People say you should never meet your childhood heroes, but those people probably have never driven a Mercedes Benz CLK63 AMG Black Series. I remember seeing this car in magazines and on motoring TV shows growing up and thinking it was just the coolest thing ever. It looked like no other Mercedes before it, especially with those flared wheel arches.
I should point out now that growing up, I was a huge Mercedes fan. It all started with a 1/18 model SL (R129) roadster I received one Christmas. And that passion blossomed even more when I got a 1/18 model of a CLK GTR. I had no idea what the CLK GTR was at the time nor its significance at Le Mans. I just knew it looked cool and the doors went up. This started in my irrational love for the CLK model because to me, at the time, I saw no difference between the CLK320 and CLK GTR – they both had the same quad headlights.
The CLK was my favorite Mercedes model growing up, especially the AMG versions. When the second generation was released with the 5.4 liter naturally-aspirated V8 engine, I was smitten. It was right up there with the Aston Martin DB9 as one of my dream cars as a kid. Then the CLK DTM happened and boy oh boy did that car come at the right time. It was just when the whole Fast and Furious/Need For Speed Underground phase hit the scene, and the DTM looked like a factory built Fast and Furious spec CLK. I loved it.
Then we get on to the Black Series.
Unlike the CLK DTM, which was essentially a race car that was converted for road use, the Black Series took inspiration from the F1 pace cars at the time in the same way the SLK55 Black Series did before it. Essentially, the CLK Black Series is the regular CLK63 with the straitjacket removed.
AMG’s Skunkworks Division took the brutal but blunt standard CLK63 AMG Coupe and poked it with a stick. Only 500 were ever made, of which 350 were destined for the US market. The bodywork is beefed up to accommodate the wider track (2.95 inches at the front, 2.60 inches at the rear), there are new lightweight wheels, more carbon fiber parts, the rear seats are gone, there’s a massive sway bar in the trunk making it less practical, and now there’s a limited-slip differential to make it more of a serious Porsche GT3 rival. The result of all this is the car still weighs the same 3900 lbs as the base CLK63. Which, if you ask me, is too much.
But, and this is a big big but, the glorious 6.2-liter naturally aspirated M156 V8 engine has been bumped up to produce 500hp and 465 lb-ft of torque, 80% of which is available from as low as 2000RPM. This engine is utterly phenomenal, and one that’ll go down in history as one of the best.
In this application, all you get are the actual engine and exhaust noises. This was from a time before artificial pops and cracks were all the rage. Instead, you get to experience the raw noises from this wonderfully charismatic motor. Just wringing it out over its entire rev range and hearing that V8 roar until the gauge cluster flashes red telling you to start the process again was something I thoroughly enjoyed on several occasions.
So how did the opportunity arise for me to live with a CLK63 AMG Black Series for a couple months? I was just looking after it for a friend while he’s overseas during these strange times we live in today. I know, I’m such a selfless person. A friend in Japan and I actually sourced the car for him, and we’re just looking after it until he can come and collect the car himself once Japan’s strict COVID-19 travel restrictions are lifted.
Mercedes-Benz Japan never officially imported the CLK63 AMG Black Series here. The first official Black Series model available to Japanese customers was the SL65. The prior owner of this black CLK Black imported the car in 2008 from California when the original owner sold it after just 4 months of ownership. This car still comes with all the pamphlets and literature from the California dealer, and there’s even an application form for the Mercedes Benz USA Owner’s Club. As this is a US-spec car, it doesn’t have the tighter and racier bucket seats found on the European spec cars nor the carbon fiber door cards, of which all are not a problem for the car’s current owner.
The car was ready for pick up from the dealer, and it’s gone into hibernation now to avoid raking in the miles. But during the few months we had with it, I was able to get to know the CLK Black much better than most of the cars I get to experience. Living with a car for an extended period of time really helps you develop a bond and understanding, much more so than getting a press car for a week or so.
First off, the CLK Black isn’t as uncomfortable as people make it out to be. Sure, it’s firm but you have to appreciate it for what it is – a hardcore version of a soft GT car. The chassis is stiff and the ride is firm but not unforgiving. I’m not saying it’s a great long distance cruiser – it isn’t. I think the most I’d drive in this car is a 2-hour drive each way. Any longer and your bum will start to get quite sore. In the city, with the automatic gearbox set to Comfort, it feels like a Mercedes. It’s easy to drive because the visibility is great since older cars tend to have larger windows and also because it’s a normal torque converter auto which is absolutely easy to use.
