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The Brave Pill: Mercedes CLK 55 AMG

There's a star on the front, an AMG badge on the back and a 350hp V8 between them. Get it bought!

By Mike Duff / Sunday, February 24, 2019

PH recently moved into a gleaming new corporate office which is far too nice for us. It's clean, modern, has a view of something other than air conditioning units and - in the parts we don't occupy - seems to be largely populated by the sort of wholesome millennials who get cast in adverts for Apple products. Which perhaps explains our greater-than-normal zeal to keep things real, and not just through the continued purchase of the sort of budget biscuits made from stale offcuts of better-known brands.

Despite the glitzy new HQ our collective love for automotive bargains is undiminished, especially when it comes to the sort of faded stars which would be marked with higher and redder numbers on a financial product's risk-to-reward scale. This is an attempt to find some well-chosen examples for your delight, delectation and possibly virulent disagreement. An attempt that - after several seconds of thought - has been dubbed the Brave Pill (though we toyed with 'Hit or Money Pit', 'PH Risky Business' and, of course, 'Monkey Tennis'). Depending on your collective reaction it will run either regularly, or once.

We've decided to start with something obvious. Jaws will be undropped and mouthfuls of tea unspat at the decision to kick things off with a big-engined Mercedes. Supply and demand has stacked this part of the market heavily when it comes to Stuttgart's one-time finest, with a plentitude of both long-lived brawny Benzes and scary stories of wallet-melting bills to send normal buyers sprinting for the hills like boring, sensible cowards. Or, to summarize, this is what a five-grand AMG looks like.

It's a proper AMG, too - an honest-looking W-reg C208 CLK 55 which seems to have worn the best part of two decades well and which has an appropriately muscular V8 at the sharp end. Cheaper AMGs do turn up - usually the unloved W202 C-Class in either six-cylinder 36 or baby V8 43 guises - but the CLK features the full fat 5.4-litre version of the mighty M113 V8, meaning 347hp, get-thee-gone torque and performance that is still impressive nearly 20 years later. It also boasts a soundtrack bristly enough to need two shaves a day.

Yet, by the standards of elderly AMGs, there's a degree of sensibleness in our selection, too. The whole point is that - like a pestering mate - we want you to swallow the brave pill. The 55 comes from before Mercedes started filling its most expensive models with failure-prone technology, the borking of which often serves to turn more recent examples into shiny bricks. As such, the C208 doesn't have air suspension or the Sensotronic Brake Control system which checks out after a set number of cycles.

Let's not go overboard here, the CLK definitely isn't a product of Merc's bank-vault-build-quality era. By the late 1990s the brand's engineers were cutting more corners than a groundsman at the Nordschliefe, and the CLK's origins are considerably more humble than its front-end styling suggests. Design aped the quad headlight look of the contemporary W210 E-Class, with a similar rear light treatment too, while underneath the Coupe sat on the humbler and older underpinnings of the first-gen C-Class. On the plus side, it did get most of the E's nicer-feeling interior, with this car having been either specified - or retrofitted - with what must have been a state-of-the-art COMAND infotainment system.

Dynamic sophistication will be limited. The CLK is definitely from the era of road going AMG products that lived life one - preferably smooth - straight at a time. I'm just old enough to have driven a press car when new, my abiding memories are the frantic strobing of the yellow stability control light that sits in the middle of the instrument pack when trying to unleash the V8 on a bumpy road - and steering that mumbled feedback.

If you're looking for an M3 rival then keep walking, and keep saving. The CLK 55 is about as undercover as it is possible to be, barely distinguishable from the lesser CLK500 or even the four-cylinder 230 Kompressor. This was before Merc's designers found the keys to the steroid cupboard. It's a mild shock to realise something this potent rode into battle on 17-inch alloys. But there's also a strong appeal to have a big, angry V8 in something so unassuming.

Even if you attach zero value to the rest of the car, the engine is still worth the price of admission. At the turn of the century AMG was still very close to its tuner roots, with the 5.4-litre version of the M113 having been given a forged crankshaft, pistons and rods. It's hugely strong - if looked after properly - with this car's 109,000 miles translating to an average of just under 6,000 a year.

Of course, there are plenty of other potential problems to trap the unwary; don't forget the market is pricing in a significant amount of risk with this valuation. Torque converters for the standard five-speed auto have been known to wilt under pressure, the gearbox needs oil and filter changes at 50,000 mile intervals. Electrical gremlins are as common as on pretty much every other Merc from this era and can be expensive and frustrating to hunt down. Then there's the big one - tinworm - with early CLKs capable of rusting like the Titanic.

Yet while some cars practically dissolve in front of you - the internet blaming various shades of water-based paint - others are practically unaffected. I've had a good squint at the pictures and can't see any evidence of catastrophic rust; the lower edge of the passenger door might be a little crinkly, or it could just be dirt. There's nothing too scary in the MOT history of this car, though, the recurring themes being the brake pipe corrosion and worn suspension components you might expect in such a middle-aged warrior. We're even promised a respectable amount of service history and four recent tyres, which appear to be Continentals rather than anything too comical.

Of course, it won't be cheap to keep something like this running and in fine fettle, the next keeper should probably have a well-trusted Mercedes specialist on speed dial. There are 16 sparkplugs and eight coil packs for starters, and economy will only break into the 20s under the sort of gentle use the car does absolutely nothing to encourage. But can you look into those big, dewy eyes and say that you're not at least a little bit tempted? No, neither can we.

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