Mercedes CLK500

Stand by for action! Mercedes has launched a pre-emptive strike against forth- coming competition in the prestige coup� market with its all-new CLK � and Auto Express is first to drive it in the UK.

With a strong range of engines and stylish looks, the new Merc is an attractive proposition. The range-topping CLK500 also proves impressive to drive. At �43,040, this newcomer isn't cheap, but factor in its lavish equipment levels and superb- ly crafted interior and the huge price almost seems justified.

Stand by for action! Mercedes has launched a pre-emptive strike against forthcoming competition in the prestige coup� market with its all-new CLK � and Auto Express is first to drive it in the UK.

Aimed at the imminent Audi A4 Coup� and BMW's still secret 6-Series, the CLK offers variety and style thanks to a wide engine range and generous helpings of luxury. Driven here is the flagship CLK500. Powered by a thumping 5.0-litre V8, the newcomer will sprint from 0-60mph in only 6.2 seconds and hit a top speed electronically limited to 155mph.

Based on the C-Class's acclaimed rear-drive platform, the CLK certainly makes a favourable impression. Its elegant, swooping roofline meets the sophisticated S-Class inspired front end to create a car that looks smaller than it actually is. Superb rear-end de-tailing and the absence of any B-pillars give the car a flowing appearance.

Inside, the CLK has masses of space, seating four in comfort. The platform's extra length has been put to good use, freeing up generous quantities of rear leg and shoulder room for a coup� � and there's a practical boot, too. Settle behind the wheel and you'll find the seat is low-slung and has a position to suit all sizes.

On our test car, stereo and trip computer settings could be adjusted thanks to four buttons on the steering wheel, meaning that you rarely have to lift your hands off it, leaving you to make the most of the chassis.

Drivers used to the razor-sharp dynamics of a BMW M3 might find the CLK a little lacking in involvement, but that doesn't mean the V8 Merc is short of driver appeal. It grips keenly in bends, and thanks to a rear track that is 10mm wider than the C-Class's, it always feels completely stable. On twistier roads, the CLK needs a firm hand to turn it into tight bends at speed. At first, the light steering leaves you uncertain about grip levels, but as the miles pile on, confidence grows.

A cosseting ride is guaranteed, too, with the suspension capable on both bumpy country roads and motorways. The smooth five-speed gearbox adds to the serenity, swapping cogs seamlessly. Barely a whisper invades the cabin, so well insulated is the interior from wind, road and engine noise.

As you'd expect, standard kit is impressive, with several hi-tech options from the S-Class available. It all adds up to a package that, for the moment at least, sets the standard for rivals to match. Only time will tell if BMW and Audi are up to the challenge...

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