Picture the scene. A collection of new Mercedes-Benz CLK Cabriolets in the idyllic setting of Mallorca in late March, ready to be driven, roof down, on a 200-mile route along tourist-free roads.
Perhaps I should also mention prolonged fierce downpours – the type you only find in Spain and the Balearics, where it falls so hard you could be forgiven for thinking that God was planning another great flood to rid the world of its evils.
Probably the greatest test of a soft-top car is not how it performs with the roof down, but with it firmly in place, well prepared for the unpredictable weather of the British summer.
The Cabriolet is the inevitable soft-top version of the CLK coupe launched last summer. It comes with many of the improvements found in the coupe, but with the benefit of a fully-retractable multi-layer roof that raises or lowers within 20 seconds. It shares the same engine line-up as the coupe, with one notable exception – there is no diesel.
Mercedes-Benz put a diesel in the CLK coupe for the first time last year, using the five-cylinder 2.7-litre CDI, and although Audi has launched a diesel version of its A4 convertible, Mercedes-Benz says it will not be offering a diesel-engined CLK Cabriolet, simply because none of its customers has requested it.
But the company also says if demand justifies a diesel model, it would be easy to produce one relatively quickly. For company car drivers wanting a diesel to lower tax bills, there may be no need. With Twinpulse technology, the entry-level CLK 200 Kompressor offers relatively low benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax liability, with carbon dioxide emissions of 211g/km for the six-speed manual or 214g/km for the five-speed automatic.
BIK liability of 26% in 2003/04 really isn't too bad for this type of car. However, to most drivers it probably won't matter and many will no doubt be selecting the CLK Cabriolet on a cash-for-car scheme.
The CLK Cabriolet sits in a broad sector of the four-seater (or two-plus-two) market because of its size and the range of engines offered. At the lower to mid-range are soft-top versions of the BMW 3-series and Audi A4, the Volvo C70 convertible and the Saab 9-3. At the higher end, you could also be looking at the likes of the Jaguar XK8 and Lexus SC430.
With prices expected to start at about £30,000 in the UK, rising to about £60,000 for the high-performance AMG version, it is pleasing to see that all models are equipped with automatic climate control, electric roof, automatic roll-over protection (rear head restraints pop up to form roll hoops), automatic headlamps and rain-sensing windscreen wipers.
Options will include Distronic adaptive cruise control, Keyless-go access and drive authorisation, Linguatronic voice control for telephone, radio and navigation, and bi-xenon headlamps. Like the coupe, trim levels will be Elegance and Avantgarde, the former offering a more luxurious interior and the latter a sportier ambience. Mercedes-Benz expects to sell 2,500 CLK Cabriolets in a full year in the UK, slightly fewer than the previous model's best year in 2001.
Behind the wheel
IT was almost like the start to a vintage Le Mans race. All the CLK Cabriolets were lined up side-by-side in a car park, angled slightly towards the direction of travel, and the drivers – in this case motoring journalists – sprinted to their designated car as the rain lashed down.
The feeling inside was one of relative security, despite the temporary roof and weather that felt as if the car was caught in a permanent jet wash. Otherwise, the interior mirrors that of the CLK coupe – classy-looking instruments and switches, high-quality materials, and gentle curves.
Compared with the outgoing CLK Cabriolet, there is a little more space in the rear for knees and elbows, although this is still a part-time four seater.
Luggage space is an impressive 390 litres with the roof up, while a movable cover in the boot protects the folded roof when retracted. There isn't room for two sets of golf clubs with the roof down, but Mercedes-Benz suggests that when carrying two sets, you should make the sacrifice of arriving at the golf club with the roof up.
The six-cylinder models are smooth performers, although the CLK 240 is noticeably more relaxed than the CLK 320. The 3.2- litre engine is lively, but is hardly audible most of the time.
With the exception of the AMG model, none of the CLK Cabriolets seem to enjoy being hustled around twisty mountain roads. These are comfortable cruising cars that look their best purring topless along the Cote d'Azur.
Even at 60 to 70mph there is no need for raised voices with the roof down, while with it in place it might as well be a coupe – there is little extra noise from it. Anyone coming to a convertible for the first time will still be unaware of the concept of 'scuttle shake' after driving one, illustrating how well screwed together these cars are.
The burbling V8-engined CLK 500 offers a change of pace with a surprising turn of speed and strong mid-range torque. It proved to be a bit of a handful slithering out of tight hairpins in the wet, with the rear stepping out after little provocation.
The CLK 55 AMG is altogether a different machine – sharper-feeling than the other CLKs, with better steering and a louder exhaust note that becomes a spine-tingling roar under hard acceleration. Its instrument layout is black-on-white with metallic trim surrounding the dials. It also offers touch-button manual gearchanges at the back of the steering wheel.
The most surprising car in the range for me was the CLK 200 Kompressor, which I tried with the standard six-speed manual transmission. Although gearchanges were rather sticky and needed a firm hand, the engine felt keener than the 2.6-litre V6 in the CLK 240, providing brisk acceleration. Apart from a hint of supercharger whine, the engine remained quiet, even with the roof down.
THE CLK Cabriolet is one of the finest-looking four-seater convertibles on sale. Most of the range is designed for cruising, with few rivals as capable or as desirable. With a wide range of engines, it can lay claim to a broad range of customers, most sharing one attribute – wealth.
|Mercedes-Benz CLK Cabriolet fact file|
|Model:||200k||240||320 auto||500 auto||55 AMG auto|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||161/5,500||168/5,500||215/5,700||302/5,600||362/5,750|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rom):||177/3,000||177/4,500||229/3,000||339/2,700||376/4,000|
|Max speed (mph):||140 (139 auto)||144 (143)||150||155||155|
|0-62mph (secs):||9.8 (10.5)||9.7 (10.2)||8.2||6.2||5.4|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||32.1 (31.7)||25.9 (28.0)||27.2||24.3||23.0|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||211 (214)||262 (242)||250||278||295|
|Transmissions:||6-sp man/5-sp auto|