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Mercedes-Benz CLK 320 Cabriolet Avantgarde review (2002-2005)
Engine: 3.2-litres 6-cylinder
Fuel type: Petrol
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Date of test: September 2003
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What is it?
The CLK cabriolet is one of a number of drop-tops in the Mercedes line-up. However, unlike its two-seater SLK and SL relatives it offers seating for more than two, making the CLK a relatively practical choice in the drop-top market. A popular model, based on the C-Class underpinnings, it's arguably one of the most attractive models in the current Mercedes-Benz range. Like its chief opponent, the BMW 3 Series, there's a coupe version and the hood is canvass - eschewing the recent trend among fresh-air Mercedes models to feature a folding metal roof.
Where does it fit?
It competes with other premium drop-top models like the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4 and the Saab 9-3. It's a fair bit more expensive than this competition, even in smaller-engined guise, while the larger engines in the range place the CLK up against rivals like the Jaguar XK8 and Porsche 911 cabriolet. The 3.2-litre V6 engine in this car and its £38,705 list price places the CLK 320 cabriolet in relative void price-wise. Our car was specified with expensive additional equipment like CD-ROM navigation, parktronic sensors and leather seats among others bumping up the price to nearly £45,000 - which is £2,500 more than the list price for BMW's flagship M3 cabrio. The prices might be similar, but the CLK 320 isn't likely to appeal to an M3 driver, and vice-versa, the two cars being rather different in the way they perform.
Is it for you?
If you're after a stylish, practical and comfortable cabriolet the CLK is a desirable choice. The performance is effortless, the 218bhp V6 engine driving smoothly through a five-speed automatic transmission. It'll cope well if you want to push it hard, but the CLK's remit is more about fast cruising, it lacks the kind of detailed feedback demanded by more enthusiastic drivers. It still provides an enjoyable driving experience, which is enhanced by a smart interior and beautiful, graceful lines - the CLK is looks and feels like the premium product it is without being flash and showy.
What does it do well?
The CLK cabriolet is one of those cars that just feels right. The 3.2-litre V6 and automatic transmission combine to provide easy, yet impressive performance, the whole car feeling well built and solid. There's room in the back for two passengers meaning you can take your friends or family along to enjoy some open-air motoring. The noise emitted from the V6 engine is fantastic, all the better when enjoyed in full-on roof-down sunshine mode, the chassis and suspension nicely balancing comfort with a degree of sporting feel. Put the roof down the wind buffeting is surprisingly low, even for those in the rear at up to motorway speeds. Standard specification is vast, the emphasis on safety equipment and driver aids, though there's plenty of comfort items too.
What doesn't it do well?
While the cabin might offer seating for four they had better be travelling light - as bootspace is at a premium. The hood robs the luggage compartment of space, leaving a narrow and low luggage compartment. The folding mechanism of the roof is impressive to watch, but against rivals its operation is slow - even though you don't have to do anything other than press a button. Roof-up and the rear seats feel rather claustrophobic, and we'd perhaps expect to see leather upholstery as standard fit on a premium convertible. Similarly a standard fitment of a radio cassette rather than a CD-system is inexcusible these days. As solid as the CLK cabriolet feels there's still some evidence of body-shake as a result of the loss of its roof, and the steering, though nicely weighted, lacks any real feel.
What's it like to live with?
Life with the CLK 320 cabriolet should be a joy - so long as there's enough sunny days in the year to enjoy it to the maximum. Cabriolets as a rule aren't particularly practical propositions, but the CLK is more so than most. That's due to its ability to seat four, if needed, though the rear seats double-up as useful additional luggage space should the boot not be big enough. It's a fantastically stylish car that has a solid, expensive feel that makes it feel worth the extra it costs over its opponents. The 3.2-litre V6 engine is a nice unit, though use it enthusiastically and you'll pay for your exuberance at the pumps. It's not about press-on motoring though, the CLK 320 cabriolet is a car that gets you there rapidly in a dignified and unflustered manner. As an all-rounder it's an impressive and desirable package.
Would we buy it?
Cars like the CLK cabriolet aren't bought because they're going to be sensible everyday transport - they're an emotive purchase. Against the BMW M3 cabriolet, which our test car exceeds in price when all the additional equipment is factored in, then we'd be swayed by the BMW for its more sporting driving experience. However, that's us and there are plenty of people who will be drawn to the CLK's highly impressive all-round ability and comfort, it's undeniable style and the feel-good factor that comes with ownership. The 3.2-litre engine is a gem, really there's no need for the more powerful 5.0-litre V8 or the outrageous AMG 5.5-litre V8 versions. We'd definitely recommend it as it's a very accomplished machine - you'll find it difficult to find a better cabriolet.
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