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When discussing nonessential products of immense value, it is rather difficult to avoid pondering the economic iniquities of our society. For instance, how can the government have a budget surplus when so many schoolteachers are still far underpaid? How can the Denver Broncos ask taxpayers for a new football stadium when Colorado's highways are in such poor shape? Why would anyone purchase a $140,000 automobile when so many other great cars cost so much less? So much for a segue. The fact that the Mercedes-Benz CL600 holds a greater value than most American homes should not be held against it, though, so we'll spare a diatribe that lapses into the theory of socialism and get on with an evaluation of the car.
This is it. This is the most expensive passenger car currently built by Mercedes-Benz, and for that matter it's one of the world's most expensive means of common transportation. Common, we say, because it is still just an automobile that's required to travel on roads governed by traffic laws, exactly like all other automobiles. You'd think that the $7,091 luxury tax charge (which will be only a $6,078 charge when the tax drops to six percent of anything above $36,000 on Jan. 1 of 1999 - just a tax tip for all frugal-minded CL buyers) would entitle CL-Class owners a little leeway in regard to such inconsequential regulations as speed limits.
The CL600 coupe is even more dear than the S-Class sedan from which it was derived. The platform has been slightly modified from the sedan, and the CL-Class coupes make do without the use of a B-pillar. Still, Mercedes claims that the lack of a center roof support does not compromise safety.
The 1999 model year brings no new changes to the CL-Class coupes, and even the price of the CL500 remains the same. The CL600's price is up 1.5 percent to its current base MSRP of $137,300. That $41,000 premium over a fully loaded CL500 sibling comes as a result of the addition of four extra cylinders, extra leather, extra wood trim, and a cellular phone. For the betterment by one second of zero-to-60 time (the CL500 clocks in at 7.2 seconds), that's a lot of green.
So what news is there to tell? Well, we had never driven a CL-Class coupe before this one, so it's all-new to us. The car is unmistakably Mercedes-Benz. Common to other Mercedes passenger cars are such standbys as the front double-wishbone and rear five-link suspension, as well as the rock-solid feel of the drive. The instrument and control layout is familiar when compared to other Mercedes cars, and supreme luxury is the first order of business. The self-adapting automatic transmission performed flawlessly in the CL600, and the powertrain could not have been improved upon.
Under the bonnet is a massive 6.0-liter (365 cubic inch) V12 engine that makes 389 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 420 foot-pounds of torque at 3,800 rpm. The V12 gets the CL600 from zero to 60 in just over six seconds, which is most impressive considering the car's flabby curb weight of 4,969 lbs. - or two and a half tons.
Simply put, it's a powerful engine. The CL600 does not require flat roads or downward-sloping grades to show off its muscle; it accelerates uphill, too. Unlike other torque-blessed cars such as the Dodge Viper, however, the CL600 goes about its business with little fanfare. The rear wheels don't turn smoky burnouts because the power starts off slowly and purposefully. When power is finally delivered in full dose, the car is moving fast enough to keep the tires gripped to the pavement - and to take advantage of every ounce of available torque.
First, step in and shut the door. The pneumatic door mechanism pulls the door closed the last few millimeters, and the windows drop and then raise to form an even tighter seal. Put the key in its slot, and electronically controlled "arms" reach forward to push the shoulder belts within easy reach of the front passengers. Adjust the 12-way powered seats, lumbar supports and steering wheel to the optimal position, and turn the key. The car comes to life not with a roar, but with a whisper.
From the interior, the engine is merely an abstract force that moves the car but cannot be heard. So quiet, in fact, that passengers often comment on the eerie, tomb-like silence with statements like, "Is this thing on?" The CL is not a sports car; it's a luxury coupe meant to tear along with competence yet maintain a sophisticated air. Side windows are double-paned glass, which obliterates wind noise as well as the sound of passing traffic. To further envelop yourself in this luxury cocoon, turn on the 11-speaker Bose stereo system and watch the world outside turn into a silent film set to music.
That's not the end of the long list of luxury touches. Next, adjust the rear privacy screen to your liking. It slides up or down in about one second. If you're carrying passengers in the back seat, push a button and their headrests raise into place. When no one's in the back, push the button and the headrests softly lower to provide a better view out the rear window. Probably the most luxurious of interior features lines the roof: the headliner is suede leather. To complete the rich ensemble, walnut wood trim covers parts of the dash, doors and storage consoles.
No luxury car would be complete without safety features such as antilock brakes, side airbags, traction control, electronic stability program with automatic slip control, brake assist and a child seat recognition system. The CL600 comes with all of those features as well as high-intensity xenon headlamps and Parktronic sonar sensors on the bumpers to detect nearby objects. You also get a rain sensor that activates and regulates windshield wiper action, and a transponder built into the ignition key that prevents the car from being driven without the correct key (read: stolen).
Chief among the show-off gizmos, as it turns out, is not the excellent sound system, nor the privacy shade, nor the sonar guides. Our favorite toy is the trunk handle. Pop the trunk (using the remote key fob), and a chrome handle lowers itself into place just above the license plate - perfectly positioned for shutting the trunk lid. That way you needn't soil your kid gloves by touching a dusty car. Slam the trunk closed, and the chrome handle retracts into the lid and out of sight. Voila! We found ourselves opening the trunk at every opportunity just to watch the little handle disappear.
Damping control, or "Adaptive Damping System," allows the driver to select between two distinct shock absorber settings: one firm ride for sporty handling, and one softer ride for day-to-day driving. If you're prone to driving the car hard, you'll also appreciate the Flexible Service System, which monitors vehicle use to determine engine service intervals. When it's time to change the oil, the driver is alerted through a message on the instrument panel.
The one glitch in this car is its cost; we'd be impressed with the technology if it were not so obvious where the money went. Let's put this into a perspective that most of us can understand: a decent rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage for the CL600 would run in the neighborhood of $900 per month. That's not even counting insurance. And when's the last time you tried to raise a family in a coupe? It's just not practical.
In a word, the CL600 can be described as, "Wow." V12 power, Bose stereo system, leather headliner, antilock brakes, stability control, smart airbags, a rain sensor, sonar bumpers, xenon headlamps and wood trim. But is the CL600 worth the money? Only if you don't know what money is.