Pay up, pay up, play the game

ROAD TEST Mercedes-Benz CLK

What could be more desirable than a Mercedes-Benz coupe? Many things, actually; a chateau in the Dordogne, a private income, Raymond Blanc as your next-door neighbour with a communicating door to his kitchen... But, back in the real world, a Mercedes coupe is a fine expression of the more tastefully extravagant things in life.

Few cars have been better advocates of the less-is-more school of automotive temptation. Central to the existence of nearly every coupe is the notion that you pay more than you would for the workaday saloon on which a coupe is usually based, and in return you get less space and less utility but more panache, and visual frissons of desire.

Mercedes-Benzes that have been cut with the stylist's knife, however, lift the notion of spending needless extra money into an almost noble art form, because the sums are so large and the decoupage so subtle.

On this basis the new CLK - lean, lithe, the sportiest-looking full four-seater that Mercedes has ever produced - cannot fail to be a huge hit down Knightsbridge way. In relatively humble CLK 230K form, with a supercharged four-cylinder engine, it costs pounds 4,300 more than a similarly powered C-class saloon, while in grandest CLK 320 specification, with sporty Sport or plush Elegance trim and a fat V6 engine, it's not yours until you've saved up pounds 36,640. And even then you have to pay extra for a sunroof, electric seats and leather trim.

You are, though, driving a Benz. And on this fact is based the UK importer's whole pricing strategy. If the marketeers can get away with it, then who can blame them? There might well be a Peugeot 406 V6 Coupe, broadly similar in on-paper attributes and costing pounds 10,000 less, but it doesn't have The Badge. More fool us? It's intriguing to see that in Germany, the Peugeot is pricier than the Mercedes.

For many people, the foregoing will tell them all they need to know about the CLK. It's a svelte Mercedes coupe, therefore it's desirable and you want one, end of story.

But I'm going to tell you some more, anyway. Unlike its predecessor, the old-shape E-class coupe, the CLK is (loosely) based on the C-class. Not that you'd guess from the way it looks, because its nose has the four- headlamp face of a current E-class and the tail design is also a smaller, sharper version of that big saloon's. More than ever before, Mercedes' most accessible coupe is its own car rather than a morph of something more mundane.

That it's good to drive goes almost without saying, although the experience is infused with the competent aloofness that is the hallmark of most Benzes. The CLK 320's V6 motor, part of a new family of engines which are shorter than the straight-sixes they replace so that there's more crumple-room in a crash, sounds and feels much like its ancestors, partly because it has a balancer shaft to smooth out the slight tactile and aural granularity sensed in nearly every other V6.

Apparently unfashionably, it also has just one exhaust valve per cylinder to go with the pair of inlet valves, but it's a very large one. The idea is to keep more heat in the exhaust gases so that the catalyst can work more efficiently. If you're designing an engine today, you start at the exhaust pipe and work forwards. It's a back-to-front world.

This is a quick car, and easy to drive quickly thanks to a slick-shifting five-speed automatic transmission, ample grip and a creamy, fluid demeanour through corners marred only by a rubbery feel to the steering. There's 218bhp on tap, but sophisticated traction control (it works with the anti- lock brakes to slow wheels individually and help inhibit a skid) keeps the power channelled in the right direction. And should you need to stop ultra-suddenly, the braking system senses the urgency of the pedal's movement and applies extra pressure for a quicker halt.

This is all very good and worthy, but in the end the CLK isn't so special as to justify that huge price. Examine the cabin to see why. It's decently made, and designed with the usual Benz logic, but the materials show signs of cost-cutting out of place in a car of this identity. Given the flimsiness of some mouldings, Mercedes is in danger of risking its rock-solid reputation. Of course the CLK is a good car, but so is the stunningly gorgeous-looking and equally capable Peugeot 406 Coupe. I'd rather save pounds 10,000.

MERCEDES-BENZ CLK320

Specifications

Price: pounds 36,640. Engine: 3,199cc V6, 18 valve, 218bhp at 5,600rpm. Five-speed automatic gearbox, rear-wheel drive. Performance: top speed 150mph, 0-60 in 7.0 sec. Fuel consumption: 23-28mpg

Rivals

BMW 328i Coupe Sport, pounds 28,515: Old stager does everything the Mercedes can, feels more solid and is more fun to drive.

Peugeot 406 V6 Coupe, pounds 26,420: Penned by Pininfarina, and possibly the most beautiful coupe you can buy. Well-built and a great drive, too.

Rover 825 Coupe, pounds 26,140: Bigger than the Benz, but close to pensionable age. Looks it and feels it too, despite fine new KV6 engine.

Volvo C70, pounds 35,500 approx: Smart new turbocharged coupe has been delayed while Volvo gets the quality right, but should be worth the wait.

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