Mercedes-Benz CLC 200K Coupe

words - Mike McCarthy
The sporty CLC 200K is the least expensive way of joining the rear-drive Mercedes club
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International Launch
Vienna, Austria

What we liked
>> Ample engine, responsive paddle-shift auto
>> Capable driving dynamics
>> Realistic daily driver

Not so much
>> Constricted rear view
>> Rear passenger access
>> Deja vu styling

Overall rating: 3.5/5.0
Engine/Drivetrain/Chassis: 4.0/5.0
Price, Packaging and Practicality: 3.5/5.0
Safety: 3.5/5.0
Behind the wheel: 4.0/5.0
X-factor: 3.5/5.0

About our ratings

OVERVIEW
With a little help from some 1100 new, different and improved bits and pieces, the Mercedes-Benz formerly known as the Sports Coupe has been re-invented as the CLC. Not before time, some may say, in deference to the Sports Coupe having been around and virtually unchanged since its 2001 European debut.

If nothing else, the Sports Coupe bucked the current trend toward ever shorter model lifespans, where models are refreshed or replaced in four to five-year cycles. But the entry-level rear-drive Merc resolutely soldiered on, relying on its market positioning, relative value and sporty styling, without resorting to drum-beating self-promotion and a hard sell.

In spite of its comparatively low-key campaign, the Sports Coupe established an enduring niche and met its targets with some 320,000 units sold worldwide. The big bonus was that fully 70 per cent of the buyers were new conquests, with the Sports Coupe as their first Mercedes. Subsequently, more than two thirds of them have remained loyal to the brand, and more than 40 per cent have moved along to an E-Class, CLK or SLK. That sort of win-win situation would gladden any maker's heart.

And so, from late July the CLC takes over to freshen the junior Merc coupe's attractions. On that basis, Mercedes' confidence that the CLC will enjoy further widened popularity, standing and sales seems well founded.

PRICE AND EQUIPMENT
Unlike the Sports Coupe, where the local engine choice consisted of two supercharged fours and a V6, our CLC narrows the field to the dominant  200 Kompressor model, with five-speed automatic standard (or six-speed manual to order at no difference in cost). There are again three trim levels, now known as the 200K, 200K Evolution and 200K Evolution +, priced from $49,900, $53,900 and $58,900 respectively.

At that, Mercedes' pricing pencil has sharpened to needle point because the better-equipped, better-performing new models undercut their predecessors by the best part of $10,000.

Even so, the base model is no pauper, that's for sure. The 200K's features include cruise/speed control, central multi-mode display, split-fold rear seat, aircon, leather-bound two-way adjustable wheel with multi-function controls, manual sports front seats, single CD player, 17-inch alloys, auto-dim interior and driver's side mirrors, heated external mirrors, front and rear fog lights, cloth and Artico man-made leather trim, rear parking sensors and, not least, a full size spare wheel.

The Evolution adds full Artico trim, aluminium sports pedals, sports instrument cluster, Bi-Xenon headlights, paddle-shift facility for the automatic, other upmarket touches, and the newly developed Direct Steer power steering.

Among additional features in the Evolution + are electrically-adjustable steering column and front seats, multi-zone climate control and panoramic glass sunroof.

The pricing's operative word may be from, however. Like all major Europeans, the CLC doesn't stint on options. Its rich list includes metallic paint at $1400 or $1720 depending on whether 10- or 35-per cent tax applies.

Among the CLC's big-ticket items offered, the $3202/$3930 Comand navigation/audio/phone system must be accompanied by a $570/$700 six-CD stacker, and allows an extra $823/$1010 to be well spent on the Linguatronic voice activation system. And/or you can enjoy 12-speaker, 320W Harman & Kardon surround sound for $1230/$1510, besides quite a few other budget expanding delights.

Garnish to taste, in effect.

MECHANICAL
Although the 1.8-litre four-cylinder supercharged engine is familiar from the superceded 200K Sports Coupe, the CLC has the upgraded edition shared with current C-Class models (more here). Thus the maximum power is 135kW (used to be 120kW), with maximum torque of 250Nm (previously 240Nm). So in spite of the slightly longer (by 109mm) CLC being slightly heavier than the equivalent Sports Coupe (by about 15kg), it has livelier acceleration and shaves a half second from the 0-100km/h time, Mercedes says.

