by Nick Twork

Looks can't kill. Good thing, too.

Mercedes-Benz automobiles are arguably the world's most technologically sophisticated and superbly engineered vehicles. But until recently, the company's products have been gloriously overengineered cars cloaked in unexciting sheet metal.

It was four oval headlamps that revolutionized that staid image. The new goggles emerged with the current-generation E-Class and pushed Mercedes styling away from its past and into a future of sensuous curves and graceful lines.

The follow-up to the E-Class, the CLK coupe, shows there's no going back for Benz. Like the E-Class, the CLK's oval headlamps set a new styling pace, then flow into a smooth, elegant roofline. In our eyes, the CLK is sexier than any Mercedes in recent memory.

While the exterior is quite unlike anything Mercedes has made recently, the chassis tuning and driving character of the car are rather familiar. In Mercedes' case, that's a good thing. The rock-solid feel of the body structure and fluidity of the drivetrain are unmistakably Mercedes. And it's especially true in the CLK430, the newest model in the CLK lineup - complementing the V-6 powered CLK320 and CLK320 Cabriolet.

A smooth, quiet, 275-horsepower 4.3-liter V-8 catapults the CLK430 to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds, according to Mercedes. But with this car, the fun only begins at 60; after that it piles on speed at what seems like an exponential rate. It's in marked contrast to the acceleration from a standstill, when the CLK430 feels slower than one would expect for a car capable of such acceleration.

Then again, we are speaking of a bahnstormer and not a '60s muscle car. We presume Mercedes engineers sacrificed low-end grunt in favor of top-end speed in this instance. Unfortunately, that strategy is probably better suited to German autobahns than American roads, where safe opportunities to stretch a car's legs are few and far between. Nonetheless, the car is a blast to drive.

Unless, that is, it's snowing. Our enjoyment of the car was hampered significantly by the onslaught of a particularly monstrous Michigan snowstorm. With its AMG-supplied body kit and oversize AMG wheels wrapped with high-performance rubber, the CLK430 was reduced to a driveway ornament by the powdered white stuff. Despite the efforts of Mercedes' magnificent Electronic Stability Program and the transmission's winter mode, lacking snow tires, the car was useless on the slippery roads.

All we could do was sit inside the car and enjoy the Bose audio system and heated seats. From our spin in the CLK430, we'd recommend the optional multicontour front seats. The standard seats lack the support necessary to keep the driver comfortably in place through twisty roads and on long drives. The multicontour seats have a variety of inflatable air bladders that allow the driver to adjust the shape of the seat to his body.

While we're on the subject of the interior, we can't help but wonder why Mercedes equipped the car with a steering wheel that telescopes but does not tilt. It makes it rather difficult for some drivers to obtain a proper driving position. Otherwise, the interior is standard issue Mercedes. That means it comes complete with the automaker's BabySmart child seat detection system and astonishingly complex cup holders.

While it may not attract much more attention than the CLK430, the AMG CLK55 that was introduced at the Geneva Motor Show this past March certainly improves upon the car's already remarkable performance. Although Mercedes-Benz USA has not officially announced plans to import the car the United States, it is probably safe to say that the car will reach these shores after AMG C43 production ends in the 2000 model-year. But since all CLK430s that reach the United States are equipped with a sport package that is optional in Europe, expect something to differentiate the appearance of the CLK55 from the U.S. market CLK430 if and when it reaches these shores.

But in the meantime, the CLK430 is doing a marvelous job improving the image of Mercedes-Benz in the United States. It's a great performer in its own right - and in terms of styling, it might be the most desirable piece in the Mercedes-Benz lineup.

© The Car Connection

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