Driving Impressions

Black Tie Racer
Mercedes CLK55 AMG
David Cipolloni & Charles Leonard
Dec 10, 2000


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Photo shoot at Washington Crossing Pa..

The CLK55 AMG has the distinction of being the quickest Mercedes ever sold in America and we are anxious to compare it to the BMW M5. The M5 should arrive in February, until then we move the CLK55 AMG to the top of the hill. Will the M5 be capable of driving the AMG into the sea? I guess we'll have to wait until February to find out. At this point it will take a wave of the engineering magic wand to out gun the big Benz.  The horsepower this car produces will take you quickly to the electronically limited 155 mph, but the torque output of the engine makes the car a tire burning monster.  

Since this Mercedes is not emblazoned with AMG emblems you could easily mistake it for a typical Mercedes CLK 320 or 430. So before you decide to outrun the rich guy or gal at the stoplight with your Mustang it would pay to take a peek at the  trunk lid. If you see the letters AMG on the right side of the trunk lid we suggest you go back to tuning the radio and don't ruin your day.  Before we go on and on about how great the Mercedes is let's just stop for a minute and review some of the negative aspects of the car. To begin with we um................well uh................give us a minute we'll think of something. We'll get back to you later on that one.

The decklid is the only body panel that displays the AMG badge of honor 

Maybe if we are good little boys and girls we will wake up to find one of the 55's under the Weihnachtsbaum, even though the season has technically begun. While we wait and wonder what happened to Sankt Nikolaus we should take a moment to thank Hans for personally assembling the engine in our car. Since every AMG engine is hand assembled we felt it only fitting to test it with our hands, feet and seat of our pants. While the process of building this car may seem cold, calculating and impersonal we can assure you the experience of driving it appeals to all the senses. Regardless if you are looking for a night on the town wearing your black tie, or simply pounding the pavement with a tire smoking 376 lb ft of torque, the Benz will satisfy your appetite. When you think about Mercedes the thought typically is of luxury cars that provide style, comfort, value and a smooth quiet ride. Now combine that with the feeling you get driving a TransAm RamAir with all the finesse of big Detroit iron. 

Great driving in Bucks County Pa

Our 2001 black on charcoalCLK55 AMG has a sticker of $68,045 including the destination and delivery charge of $645. This is the base price of the vehicle with the only options being the CD player with phone, Command navigation system and a ski rack. There are two options on the phone, one offering voice control for hands-free operation. The list of standard equipment is long so don't think the 55 is some stripped down racer.

Yes the 55 is a coupe and only has two doors, but there should be plenty of room in the rear seat for the adults right? When one of our testers activated the "Easy Access" system and jumped in the back seat he let out a scream. When we looked back he appeared "pinned" to the rear seat. Since the front seat was set in the most rearward position the memory system returned it there with little regard for the passenger. Don't buy this car if you plan to carry four adults on a regular basis.  We mentioned earlier we would think about what we "don't" like about the 55, so here goes our second concern: How much does it cost for a CD player? Is it too much to ask to have a CD player as standard equipment in a $68,000 car? Are people buying cassettes anymore? 

Interior receives a thumbs-up for ergonomics

Now that we got that out of our system let's move on to the finer points of the interior. The dual zone climate control works as it should. The instrumentation is typical of Mercedes with little complaint from us. The big LED readout in the lower section of the speedometer is a nice touch. The stereo is easy to use and we were able to master its controls without opening the manual. The stereo is a Bose 8 speaker premium system that emits the quality sound you would expect in a car such as the 55.  

Analog and digital readout for speed

The multi-contour/memory front seats provide enough bolstering without sacrificing comfort. The Birdseye Maple wood trim left us pressing our noses up close to see if there really was a hint of wood grain in there somewhere. While we never really came to a consensus on whether or not we liked the appearance of this dark wood we all agreed that it blended well with the other interior appointments. Other minor points that we like were the self dimming mirrors, heated seats and the steering wheel mounted controls for the phone.  

Pouch for ski's will keep upholstery dry

The rear seat has a center armrest with pullout cupholders and a center pass-through for skis. In addition the center pass-through has an expandable pouch to protect the upholstery from skis that may be wet or have sharp edges. The rear seats are actually bucket seats with a center storage area (visible in picture) so forget about squeezing in that third person. 