All-round driveability is improved too, with resiliently broad midrange torque thanks to the maximum torque being spread evenly across a diesel-like rev range from 2800-5000rpm. That's to within just 500rpm of where peak power is summoned.

Impressively, the invigorated performance is complemented by about eight per cent reduction in fuel consumption, with the manual rated at 7.8L/100km per, and 8.2 for the automatic.

The CLC is built on the previous (W203) C-Class platform and running gear. Not quite cutting edge perhaps, but still a very capable, well proven foundation.

The front suspension remains a three-link strut system with coil springs and an anti-roll bar, while the rear-end has a multi-link design, again with coils and anti-roll bar. Brakes are generously sized ventilated front discs and solid rear discs.

Although other markets' CLCs kick off on 16-inch wheels, Australia gets 17-inch alloys across the range, albeit with different spokes. Regardless, they each run disparate tyre sizes; 225/45 front and 245/40 rear.

Similarly, the CLC's general specification for Europe continues conventional rack and pinion steering as standard (with speed-sensitive power assistance included). For Australia, only the base 200K is so equipped, with both Evo versions sporting Mercedes' new Direct-Steer system.

While retaining speed-sensitive power assistance, Direct-Steer differs fundamentally in its variable-ratio mechanism which needs noticeably less than 2.5 turns lock to lock. For straight-line stability's sake, the steering remains relatively indirect (slow) when the wheel is within five degrees of straight ahead. Beyond that point the steering ratio quickens by up to 30 per cent (while power assistance subsides), greatly reducing the amount of wheel rotation needed to point the front wheels to significant angles.

Should steering angle exceed 100 degrees, the mechanism maintains the direct ratio while lowering the steering effort to enhance driver comfort. By this means it's very rarely necessary to move one's hands on the wheel in normal driving, even on tightly twisting roads.

PACKAGING
In its overall size and accommodations, the CLC is essentially the Sports Coupe revisited. For instance, the 2715mm wheelbase, 1728mm width and 1406mm height are unchanged. However, longer front and rear overhangs extend the length by 109mm to 4452.

Although you may have to be a trainspotter to detect that the CLC's rear half doesn't simply reproduce the previous themes, it's immediately obvious that everything forward of the windscreen bears no resemblance to the Sports Coupe and is instead visually linked to the C-Class front-end. Even with the CLC's identifying differences, in the under-bumper valance and air intake for example, the bonnet, grille and headlights put the C-Class family connection beyond doubt.

At the other end, new taillights look similar to, but are shallower than the old ones and extend beyond the boot shut-line via partnering lenses on the hatch lid. That's where you'll find an even more telling change. Not necessarily for the better.

What may first catch your eye is that the central high-mounted stop lamp has become an LED strip light below the ridgeline. Look instead to the new all-metal rear panel. The CLC's omission of the former vertical mini-window may seem no big deal from the outside. But from the inside even that little extra depth in field of view may be sorely missed.

In every other respect the cabin is improved with all-new seats, decore, tones and textures, wheel, instrumentation, centre stack, dash panel and centre console. The lot... Apart from the sense of well-built solidity and some generic Merc minor controls, the CLC's furnishings share next to nothing with the C-Class, much less the Sports Coupe.

About all the CLC's cabin inherits is reasonably roomy four-seater accommodation and a good-size boot. As with all such coupes, rear passenger entry and egress isn't without its convolutions. Particularly, if (as happened occasionally during our preview) the front seat/s don't move forward as intended when the backrests are tipped.

Once ensconced however, average-size adults find the rear bench quite tolerably comfortable for extended occupations.
 
Readily accessible via the large rear hatch, the boot offers quite adequate 310-litre capacity with the backrest upright, and the available volume more than trebles with the seat folded.

SAFETY
It's a Mercedes, so first class crash-safety is part and parcel of the CLC's qualities. It goes without saying that the Merc's structural integrity, crash-worthiness and occupant protection far exceed legislated standards.
 
Among the included 'active' driver aids are anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist. There's also electronic stability system incorporating traction control, and a separate warning for loss of tyre pressure.

The CLC's 'passive' armoury provides front airbags with adaptive deployment, side and window airbags front and rear, belt tensioners and force limiters for each seat, adjustable headrests all around, and a crash sensor for the central locking system.

The one glaring shortfall is in direct rear vision, because the outlook through the sloping rear window is exceedingly stunted.