The interior is just like that of a regular Mercedes so it’s spacious and practical. The rear seats may be gone, but now you’ve got acres of storage space behind the front seats. Since all four windows come down and you get a pillar-less effect, it’s easy to get things in and out of there. The front seats don’t fold forward though which can be quite annoying if you have large bags.
The trunk is the same size as the regular CLK with the exception of the sway bar. Nevertheless you can still fit some golf bags in there if you wanted to.
Take it out of the city, off the motorway and on to some proper roads, the CLK Black really comes to life. I didn’t want to go too far in the Black, so I went back to the roads around Lake Okutama where I took a manual Aston Martin Vantage earlier this year. I figured since both are quite similar on paper, it’d be a good benchmark to have. Both are 500hp, rear-wheel drive, two door coupes with AMG engines. I knew the Vantage performed well on this road, so I figured the CLK Black would too.
What I wasn’t expecting was just how good it would be. Alright, it’s not super pin sharp. The steering is heavy but rather vague. I mean, it’s unnecessarily heavy without giving you much feedback. You can’t quite tell what the front wheels are doing at any given time, but you can certainly feel what the rear wheels are doing. I should also point out I wasn’t going 100% with this car as the tires are still the original ones it came out of the factory with. So yeah, suffice it to say, I was treading carefully on these somewhat damp roads in a car which is prone to oversteer and which wasn’t mine.
That said, the CLK Black’s handling, when you’re not being a complete idiot, was well composed. Sure, get a bit excited with the throttle on exit and all those torques will spin the rear wheels; but if you’re aware of that and don’t go ham with the throttle, it’s all very neutral. The turn in was the most surprising thing – it was more sports car than I was expecting. This CLK was planted and had the sensation that it actually wanted to go around tight and twisty roads. I can understand why then AMG boss Tobias Moers proclaimed the CLK Black the most complete AMG product they have ever made.
The biggest let down for me, like many others who’ve driven the CLK Black, is indeed the gearbox. The 7G Speedtronic automatic gearbox is a far cry from today’s super quick shifting dual-clutch and ZF boxes. Even at the time, it wasn’t what you’d consider the sportiest gearboxes on the market, but it did its job.
There are three modes to choose from – C, S, and M. C and S are for when you leave it to its own devices, and M is for manual mode. Oddly enough, you can manually change the gear using the special stubby gearstick by hitting it left to downshift and hitting it right for upshifts. I’ve never used them but instead just relied on the steering wheel mounted paddles.
I’ll just come out and say it – the gear changes aren’t quick. It doesn’t matter if you’re going up a gear or going down a gear. They happen at a glacial pace. It’s fine in automatic because you expect it to be lazy. It’s not a problem around town or cruising on the motorway; but when you’re on a fun road like this, it can get quite frustrating not getting the gear you want when you want it. Worst of all, the downshifts can be quite lazy and jerky at the same time. However, I have discovered if you manually blip the throttle after hitting the left paddle, it does make the downshifts smoother and quicker, not to mention getting to hear the exhaust burble a little bit more too.
So that’s the CLK Black Series. I had no idea what to expect from it, but I didn’t think I’d like it even more after driving it. That’s always a risk when you build up this image or expectation of a car growing up that it won’t live up to what you imagined it’d be. The CLK Black Series was one of those cars I had put on such a tall pedestal as a kid, I just didn’t think it’d live up to the hype. I’m so glad I got to try one out and live with it for a couple months and am even happier that it went above and beyond my expectations. Sure, the gearbox isn’t great but neither were many at that time. It was less offensive than BMW’s SMG gearbox.
But it’s the engine, those stunning looks, and the massive fun factor that are the biggest draw to this car. I can’t think of many other cars I’d have in this price range. They’re a great buy now for under $100,000, in my opinion. Now is definitely the time to buy what will certainly be remembered as one of the best and defining moments of AMG’s history.
Ken Saito is a Guest Writer specializing in Automobiles who resides in Japan. With a B.A. majoring in Media Studies with minors in Asian Studies and History from Victoria University in New Zealand, Ken has contributed to motoring websites like DriveLive New Zealand, CarsOfTokyo (Japan), Jalopnik (USA) and Petrolicious (USA), as well as magazines like Lords Magazine (France) and Automobile (USA).
Ken may be one of the few people to have been ‘canyon carving’ in a Cadillac SUV against a Ferrari F40…