Front and side airbags are standard along with the Babysmart Child Seat Recognition system. The overall interior package is impressive and we won't hesitate to rate it among the best. After spending several days in a car you can usually pick up on some design glitches here and there, but that was not the case with the 55. Sometimes you get what you pay for and in this case it's nice to know that an excellent interior resides inside the quickest Mercedes around. 

342 bhp AMG 5.5 liter V8

Engine and Gearbox
Power comes from a
5.5 liter, 24-valve, aluminum V-8 with Twin Spark ignition. The hand built package cranks out 342 Horsepower at 5,500 rpm's while producing 376 lb-ft of Torque at 3,000 rpm's. What really makes this work well in the car is the 5 speed automatic transmission. The extra gear enables the engine to stay in the power-band as the transmission changes gears. This produces a seamless flow of power that helps put the 55 at the head of the Mercedes class when speed is the determining factor. With a 67 Horsepower and one gear advantage over the CLK 430 the AMG will claw its way to 60 mph in just around 5 seconds. Slipping the AMG built 5.5 liter under the hood necessitated upgrades not only in the transmission but also in the differential and driveshaft. The driveshaft diameter was increased and the differential housing and internals were reinforced to handle the load. 

Since the OHC V-8 produces its 376 lb-ft of torque at a low 3,000 rpm's the 3,400 pound Benz feels powerful right off the line. Sometimes there is just no substitution for displacement and torque output. The engine is managed by the Bosch Motronic ME 2.0 sequential multi-port fuel injection system utilizing two high energy ignition coils and spark plugs per cylinder. The engine castings are aluminum and utilize Silitec technology on the cylinder liners to reduce friction and wear while increasing engine speed. The throttle is operated electronically and feeds air into a two stage magnesium intake manifold that helps maintain air velocity through the induction system at all engine speeds. Intake manifold design of late has helped manufacturers of newer vehicles increase power output from the engine without sacrificing much in the way of fuel economy. While the naturally aspirated system must rely on atmospheric pressure, as always, the intake runner design does allow the air velocity to remain high. While this will not charge the cylinders in the way a turbocharger or supercharger will it does optimize the amount of air that enters the combustion chamber and in return increases power output of the engine. While this information may not interest everyone there is no mistaking the benefits when the driver pushes the accelerator to the wide-open position. Figuratively speaking of course since the throttle is controlled by a little motor taking information from one of the black boxes. Some of the newer vehicles have this system and we tend to like it since the driver can listen to the engine and actually hear the management system make changes, sometimes not directly related to the position of the accelerator. Remember the days when you needed to look at the tachometer to closely regulate your shift points? Not to mention the possibility of sending the connecting rods through the side of the block. 

Look close to see AMG markings  (L).  Why hide the good stuff (R)

Driving Impression
From a standstill you press the throttle all the way to the floor, the 55 smokes the tires briefly as you are pressed back into the Multicontour seats. First gear comes and goes at the 6,000 rpm red-line, as does second gear, things are happening faster now and all attention is on the track ahead. The shift into third gear comes quickly as vehicle speed builds and the surroundings begin to blur in your peripheral vision. Before you reach the rev-limiter in third gear there is a good chance beads of sweat may begin to form on your forehead. This car requires your full attention because it's so fast. What leaves you almost speechless is the way in which the car handles the speed it can produce. Think you might be in a little trouble sometimes? Nope, the big Benz is there to save the day. This is not to say that you can not get yourself into trouble with this car, because you certainly could and it wouldn't take long. 

Of all the things we can say about the car there is one that delights the senses each and every time. It's the music that the car produces. No, not the music from the stereo, while good it can not compare to the music from the engine.  The Bach of exhaust notes captures the true essence of the car and goes a long way in reducing the average fuel economy each time you press the accelerator a little further in an effort to raise the volume. Without the Electronic Stability Program (ESP) activated it becomes a little easier to turn the Michelin's into their more viscous state, leaving a trail of smoke and spent rubber in your path.

Plenty of storage space for those weekend getaways 

The ride the 55 produces tends to be on the firm side without being offensive. While one tester felt the ride could be a little softer we were in agreement the car was setup appropriately for its intended use. The steering was smooth and precise, permitting the driver to handle most corners without the need for a correction or two along the way. Steering the Benz is sort of like putting icing on a cake, it stays where you put it and goes on smoothly. The ESP pretty much keeps things in check and allows you to drive the car pretty close to its limits. If you're looking to hang the tail out simply deactivate the ESP, which turns off the traction control, allowing you to use the engines torque to slide the back end out while using the steering to snap the car back in line. 

