The search for the world's best touring coupe gets another candidate.

by Marty Padgett

Until last week, my personal quest for the perfect luxocoupe followed a couple of primary routes: on the one hand, toward the missile-silo home of the BMW M3, and on the other, veering wildly upscale into the cage rattled by Jaguar's ferocious, supercharged $82,000 XKR. Now there's a third way to go, and it's a crossroad you'd be lucky to choose - toward - Mercedes-Benz' latest AMG-powered trifle, the CLK55.

The AMG-modified, 342-hp version of Benz' innocuously handsome CLK is simply one of the most balanced and forceful machines assembled. And it's the fastest production Mercedes-Benz ever offered in the U.S. It's possessed with Emily Post confidence in its perfect manners, and U.N. translator fluency in fast moving.

In short, it's a textbook case in what happens when engineers don't get enough dates - not so good for them, great for us enthusiasts.

The CLK55 begins life as an unassuming mid-line Benz coupe. Somewhere along the way from its German womb to you, it gets waylaid by the engineers at AMG, Benz' in-house performance makeover specialists. Basically, they do to the CLK what Bela Karolyi does to Olympic athletes - teaches the right moves, gives it the equipment to excel. In the case of the CLK55, that means a package of performance enhancements any Olympian would envy - a stiffer suspension, racing-derived brakes, and a shift-it-yourself automatic gearbox that's broken my own embargo against clutch-free shifting.

Undoubtedly, the master stroke in the CLK55 is its 5.5-liter V-8, which hammers out 342 hp and emits a throaty rumble from about 4000 rpm to its 6000-rpm redline. It benefits from a new crankshaft, enlarged magnesium intake manifold, and AMG camshafts made in special sets along with connecting rods, and piston heads. What's most special about the powerplant, Benz engineers say, is its torque curve, high and mesa-flat from 1500 rpm to its peak of 376 lb-ft at 3000 rpm.

The V-8 is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission derived from Benz' V-12s, but (incredibly) beefed up with a larger housing and catapulted into the 21st century with the addition of Touch Shift, Mercedes' spin on the semi-automatic fad. So equipped, it's actually enjoyable to click off shifts, slapping the lever left for downshifts and backhanding it right for high-speed cruising. Trust us - your fetish for shifting it all by yourself will subside.

Ecstasy behind the wheel

The CLK55 driving experience is one of those ecstatic, memorable things you'll carry with you long after your dentist buddy lets you take it for a spin at his weekend barbecue. Mercedes estimates it'll charge off the blocks to 60 mph in less than five seconds, and keep hustling you until you both hit a 155-mph limiter - a clear lowball here, since at 120 mph it's pulling harder and egging you on beyond the rational limits of public back roads.

To match its superlative powertrain, the CLK55 adopts a fluid, balletic grace that makes you think wrestler Bill Goldberg is underneath the tire patches, dancing in Gregory Hines' shoes. Floor it, and the CLK55 piles up speed with swift precision. It cruises effortlessly at just about any speed, pulls away for passing at the simple hint of a command, and turns in with diamond-cutting precision. And on the back roads of southern Indiana, it stitched together the hilltops mostly in fourth gear, powering up to 90 mph and slewing to a quick, sharp halt behind farm equipment.

The credit for its extreme stability goes to benchmark suspension tuning, which lets through only the harshest road rash as a rumble under the driver's seat, despite much stiffer tuning and low-profile 17-inch tires. But the CLK55 works just as well in most ways, like the best Mercedes-Benzes, because of similar effort in the other controls: ideally weighted steering, progressive brake feel, right down to the nearly retentive motion of the spring-loaded cupholder.

Xenon headlamps and svelte body armor additions distinguish the 55 from lesser CLKs, but in an extremely subtle way. Inside, the CLK55 makes a compelling argument to be a better choice than a Jaguar coupe. There's room enough in back for real humans, and even the driver and front passenger will exult in decent head room. Specially tailored multi-adjustable power seats clamp you down with a grandmother's embrace.

Ergonomically, the concentration of many functions on the steering wheel takes some getting used to - in a way, the wheel buttons operate more like a Web browser than a toggle switch, as you cycle through functions that include CD controls, cellular telephone dialing, and trip computer.

Safety equipment is exhaustive, including dual front and side door and side curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes, ESP and Brake Assist, Baby Smart child-seat detection, TeleAid, rain-sensing wipers and xenon headlamps.

Only three options will be offered: a CD changer, a digital phone, and the COMAND navigation system. Two designo color and trim packages in suitably muted colors (silver and espresso) round out the minimal choices.

So it's time for a rather large re-evaluation. Jaguar's purist feline grace and its $82,000 sticker make the $67,500 CLK55 seem a bargain. A similar BMW M3 (the latest version not available for comparison yet) would be more than $20,000 less expensive, but not quite as tailored or as sleek.

The only solution? Get Regis on the phone.

2001 Mercedes-Benz CLK55

Base price: $67,500
Engine: 5.5-liter V-8, 342 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Length/width/height: 180.2 in/67.8 in/54.0 in
Wheelbase: 105.9 in
Curb weight: 3444 lb
EPA city/highway: 17/24 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, side door and curtain airbags, Electronic Stability Program, Brake Assist, BabySmart, TeleAid
Major standard equipment: Touch Shift transmission
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

© 2000 The Car Connection

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