CLK55 AMG CabrioletIn my yuppie South Orange County, Calif., suburb, luxury cars are the norm, not the exception. Then again, Mercedes' ultrabeefy, super-tuned CLK55 isn't the norm, either. The CLK's slick physique graced my driveway the Tuesday before Valentine's Day. My husband and I both agreed it would be our gift to one another, even if it was just on loan. In typical SoCal fashion, we dropped the top-regardless of the brisk February air-and rolled to the corner Starbucks. With vanilla lattes carefully stowed and the heated leather seats turned on, we opened her up.
On wide boulevards the car is blazingly fast, as any car that can boast five-second zero-to-60 times should be. We quickly rocketed into the triple digits, without intending to. You can only tell you're going that fast by looking at passing objects, which look like they came out of a Monet landscape, as you zoom past in a blur. Inside, my hair danced but the car stayed silent and solid.
Given the CLK's outwardly graceful appearance and reputation as the hairdresser's car, I didn't expect it do be so powerful. Only the dual twin exhaust pipes, subtle AMG badging and aerodynamic bodywork hint at what lies under the hood. Although one male staffer scoffed at the power, calling it "sissy," this was the only car in the fleet I felt totally comfortable with. This "sissy" car provides ample power (362 bhp and 376 lb-ft of torque to be exact) without going overboard or giving me that I-could-wrap-this-around-a-tree feeling.
The next day was our photo shoot, which was really nothing more than an excuse to take the AMG fleet on the freeway and through desert back roads. At highway speeds, the car never ran out of go. I found I could pass cars in mere seconds and close gaps whenever I was afforded such luxury. On the back roads the car nimbly navigated turns, potholes and areas where the road had been completely washed out from the recent storms. And while I'd like to brush this under the rug, the brakes also work flawlessly, with the AMG composite six-piston calipers chomping down on 13.4-inch perforated and internally ventilated front discs. Once, on a long, straight section of desolate road, a dog suddenly appeared in my path. Thanks to AMG's massive stoppers I was able to avoid it and stay not only on the road but also in M-B's good graces. This incident further illustrated M-B's precision craftsmanship and tuning prowess.
While I took my rounds in each of the six offerings, I found myself always come back to this one. Maybe it was because the guys said the car fit me, or maybe it was because it felt so natural to have the top back and the sunshine on my face (wearing a wool coat with the heater on full blast). One thing is certain: Sometimes it feels damn good to be the exception. -Melissa Rausch
SLK55 AMGWhen it was first introduced, the SLK was sporty in a sorta-kinda way, but by most accounts it wasn't a sports car in the truest sense. It gained a little ground when the engineers finally dropped a V6 into the SLK350. With 3.5 liters and six cylinders it became really fast, and despite the persistent stigma of being regarded as a trophy wife's car it was a lot of fun to drive in the visceral sense. Having considered this, the SLK55 AMG doesn't push the performance envelope. Rather, it snatches the envelope up, runs it through the shredder, lights the scraps on fire and gloatingly takes a leak on the smoldering remains.
Through the years I've been lucky enough to sneak behind the wheel of a handful of truly fast cars, but none with an appearance and power delivery so strikingly incongruous as that of the SLK55. I constantly found myself trying not to do a burnout instead of the other way around. Dip into the gas at freeway speeds and the little roadster will walk on surrounding traffic as though everyone else suddenly stopped moving. It just doesn't seem right. Along with dizzying surges of adrenaline, I found uncontrollable, maniacal laughter to be a completely natural side effect of the driving experience.
My favorite detail was the engine's intimidating wail from half throttle all the way up. The sounds that come out of the engine bay and exhaust pipes are simply ungodly; no car as cutesy as this should make noises like that. And despite the urgency of acceleration, it doesn't feel as horrifically scarifying as, say, the twin-turbo SL65 or the brutish, supercharged E55. The naturally aspirated powerplant feels firmly rooted in reality with a powerband that's strong, linear and predictable.
The interior is as good as you'd expect a top-tier Mercedes-Benz to have: comfortable, solid and elegant. Despite the SLK's diminutive size, even individuals taller than six feet will slip right in. Wind noise becomes a small factor at high speeds, but by then you'll be seriously breaking the law and should have other things to worry about-self preservation chief among them. Picky types might wish for a manual transmission, but with this much power on tap the automatic could save more clueless people from destroying their forward gears or other expensive drivetrain bits.
This car is so much fun it's inconceivable most will end up cruising metropolitan boulevards and freeways at rush-hour speeds, driven by latte-sipping, cell-phone-yacking socialites more obsessed with the AMG badging than the machinery beneath or its capabilities. While it's not quite as disgusting as either the AMG E or SL platforms, the SLK55 has got at least one of its oversized 18-inch wheels firmly planted in the supercar realm. -Karl Funke