The vast model lineup from Mercedes-Benz ensures that one of its cars will suit just about anyone's needs, but the 2008 Mercedes-Benz CLK550 Cabriolet fits a very narrow niche. The CLK550 is a coupe, offered as a convertible or hardtop. With the convertible version, which we reviewed, trunk room is so limited that a couple would need to use the back seats for luggage during a weekend getaway. Four people can fit in relative comfort, but forget bringing anything else. The car is fast and handles well, but its bland looks won't appeal to most sport drivers. It would make a very comfortable commute car, but the weekly gas bill would be on the high side.
Its cabin electronics are all a generation old, with such quirks as a glovebox-mounted cartridge-style six-CD changer. At least it didn't have a cassette deck, as we recently saw on the Acura TL Type-S. We're not fans of the tech interface, which uses a washed-out blue color scheme and a fiddly joystick, and hope that this model will soon be updated with the interface we saw in the less expensive Mercedes-Benz C300. But the bland exterior and the poor tech interface aside, the CLK550 has a very comfortable cabin and can be an exciting car to drive.
Test the tech: Navigation versus local knowledge
Navigation systems determine routes based on what the digital-map makers mark as the best roads to get through an area, usually giving priority to freeways and highways. We tested the navigation system in the CLK550 by choosing a couple of destinations around San Francisco, setting the route guidance, and seeing how far off it wanted to go from our local knowledge of the best way to get through the city.
For our first test, we set a course from CNET headquarters, in the downtown area, to the Golden Gate Bridge. Luckily, it was a sunny and reasonably warm day, so we put the top down. Even if a car doesn't look like much from the outside, a convertible top makes everyone else around envious, and ups the driving fun, even if you are just cruising.
Our first argument with the navigation system came when it wanted us to turn off Howard Street and go up Third, which would have taken us through the congested heart of downtown San Francisco. We ignored that direction, and the navigation system quietly recalculated the route. The CLK550 easily jockeyed around the light traffic on Howard, and its big 5.5-liter engine let us leave the slowpokes behind. Although the navigation system wanted us to continue down Howard, we took a right on Seventh Street, which would become McAllister Street in a few blocks, taking us through the city's Civic Center. While the navigation system would have avoided this area, we had always found that traffic moved reasonable fast.
The navigation system advised us to take a right onto Van Ness, but that would have been suicide. We understood its reasoning--Van Ness is also Highway 101. But we locals know that the one-way Franklin Street, paralleling Van Ness one block over, is the faster way to go. Even as we ignored the Van Ness turn, heading to Franklin, the navigation system wanted us to go past our preferred route, but we took the turn onto Franklin anyway. Once it recalculated based on our current route, we had no more disagreements all the way to the bridge. Our total for this run was four arguments with the navigation system.
We took a subsequent run from the San Francisco Zoo, way out on the southwestern corner of the city, back to CNET headquarters. For that run, we agreed with the navigation system for most of the trip, until it suggested we take Market Street all the way through downtown, a tedious route that would have taken us just short of forever. Instead, we chose to hop down 11th Street into the faster-moving South of Market area. For this run, we only had two disagreements with the navigation system.
In the cabin
One of the pleasures of driving the CLK550 on our various road tests was the sheer comfort of the cabin. The black leather, plastics, and wood trim all blended in together smoothly while the white face over the instrument cluster gave the car a performance look. The power top goes up and down fairly quickly at the push of a button on the center console. And our tester came with the Driver Multicontour Seat, which uses air chambers in the seat bolsters and back to let you dial in the perfect seat shape. Of course, sunny days and a convertible helped our enjoyment of the car immensely.
On the downside, the 2008 CLK550 uses the same electronics that Mercedes-Benz is starting to phase out, the cheaper version of its COMAND system. The car comes with a difficult and ugly interface for navigation and audio that you control through a push-button/joystick and soft buttons along the sides of the bezel. The function of these soft buttons changes depending on which application you are using, and it's often difficult to determine if you should be pushing a button or using the joystick.