Obvious enough in normal driving, the deficiency sucks when reverse parking. The standard parking sensors are an appreciated band-aid, but certainly don't repeal the strong case for a rear camera.

COMPETITORS
Although three-door, four-seat coupes aren't exactly thick on the ground anywhere across the market, the $50K-$60K price bracket actually fields several contenders that ensure the CLC is at no risk of being Robinson Crusoe.

Alphabetically, the nominees begin with the Alfa Romeo GT JTS priced at $52,990 with manual transmission, or $55,990 with automated sequential Selespeed. Invitingly well equipped, the Alfa's only option is $950 metallic paint. A centre rear (fifth) belt is provided; for kiddies, it may be assumed.

With either transmission the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine offers 121kW power and 206Nm torque. Thus the particularly good handling front-drive chassis has useful performance with 0-100km/h in 8.7sec (claimed). Both versions also rate 8.7L/100km consumption.

The CLC, remember, claims 0-100km/h in 8.6sec, and scores 7.8L/100km as a manual or 8.2L/100km in automatic form.

Although the BMW 1 Series Coupe 125i tends to be overshadowed (in the media, at least) by its more powerful and much costlier twin-turbo 135i stablemate, the naturally aspirated 125i is spunky enough to fight its own battles, thank you. Delivering 160kW and 270Nm, the 3.0-litre straight six can rush from zero to 100km/h in under seven seconds, and use fuel at 8.7L/100km overall.

As usual, BMW makes an art form of options availability and pricing. Prominent among the 125i's selections are $1600 metallic paint, $2750 Active Steering, $2750 sunroof, $1820 Bi-Xenon headlights, $800 sports suspension and $2700/$4200 navigation depending whether or not it comes with Voice Recognition and associated embellishments.

For tangible points of difference, feel free to look beyond Europe's offerings to the acclaimed Mazda RX-8 with its distinctive rear doors, surprisingly functional cabin and addictively zoomy rotary engine. Currently, the lone RX-8 is the manual Anniversary model at $55,840. However, newly face-lifted RX-8s arrive in July with detail improvements, more power (9000rpm rev limit) and new six-speed automatic (replacing the previous four-speed) to complement the six-speed manual.

Or, if you hanker for a swift and fuel efficient CLC diesel, just hold your breath until next January when the 200K is due to be joined by the 110kW/340Nm 220CDI.

ON THE ROAD
Often misunderstood by people who crave sedan or wagon roominess and functionality, coupes, it must be said, have an ambience of their own. Whether in spite, or because, of the trade-off between cabin space and body style, coupes convey a sense of being a bit different, a bit special. And that's as true of the Mercedes CLC as any of its ilk.

Even within the CLC's European family, which extends to 2.5- and 3.5-litre V6 engines, there are coupes with considerably more power and more performance than the 200 Kompressor. But from behind the wheel it's easy to appreciate that the 200K is amply brisk, securely balanced and an all-round good drive.

Apart from constricted rear view, the CLC presents few if any targets for criticism. Alright, the cowl may be a bit higher than short occupants would ideally wish, and purists may grizzle about Merc's inevitable foot-operated park brake.

Far more significantly, the accommodations are visually and physically hospitable, and the driving dynamics are sufficiently broad-based to inflict no undue demands on everyday motoring, yet encourage exploitation when enthusiasm effervesces and winding roads beckon.

At first the Direct-Steer system feels overly responsive, making the car distractingly darty, but it all becomes second nature and wonderfully, um, direct once you're accustomed to its off-centre alacrity and precision. Afterwards, regular steering seems vaguely lazy, needing handful after handful of wheel twirling. 

Aided and abetted by the very incisive steering, the 200K tackles twisty roads with open zeal; handling confidently, braking strongly, understeering moderately, gripping adhesively and carving through corners in fine style.

Importantly, its driving dynamics collectively have an amenable attitude and dextrous balance that foster a sense of mutually complimentary teamwork between the car and driver.

Typically, the only question mark hangs over the ride quality. The preview drive revealed that the CLC's sports suspension is both well disciplined and quite reasonably absorbent. Not intrusively noisy either. On a variety of Austria's roads at least, that is.

Still, that finding may, or may not, be up for review on Australia's generally coarser and frequently rougher surfaces. On the bright side, it's a plausible reason to take the CLC for another run. Any excuse.


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Published : Friday, 2 May 2008
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