Hood fellas

Hood fellas – Launch report special new soft tops: Mercedes CLK Cabriolet & Ford StreetKa

Natalie Wallis

Once the preserve of the rich and famous, the cabriolet is an example of how all things automobile come to those who wait. These days, open-top motoring caters for all tastes and budgets. Over the next few months we will see some new faces–the 307cc, Beetle Convertible and the C3 Pluriel–and some revised ones–the 3 Series Cabriolet (see Launch Report, P25), and the Megane Coupe.

Two models that have just been launched and cater for different ends of the market are the hip and trendy Ford StreetKa and the classical Mercedes CLK-Class Cabriolet.

Providing the ultimate in classic open-top motoring without any of the accompanying hardships, the Mercedes CLK-Class is the cabriolet for those who don’t want to skimp on comfort or quality. Initially launched back in 1998, the new CLK Cabriolet features a design based on the latest Coupe with a revised soft top. As you would expect from Mercedes, there is no DIY involved here; the fully automatic soft top can be opened and closed by button or remote control. And don’t worry about noise; its multi-layer insulating fabric construction is said to ensure best-in-class interior sound levels.

Interior dimensions have also been revised for comfort, accommodating four people easily. Improved access to the rear means you needn’t be expert at limbo dancing, while the separate bucket-style rear seats provide an amply snug fit. Meanwhile the electronic seat controls in the front adjust in every which way for a truly tailored seating experience. There’s even helpful seatbelt feeders to save the aggravation of having to twist round. And you needn’t lose out on bootspace either–Mercedes claims the 390 litres of the CLK to be class leading and assures that, with the roof up, you can fit two sets of golf clubs in there.

Two trim levels are available–Elegance and Avantgarde; the wood veneer on the Elegance is a bit garish while the Avantgarde’s understated aluminium looks much more tasteful.

CLK Cabriolet drivers don’t have to worry about safety either. In addition to a reinforced body structure, sensor-controlled rollover bars activate within milliseconds in an accident situation. Also standard are head/thorax airbags, adaptive front airbags, belt tensioners and belt force limiters. Equipment details are still being finalised but standard kit includes auto climate control, headlamp assist, rain-sensing windscreen wipers, cruise control with Speedtronic and leather-covered multifunction steering wheel.

A number of new engines means that CLK drivers are offered a choice of five units; the 163bhp supercharged CLK 200 Kompressor; the 170bhp V6 CLK 240; the existing 218bhp V6 of the CLK 320; the 306bhp V8 CLK 500, and the awesome CLK 55 AMG with its 367bhp V8. A diesel is conspicuous by its absence but Mercedes hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a diesel option.

Of the five models, I tested all bar the CLK 320 and found the entry-level 200K required plenty of use of the six-speed manual box to get a sporting performance. The 240, expected to be the most popular, has my money as it provides effortless driving with more than ample power.

However, cruising in the 240 would be even more relaxed if it was fitted with Mercedes’ exemplary five-speed auto. Alas this only comes as standard from the CLK 320 upwards and is used to good effect on the sublimely powerful CLK 500.

In a class of its own is the CLK 55 AMG. With its beautifully throaty V8, this throws out more power than you could wish for on any normal road while its razor-sharp steering and hard-line suspension provide a firmer take on comfortable cruising.

Of course, a Mercedes CLK-Class may not fit into every company car driver’s budget. But do not despair–there are a growing number of cheaper convertible options available including the new Ford StreetKa.

Perhaps most famous for its association with Kylie Minogue, the StreetKa has been designed by Ford to be easy to buy, easy to insure and easy to service, as well as being fun to drive for novices.

In its quest, Ford has rather nattily managed to cut a few corners when it comes to production. A joint engineering team was established with Pininfarina to take advantage of the North Italian sports specialist’s capabilities for low-volume production–only 6000 StreetKas will be built for the UK a year. And using the platform of the pre-existing Ka also gave designers a head start although a number of amends to suspension, steering and brakes have provided sportier handling.

A bit like Kylie herself, the Ka’s youthful cuteness has been reformed into something a little more exotic. With its prominent rollover hoops, the curvaceous StreetKa has been compared to the Audi TT on more than one occasion. And, also like the Aussie starlet, it boasts a rather shapely rear.

