The Mercedes-Benz CLK has had its world premiere at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January 1997. His big brother, the 140 series coupé, had also been introduced there five years earlier. The European premiere took place one month later at the Amsterdam International Motor Show AutoRAI, and shortly therafter the new coupé series was displayed at the Geneva Motor Show, an event that plays still another important part in the CLK's history.
Mercedes-Benz had provoked quite some excitement there in March 1993 with a coupé study that avowedly was to set new signs in close-to-series design. For the first time a completely new interpretation of the Mercedes' bold 'face' has been shown which was characterised by two pairs of elliptic headlights, more strongly moulded wings as well as a slender radiator grille. The characteristic four-eyes-theme influenced the design of the 210 series E-Class and of the CLK coupés on a large scale, especially enhanced by the extremely positive reactions of the visiting public at and after the Geneva Motor Show. Altogether the stylistic design of the CLK editions are largely oriented at the coupé study shown in 1993.
At first, the CLK coupé has been developed at Daimler-Benz as an entirely independent model family, a fact which is expressed in the series designation C 208. Technically seen the CLK is based in many regards on the C-Class saloons. Especially their floor assembly and units have been borrowed. The individuality of the CLK, however, is clearly visible in numerous deviations from the detail accomplishment and last but not least in the fundamentally different body design.
The new model family of the coupés, placed on the market in June 1997, at the same time as the C-Class saloons and the estates, both rich in models, are offered in different lines of design and equipment, just as the models of the C- and E-Class. The offer comprises the versions "Sport" and "Elegance" with some differences in external details: the "Elegance" model line has chrome trims surrounding the side windows and slender chrome mouldings at the door handles as well as light-alloy wheels in five-spoke design. The "Sport" variant reinforces the dynamic impression of the CLK coupés by putting aside with the named ornamental elements and being equipped with forged light-alloy wheels in seven-spoke design.
An especially rich batch equipment is common to both the versions, comprising among others the acceleration skid control (ASR), an exterior temperature indicator, a leather covered steering wheel, remote boot release and heat-absorbing glazing. The new "Easy Entry System", which moves the front seats automatically forward, facilitates boarding and exiting for the rear passengers considerably. The two rear seats are individual for extra comfort, while the backrests fold in shares of 1/3 : 2/3 to allow for easy through-loading from the spacious boot which then becomes even more capacious.
Furthermore the advanced CLK models have some advanced technological innovations improving safety features, comfort just as well as economy. Important components are above all the driving authorisation system ELCODE accomplishing theft protection and comfort operated by an electronic door- and ignition key. Moreover, there is the electronic "Brake Assist" (BAS) which enhances the ABS by significantly reducing stopping distances in an emergency. The system senses emergency braking and immediately applies automatically the maximum braking power in a matter of milliseconds. Both systems, the ELCODE and the BAS, are constituents of a high-performance data-network that enables a rapid and reliable communication between the control elements in the engine-compartment and the passenger's cabin. Daimler-Benz is the first producer world-wide to link local partial nets via a data-interface and to create like this a comprehensive digital network.
Another novelty, the "Active Service System" ASSYST, improves the economy of the car particularly by constantly analysed the oil quality in the engine. The on-board computer assesses how the car is actually being used and then establishes when the next service or oil change is needed matching like this exactly the engine's needs. It thus keeps the trips to the service bay to an average of every 18,500 km - 20,000 km instead of constantly every 15,000 km.
Concerning the passive security the CLK fulfils already all the requirements in crash-tests in force from 1998 on within the European Union as well as the future US American regulations. When developing the new model line a lot of stress has been put on the protection of the partner and compatibility. The frontal structure of the CLK is designed so that in the event of a crash it also dissipates energy for the other vehicle involved - a detail which above all benefits occupants of smaller vehicles. To give maximum protection to occupants the CLK has as standard equipment not only frontal airbags for the front seats, but also side-bags in the doors and seat belt tensioners with tension limiters for the front seats.
In Germany the CLK was first available with three different engines: as the CLK 200 with a 136 hp 2-liter 4-cylinder unit already used in the C-Class and the E-Class, as the CLK 230 Kompressor with the 193 hp 2.3-liter supercharged 4-cylinder engine, also known from the C-Class, and as the CLK 320 with a totally new 224 hp V6-engine that was introduced in the E-Class at the same time.
In January 1998 the 208 series gained a new addition, when the CLK 430 with V8-engine was presented at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. In the same month the 205 kW (279 hp) top-of-the-range model had its European premiere at the International Motor Show in Brussels, and was introduced onto the market in June at the same time as the CLK convertible, which had its world premiere in March 1998 in Geneva.
The CLK coupé, like the SLK and the SL, is built at the Bremen plant and has become yet another successful model to be produced at Daimler-Benz's second largest passenger car assembly plant. Extremely strong early sales have unfortunately led to waiting periods despite the use of all available production capacity.
In August 1999, the model year 2000 of the successful Mercedes-Benz CLK coupés and convertibles started with even more extensive standard equipment and new, innovative technology systems. Until then, more than 135,000 drivers worldwide had chosen the CLK, about 110,000 of them decided for the coupé and about 25,000 for the convertible. With that, the coupé more than doubled the sales figure of its predecessor of the 124 series. The CLK convertible reached the exact same number of units within two years as the former four-seater convertible in its whole five years of production.
The so called conquest rate of the attractive model series was also astonishingly high. It was at around 40 % with the CLK coupé, and with the convertible, Mercedes-Benz could actually poach around 60 % of customers of other car brands.