That edge has arrived, and it's a sharp one. The formula is straightforward: Begin with the CLK320's excellent platform, drop in a V-8, strap on ultra-aggressive rolling stock, and add a little swoopy body armor. Result? The delicious '99 CLK430.
Motive force for this new Benz is the same 275-horsepower SOHC V-8 that appeared last year in the E-Class sedan. It produces its 295-pound-foot torque peak from 3000 rpm to around 4000. The innovative, three-valve design employs two spark plugs per cylinder and allows the engine to meet LEV specifications. There's but one transmission offering, a multimode five-speed automatic, and Mercedes' patented Electronic Stability Program system, optional on the six-cylinder CLK, is standard on the 430 version.
Mercedes felt no suspension upgrades were needed for the V-8 CLK and restricted the balance of the handling hardware changes to a more aggressive wheel and tire package. Off goes the 320's 16-inch wheel-and-tire combo, and on go stylishly bold AMG Monoblock 17-inch alloys with Z-rated low-profile rubber. A bit more AMG flavor is added by the special front and rear fascias, sculpted rocker panels, and monochromatic paint scheme.
“Solid,” “satisfying,” “powerful” are adjectives that describe driving the CLK430. Mercedes was kind enough not to tune out all the V-8's good sounds. There's a throaty intake roar under acceleration, and the exhaust speaks in deep, wuffly tones. Freeway passing is a hoot: A romp on the gas at 60 brings a double-downshift to third, and a torque-laden nudge in the back. Buttery-smooth, light-throttle upshifts take place at relatively low rpm, but the crisply gated five-speed autobox will hold full-throttle shifts to redline with no complaint. A 6.5-second 0-60-mph burst and tidy 118-foot 60-0-mph stop put it clearly on par with luxury hardware like the Jaguar XK8 and the aforementioned Volvo C70 five-speed.
Handling, most particularly steering response, has benefited from the uprated AMG-inspired wheel/tire package. With a 0.83g skidpad best and a superb 66.5-mph scamper through the slalom, it fares favorably with many pure sports cars. All this comes at little to no ride penalty, as compared to the CLK320, in spite of its low-aspect-ratio tires. This machine's forte is long sweepers; it really hunkered down and dug in on our favorite 100-mph freeway transition, largely ignoring mid-turn undulations and staying put. It's a car you really want to take out and put some miles on.
A high-content package comes with the deal, as there are few options. Only the integrated cell phone, six-disc CD changer, power moonroof, Xenon gas headlamps, and a few of the metallic colors cost extra. The rest, including dual-zone air conditioning, full leather interior, 10-way power adjustable memory bucket seats, Mercedes' innovative SmartKey infrared key and vehicle protection system, rich walnut trim, and about every power accessory known to man, are standard. And the CLK is not a 2+2, but a real coupe, offering room and exceptional seat comfort for four adults, though the swoopy roofline does limit rear-seat headroom for taller passengers.