The Good: Elegant interior, smooth ride, good looks
The Bad: Price, gimmicky technology
The Bottom Line: The classiest grand touring coupe around
Every once in a while, I test drive a car I really don't want to give back. That's the way it was with the Mercedes-Benz CL550, which may be the most satisfying sports-luxury coupe I've ever driven. If one is wealthy and wants to cultivate an image of understated elegance with a touch of brio, this is the car to buy.
Of course, you would have to be monied to afford the CL550. My test vehicle listed for nearly $117,000, which seems excessive even by Mercedes' standards, but I would be hard pressed to say that it wasn't worth every penny.
The CL550 is essentially a shorter, lighter, and sportier two-door version of the S Class, Mercedes' flagship luxury sedan. The redesigned S Class (BusinessWeek, 5/10/06) came out in 2006 and was followed by the new CL550 coupe, which hit the showrooms this January as '07 models. The '07s were redesignated '08s this summer, but the '08 and '07 CL550 (the one I test-drove) are identical.
At 200 inches, the CL550 is nine inches longer than an '07 BMW 650i Coupe, with much of the extra length being taken up by the Benz's long hood. To my eye, the long front end, curvy roofline, and sculpted flanks make this Mercedes one of the most beautiful cars on the road.
There are now four new CL coupes—each with a different engine. The CL550, the entry model, is powered by a 382-horsepower, 5.5-liter V8. If raw power is a priority, there's also a CL600 with a 5.5-liter, 510-horsepower V12.
In addition, parent company Daimler (DAI) has developed two more high-performance CL coupes with sportier suspensions and amped-up versions of the engines. The CL63 AMG is powered by a 6.2-liter, 514-horsepower V8, and the CL65 AMG by a 6-liter, 604-horsepower V12. The '08 CL550 starts out at a hefty $103,875, but it's almost a bargain basement item compared with the other CL coupes. The CL600 starts at $147,675, the CL63 AMG at $137,775, and the CL65 AMG at $197,775.
The CL550 weighs in at a hefty 4,486 lbs., but it still gets decent mileage. Under the federal government's new, stricter system for calculating fuel economy, the '08 CL550 is rated to get 14 mpg in the city and 21 on the highway. In 320 miles of mixed driving, I got 19.4 mpg.
Gas-price jitters don't seem to be hurting Mercedes' U.S. sales at all. The company set monthly records in both August and September, fueled by strong demand for its redesigned C-Class entry-level sedans (BusinessWeek, 9/24/07). Overall, Mercedes' U.S. sales were up 1.8% through September, to 180,265.
The CL-Class is a niche product, but it's doing very well. U.S. sales of all CL models combined nearly quintupled in the first nine months of this year, to 2,672. In comparison, the BMW 650i hardtop coupe fell 17.6%, to 1,469 units through the end of September, while sales of all types of Porsche 911 were up 7.3%, to 9,833 units through September.
Behind the Wheel
A high-end Mercedes has a more luxurious feel than a BMW (BMWG). You can hear the engine at work, but the sound is distant, as if it were coming from a car down the block somewhere. The steering wheel—which in the CL550 is leather-wrapped with hand-polished walnut inserts—always seems to have the same solid, slightly chunky feel.
My most satisfying moments in the CL550 came while pulling around a curve or corner and giving it the gas. The smoothness with which the car takes off is confidence inspiring. I timed it at between 6.2 and 6.4 seconds in accelerating from 0 to 60. If you want more raw speed, the CL600 and CL63 AMG will do 0 to 60 in 4.5 seconds, and the CL65 AMG in 4.2 seconds, according to Mercedes. (The $122K Porsche 911 Turbo does it in 3.55 seconds.)
Just about everything in the CL550 functions electronically. There's a push button starter and a stubby little shift lever that you push up or down to put the car in "reverse" or "drive." Speed-sensitive electronic steering, which increases the driver's control at higher speeds while helping with parking and other low-speed maneuvers, is standard.
The seven-speed automatic transmission has three shifting programs—comfort, sport, and manual—that are integrated into the latest generation of Mercedes' Active Body Control system. The ABC system keeps the car nearly flat during hard driving; there's virtually no body roll.
Switching from "comfort" to "sport" causes the transmission to shift faster, quickens throttle response, and stiffens the suspension (though I had a hard time discerning the difference). Switching into "manual" quickens the shifts even further. You change gears via buttons on the backside of the steering wheel.
The CL550's interior is gorgeous. In the front seats you have the feeling of being in an elegant cockpit, with numerous design touches that reinforce the car's luxury image. There's a beautiful leather-wrapped brow over the instruments and a compartment between the two rear seats that opens like a tiny rolltop desk. The sides of the doors are lined with chrome, making you believe that no expense has been spared.
The instruments are an intuitive combination of manual switches and screen commands activated via a computer mouse-style knob on the center console. In most cases you have multiple choices of how to do things. For instance, you can change the radio volume via a manual control on the center console or one on the steering wheel. There's a button you push to retract the mirrors after you park the car, and another to put the rear window shade up or down.
Unless you have money to burn, however, I'd avoid some of the gimmicky technology options available on the CL550. An example is Mercedes' Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control systems, a $2,010 option that uses a radar sensor to keep your car at a pre-set distance from the car ahead—applying the brakes and downshifting if the system senses an accident in the offing. That's too much intervention for my taste.
I also found Mercedes' night vision system, part of a $5,290 Premium II package, less than useful. It employs infrared technology to "see" 500 feet in front of the car at night, projecting an image of what's ahead on a high-resolution screen where the speedometer usually is. As a practical matter, though, you can't look out the windshield and down at the screen at the same time, and it seems safer to me just to look out. I also found that the system, while unperturbed by rain, had trouble penetrating even a light fog.
Buy It Or Bag It?
The CL550 is tilted more toward luxury than performance. If performance is your priority, the best value among alternative models is probably the BMW 650i, which starts at around $75,000 and has a recent average selling price of $83,402, according to the Power Information Network—nearly 30 grand less than the '08 CL550's average selling price of $112,923. Another alternative model, the Porsche 911, sells for an average of $124,717, according to PIN.
At the higher end—though still not as pricey as the CL65 AMG—are the English coupes, including the Aston Martin DB9, the Aston Martin V8 Vantage, and the Bentley Continental GT, which sticker for around $120,000, $180,000, and $170,000 respectively. (Bentley is owned by Volkswagen (VOWG).)
My feeling is that the performance sweepstakes among luxury cars has gotten out of hand. A luxury car shouldn't have to jump from 0 to 60 in less than five seconds. It also should have a usable back seat and a decent-sized trunk, which the CL550 does and the Porsche 911 (much as I love it) doesn't. The Mercedes doesn't have the road feel of a BMW or Porsche. But if you want the class car in this segment, consider paying extra for the CL550.
For more on the new Mercedes-Benz CL550, visit BusinessWeek's slide show.