Upgraded brakes with larger diameter rotors and twin piston calipers provide all the stopping power the Benz will need. After several high speed stops there was no brake fade evident and the ABS system worked flawlessly in providing short, straight stops each time we stomped the system into action. The wheels are noticeably different than those found on the CLK 430. The front wheels are 7.5 inches wide and the rear wheels are 8.0 inches wide. While the wheels look good we felt the AMG could make a slightly bolder statement in this department. The Michelin's on the front are 225/45 while the larger rear wheels carry the 245/40's.

Overall we rate the driving experience excellent and would have no trouble recommending the car to those looking for a luxury coupe with the performance of a muscle car. Mercedes used the old C class platform for this car but they packed in enough performance goodies to ensure the car would perform at a much higher level than the current C class offerings. We should probably compare the car to BMW's M3 but felt this car appeals to a different buyer, one that could more likely resemble the buyer of the BMW M5, so we will use that car for our comparison when it arrives even though it has four doors. We would like to relate to the readers the exhaust music this car produces but the only way we can do that is to compare it to a car we see on a regular basis at CART events. The car is the Lexus GS400 that CART has modified and uses as one of the promo vehicles to give celebrities rides around the various tracks. If you have noticed this car at one of the CART races and recall what it sounded like you will have a good idea of the music the CLK55 produces from its modified V-8. 


Indicators are nice touch (L).  Hill climbs are no problem with 376 lb-ft of torque (R)

Stuff We Liked:

  • Engine response at all speeds

  • Neutral handling and steering

  • Firm Multicontour seats

  • Exhaust note

  • Only about 200 currently in USA (500 to be built)

  • Xenon headlamps

  • 5 speed Touch Shift automatic transmission

  • Electronic Stability Program (ESP)

  • Tele Aid emergency communication system

  • Quickest Benz in the USA 

  • At home on the track as well as black tie affairs

  • Dual zone climate control with dust filter

  • Rain sensor wipers

  • Front and door mounted air bags

  • It's FAST

  • 24mpg hwy....17mpg city

  • Won't need to leave the kids or luggage home

  • Sleeper appearance

Stuff We Didn't Like:

  • Birdseye maple interior trim (split decision by our team)

  • Why no CD player in a $68,000 car?

  • Limited rear seat room

  • Should have distinctive wheels

  Technical Specs  

Vehicle emission control information (L).  The big M in its element (R)


Type..........V-8 OHC, aluminum block and heads
Displacement..........5.5 liters
Compression Ratio.......10.5:1
Engine-control system..........Bosch Motronic ME2.0
Emissions controls..........3-way catalytic converters, feedback air-fuel-ratio control
Power (SAE net)..........342 bhp @ 5500 rpm
Torque (SAE net)..........376 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm
Redline..........6000 rpm
Fuel Requirement..........91 octane

Transmission..........5-speed Touch Shift automatic with lockup torque converter
Final drive ratio......2.82:1

Wheelbase..........105.9 in
Length..........180.2 in
Width..........67.8 in
Height..........54.0 in
Curb weight..........3573 lb
Fuel capacity..........62 liters
Coefficient of drag.......0.31

Front headroom..........36.9 in
Rear headroom..........35.8 in
Front legroom..........41.9 in
Rear legroom..........31.2 in
Cabin capacity..........80.7 cu ft

Front:..........Independent double wishbone with triangular lower control arms, antidive geometry and stabilizer bar. Separate gas-pressurized shock absorbers and coil springs.
Rear:..........Suspension Independent 5-arm multilink with geometry for antilift, antisquat and alignment control and stabilizer bar. Separate gas-pressurized shock absorbers and coil springs.

Type..........Recirculating-ball with power assist and integral hydraulic damper. Turning circle: 35.2ft/10.7m curb-to-curb.
Lock-to-lock.......3.2 turns

AMG 4-wheel ventilated disc, 2-piece front rotors.

Wheel size..........F: 7.5 x 17 in, R: 8.0 x 17 in
Wheel type..........monoblock aluminum
Tires..........Front: P225/45ZR17
                 Rear: P245/40ZR17

Zero to 60 mph..........5.0
Top speed (electronically limited)..........155 mph

EPA city driving..........17 mpg
EPA highway driving..........24 mpg


Wheels should be more distinctive (L).  No complaints here (R)

Note: All Photos copyright AutoRacing1.com and Dave Cipolloni

Comments can be sent to the author at contacts@autoracing1.com.

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