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This Mercedes V8-Swapped C320 Hatch Is a CLK 55 AMG in Disguise

You're looking at the best AMG that Mercedes forgot to build.
Blue Mercedes C320 Sportcoupe against a forested background
James Gilboy

I was about halfway up Angeles Crest Highway in a Maybach when I spotted another Mercedes out of its depth coming the other way. It was a pokey C320 Sportcoupe, those frumpy little W203 liftbacks that were once the cheapest Mercedes in the United States. They’re the last platform you expect someone to modify, which is why I did a neck-snapping double-take when I heard it rumble by with a V8.

I was fortunate to catch up with its builder @c55.vick at a turnoff, where he popped the hood on an engine bay stuffed with 5.4 liters of Mercedes M113 V8, from the CLK 55 AMG. The owner is a serial Mercedes owner and modder, one who has owned real AMGs but decided to diverge from them to build this. His reasoning was simple: This unloved little hatch is actually the lightest and stiffest of the W203 C-class, and the V6-powered C320 shares its subframes with the AMG versions. In his words, turning it into the AMG that Mercedes never built was “like building with Lego.”

In fact, its 362-horsepower V8 bolted straight up to the stock six-speed manual, bringing along its wiring harness and ECU. Not a single wire needed to be chopped for it to go in. The engine bay looks accordingly OEM, and you wouldn’t give the V8 a second glance if you didn’t know Stuttgart didn’t put it there. You’d also never guess that the engine was a 200,000-mile, $800 junkyard special that pulls just as hard as the day it was new.

For an engine with only a 6,200 rpm redline, it feels revvier than it is, owing to long gears and a choppy Mercedes exhaust note that makes you appreciate the midrange more than you’d expect. It may be a single-cam, three-valve engine, but its power climbs noticeably in the last 1,000 rpm, making it a pleasure to wring out. At just 3,400 pounds, it’s also much lighter than the nearly two-ton CLK 55, so it’s quicker than the car its parts come from, too. (You can hear how it sounds in a video from @thecanyoncarver below.)

While the owner says it’s more nose-heavy than the stock car, I wouldn’t call it blunt in any world. If anything, I’d say it felt more nimble than the last-gen Ford Mustang GT I drove over the summer. That’s probably down to the transfer of some of the CLK 55’s suspension (plus cheap coilovers) and its brakes, meaning this truly is a re-bodied AMG that dodges the attention that a “real” one would get.

When my colleague Chris Rosales drove it, he remarked how much it reminded him of a Chevrolet Camaro. From the back seat, I thought that unflattering: It’s more spacious and comfortable, and has better visibility. The owner also says it’s thrifty enough to use as a daily (which he does), as it’ll apparently get 30 mpg. When you’re not winding it out, it’s also still a civil, comfy, easy-driving Mercedes.

A blue Mercedes C320. It has a fastback roofline, two doors, and a short wheelbase.
Mercedes-Benz C320 Sportcoupe hatchback with a CLK 55 AMG V8. James Gilboy

I’ve driven a fair range of modified cars, from class-winning race cars to a charmingly mangy race truck, and this fan-AMG is closer to the former. It’s far from done; the owner speaks of upgrading to the 6.2-liter M156 from the CLK 63, which will concrete its need for a stronger driveshaft, axles, and the limited-slip diff it doesn’t yet have. It’ll also get a CLK 63 front bumper, wider wheels, and fender flares. Just my opinion, but it could also use a bigger rear spoiler to accentuate its pounce-ready stance.

When it all comes together, it’ll be the best AMG that Mercedes forgot to build, and its creator hopes it’ll inspire more people to adopt these unloved, but potent coupes. After all, the ship is sailing on most classic cars of the 1990s, and it’ll be the cars of the 2000s that take their place as the affordable, moddable cars of today.

Got a tip or question for the author? You can reach them here: james@thedrive.com