Conversely, the interior is not so well designed. An abundance of design elements from the Ka and other models mean it all looks a bit too familiar and … well … a bit too Ford. Some of the materials used feel a touch on the cheap side as well. It suffices but doesn’t excel.

The same could be said for interior space. There is plenty of room for the passenger but things get more cramped when it comes to the driver. The very tall will also suffer. And don’t expect much boot space either; there is room for a couple of overnight bags but that’s about it! Such is the price you pay for the folding hood, which itself is a bit laborious to use although the mechanism works well.

Two trim levels are offered: the standard 12,495 [pounds sterling] StreetKa–with ABS, driver and passenger airbags, 16in alloys, front fogs and CD–and the 13,745 [pounds sterling] StreetKa Luxury which adds heated leather seats, and air-conditioning.

Just one engine is available: Ford’s Duratec 1.6-litre petrol unit. Unfortunately its 96bhp of power is soaked up in the StreetKa due to heavy structural reinforcement. You need to really work it to get any kind of spirited, albeit short-lived, performance from it. This means that power is limited on the open roads.

Indeed on the winding test route at the launch, I hesitated on several occasions when overtaking as I doubted the car’s power. And though firm, precise steering with virtually no understeer makes for a solid feeling, the chassis is still quite soft sprung. It’s a case of the engine is willing but the body is weak.

For this reason, I think the StreetKa will fare well where looks and general funkiness are more de rigueur than performance, and where its low insurance group of 7A and fuel economy of 35.8mpg will be most appreciated.

When it comes to buying a cabriolet, it seems that lack of budget need not cramp your style. In fact the only thing that might is the good old British weather. Thank God, these two cars look pretty stunning with their hoods up too!

DRIVER’S LOG: CLK CABRIOLET

OTR PRICES: To be confirmed

ENGINES: 1796cc four-cylinder, 2597cc V6, 3199cc V6, 4966cc V8 and 5439cc V8 petrol units

TRANSMISSIONS: CLK 200 Kompressor; CLK 240, CLK 320: six-speed manual (optional five-speed auto). Rest of the range: five-speed auto

POWER: CLK 240: 170bhp @ 5500rpm

TORQUE: CLK 240: 240Nm @ 4500rpm

C[O.sub.2] RATINGS: To be confirmed

OFFICIAL COMBINED: 25.9mpg (manual)

INSURANCE GROUPS: To be confirmed

ON SALE: June

DRIVER’S LOG: STREETKA

OTR PRICE: Standard model: 12,495 [pounds sterling]; Luxury: 13,475 [pounds sterling]

ENGINES: 1597cc 8V SOHC

TRANSMISSIONS: Five-speed manual

POWER: 96bhp @ 5500rpm

TORQUE: 135Nm @ 4250rpm

C[O.sub.2] RATINGS: 191g/km

OFFICIAL COMBINED: 35.8mpg

INSURANCE GROUPS: 7A

ON SALE: Now

A Sporting Achievement

As well as launching the StreetKa, Ford has made another addition to the Ka family: the SportKa.

As the name suggests, the newcomer is intended to provide the “sporty performer” within the Ka range. In looks, it marries up the Streetka’s styling with the Ka’s hatchback body. However, it is lower and sleeker than the Ka, with an exaggerated front bumper and flared wheelarches.

The interior is again very StreetKa although there are some differences, body-hugging sports seats for one, which are accented with Ford’s traditional motorsport blue and are offered with optional leather upholstery.

To assure more sporting performance, the SportKa is built on a modified Ka chassis that has been tuned to optimise the steering and handling dynamics and is equipped with the same 1.6-litre Duratec unit as the StreetKa.

In the SportKa’s lighter body this unit packs a greater punch, making for more fun on the twisties. Meanwhile on the straight, this results in a 0-62 time of 9.7s compared to the StreetKa’s 12, 1s.

OK, so this may not put it up there with the best of the hot hatches, but it certainly is fun and provides a much-needed if a little belated, sporty option in the Ka line-up.

COPYRIGHT 2003 DMG World Media Ltd.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group