, as much as 1.7 in. more legroom in the rear seat. To get into the rear seats, a passenger need only touch the switch atop the front bucket seat, which moves it forward and out of the way of the door jamb.
This new version is as stiff and strong as the solid maple body of a Fender Telecaster guitar. It steers and tracks perfectly and rips into and out of S-bends and hairpin corners. And over choppy pavement, sleeping policemen and railroad crossings, there is only the tiniest bit of observable cowl shake and floorboard vibration. In cruise mode over good pavement, it's like a Federal Reserve bank vault on four tires.
For the U.S. market, there will be three versions: the CLK 320 with the 218-bhp 3.2-liter V6 engine, the CLK 500 with the new 307-bhp 5.0-liter V8 engine, and for those who have a constant need for speed, the CLK 55 AMG high-performance version with 369 bhp and enough torque to alter the course of a small planet. All versions are automatic-only.
There will be three different fabric color choices for the tight-fitting, noiseproof convertible top: ash, black and blue. There will also be three different grilles and several different alloy wheel designs for each model in the U.S. CLK Cabriolet range, but other than that, the specification is about the same from the V6 up, which is to say very complete.
Standard equipment includes all of the usual and expected Mercedes-Benz safety and convenience systems: ABS traction control, ESP, Brake Assist, Tele-Aid, eight airbags, a Bose eight-speaker sound system, leather-trimmed seating areas, burled walnut wood trim, antitheft alarm, automatic climate control, an autodim mirror and a mini spare tire.
The CLK Cabriolet's vast and varied option list includes the Parktronic sonar warning system, the Distronic radar cruise control system, bi-xenon headlamps, Linguatronic voice activation, the newly revised COMAND control and display system, Thermotronic automatic temperature control air conditioning with sun-sensing, a six-disc CD changer and Bose sound system, both multicontour and active seats, an electronic trunk closer, rear-seat side air bags and Keyless Go.
There's also a special appearance package: 17-in. wheels, high-performance tires, patterned chrome and aluminum accents, and a new metallic interior trim. I don't know of a four-seater convertible sourced from anywhere in the world with this much standard and optional content available.
The CLK 55 AMG, the highest-performing four-seater convertible in Mercedes-Benz's long convertible history, gets bigger tires and wheels, bigger brakes and the special heavy-duty automatic transmission with wheel-mounted shifter paddles and three driving modes to go along with the substantial extra power and torque from the AMG version of the V8 engine.
The CLK 55 AMG Cabriolet will have its own distinct set of electronic calibrations for such chassis systems as ABS, traction control and ESP to make it even more fun to drive. For instance, in full-throttle cornering, if the rear end starts to slide out, the ESP waits a couple of heartbeats before intervening-the ESP system on the V6 and V8 would intervene instantly to keep the car on its intended path. If you like a topless car that will also accelerate so fast it'll pull your hair out by its roots, this is the one for you, with torque everywhere and enough power to get from 0 to 60 mph in about 5 sec. flat.
About the only downside to this new convertible design is one shared by all modern convertibles: You don't get much trunk storage space by the time the top has been accommodated. Mercedes-Benz engineers stated that approximately 50 liters of the CLK coupe's standard trunk capacity would be missing when compared to the CLK convertible coupe.
Prices in the U.S. will range from about $50,000 for the V6 to about $58,000 for the 5-liter V8 and up to about $76,000 for the CLK 55 AMG with its hot 5.5-liter engine. Mercedes-Benz officials said that there will be about 10,000 CLKs imported each year for the next several years-50% V6s, 40% V8s and 10% AMG 55s. When the CLK Cabrios finally reach the showrooms in September, there will be around 850 Launch Edition special models available, with Nappa leather interior trim, exclusive interior wood trim and a special equipment package. By late summer, in a classic case of bad timing for customers in about 43 of the 50 states, the cars will be coming off the boats, along with a complete line of special CLK Cabriolet accessories from child seats to composite wheels.
It's pretty clear, even after a just a couple of days behind the wheel of the CLK Cabriolet, that Mercedes-Benz is looking to put an exclamation point behind its dominance in open-top cars and push entries like the Audi A4 Cabriolet, the BMW 3 Series, the Saab 9-3 ragtop and the fading Volvo C70 into the nearest body of salt water for a dignified burial. It's the sportiest, solidest, quietest family convertible we've ever driven, and the CLK 55 AMG version is certainly the fastest. You can hear the dealers in the sunshine states licking their chops from here.