Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
First it was awe. Then it was respect. Then, finally, jealousy. I watched other Mercedes-Benz owners go through these emotions eyes wide, jaw slightly agape as the CL500 glided silently by them on glitzy Hollywood streets. Suddenly, their E320s and ML430s just didn't seem so special anymore
To be honest, I really despise cars like the 2000 Mercedes-Benz CL500. There are two reasons. First, if farmer Bob rear-ends me in his geriatric '65 Ford pickup full of gardening equipment, I have to make the rather uncomfortable call to Mercedes public relations to tell them that their $90,000 car got smashed under my watch. Perhaps more importantly, cars like this are so amazing, they make the bread-and-butter part of my job driving Camrys and Explorers and such seem incredibly dull and listless.
Actually, to say I despise cars like the CL500 is incorrect. Right now, there is nothing like the CL500. In terms of technology, one could make the argument that this is the most advanced mass production car to ever hit the road. And in terms of mission achieving ultimate luxury coupe status there are a few peripheral competing cars, but nothing to challenge the Mercedes head-to-head.
Explaining what the CL500 is to the uninformed is somewhat difficult. If you apply logic to the name, you would infer that the CL500 is somehow related to the entry-level C-Class sedan, or the CLK Coupe or Convertible. But this is Mercedes-Benz we are talking about, a company whose name selection process only occasionally makes sense to me. The CL500 has nothing in common with any C-Class vehicle.
Like the previous CL500, the 2000 CL500 is based on the S-Class luxury sedan. In a general sense, you can think of the CL500 as the coupe version of the S-Class. Like the redesigned S-Class that also debuted this year, the new CL500 is a substantial advancement over the previous model. It is rumored that BMW was so surprised by the new S-Class that the company pushed back the introduction of a redesigned 7 Series to give engineers more time to create a more competitive product.
While it's impossible to really know if that rumor is true, it is easy to point out where the new CL500 is better. It is better everywhere, in nearly every aspect. Being based on the previous S-Class, the previous CL looked slab-sided and bulky, like it had taken a few too many trips to the all-you-can-eat seafood restaurant. For 2000, Mercedes has cleaned up the lines, making the CL500 look more sculpted. The profile is lower and sleeker, with a long, flat hood, a stretched roofline, a pillarless hardtop and a downswept rear window. One of our editors felt that the front end styling was too similar to the E-Class and CLK, but it's hard to gripe much when the CL500 has an impressive 0.28 drag coefficient.
Pull back the door handle, and both the frameless side and rear-quarter windows lower a fraction of an inch. The CL500's doors are mounted using articulating, double-jointed hinges. We noticed that this feature improved entry and exit ease without negatively impacting the amount of space it takes to swing the door open.
Drop into the seat and close the door (if you didn't close the door completely, the Mercedes will do it for you via a hydraulic assist). People who have driven the S-Class sedan will recognize many of the CL500's interior components. Most of the switchgear is the same, as is the illuminated gauge cluster, shift lever and COMAND control system. However, the quality of materials is better in the CL500, with a leather-trimmed dash, less plastic and beautiful wood highlights. We are particularly impressed with the CL's unique stainless steel doorsills and stainless steel outer-edge door trim.
For some reason, our staff was less intimidated by the COMAND system in the CL500 than the one in the S500 that participated in our recent Super Luxury Sedan comparison test. Since it is the exact same unit, the difference was most likely due to the fact that we've just gotten used to it. After awhile, a certain logic appears in the madness. Even our most vocal COMAND critic admitted that he was able to program the navigation system, make the stereo and tape deck operate, and adjust the audio controls with little problem. See, if monkey-brained auto journalists can figure it out, so can you. Still, anyone who hops into the CL500 and has never driven an E-Class or S-Class before will likely be lost without consulting the Tomes of Knowledge, otherwise known as the various owner's manuals jammed in the glove box.
Firing up the CL500 is a simple matter of inserting the infrared key and giving it a quick flick. The 5.0-liter V8, the only engine available for 2000, purrs to life. This all-aluminum, 24-valve SOHC V8 puts out 302 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 339 foot-pounds of torque at a low 2,700 rpm. It also obtains low-emission vehicle status and produces up to 40 percent fewer emissions than the previous CL500 engine.
It's hard to tell how fast the CL500 is. It is so smooth, the power delivery so linear, that common references to fast acceleration don't exist. The five-speed automatic transmission is like a rock band's sound technician, staying behind the scenes but constantly directing and making sure everything is as it should be. It is exceptionally intuitive, and just like in the S500, pushing the lever to the left or right engages the sequential-shift feature, allowing the driver to manually choose and hold a particular gear.
Step on the throttle, and the Mercedes gathers itself up on a wave of torque, seemingly accelerating just as fast from 50 to 90 as it does from zero to 60. To truly determine its speed, you need access to a test track, which we here at Edmunds.com oh-so conveniently do. The CL500 might be lighter than it was before, but it still weighs in at over two tons. As such, acceleration from zero to 60 takes 6.2 seconds, with the quarter mile arriving in 14.6 seconds at 98.5 mph. This is fast enough to dust off garden-variety vehicles, but the Porsche 911, Jaguar XKR and Aston Martin DB7 are all faster.
But this car isn't really about speed, is it? No, it's more of a synergy of advanced technology and road-going capability. The poster child is the suspension system. Various manufacturers have dabbled with active suspension systems, but none have come close to the level of proficiency set by Mercedes with the CL500's standard Active Body Control. No other car currently sold in America (including the S-Class) has an active suspension. Mercedes says ABC virtually eliminates driver-induced body movements like body roll in cornering, squat under acceleration, and dive under braking. ABC achieves this using hydraulic servos and computer-controlled sensors that continually tune and adjust the suspension to match driver inputs. Think of it this way: The suspension becomes stiff when the car begins to corner, brake or accelerate, improving driver control. When the CL500 is just rolling along, the suspension stays soft to soak up road irregularities.
Most impressive of all, ABC actually works. This is not to say that the CL500 gets the best of both worlds. It does not handle like a Ferrari 360 Modena and ride like a Lincoln Town Car. Nor can it overcome the laws of physics. This is still a relatively big, heavy car. But ABC does make the CL500 an even better touring coupe, giving it the ability to confidently take on both long stretches of highway and curving bits of blacktop.
A switch on the dash puts ABC into Sport mode, and we could instantly tell the difference. In Sport mode, the ride is firmer, with even less suspension movement. Another switch turns off the traction control and Electronic Stability Program (ESP). At the test track, we purposely tried to spin out the CL500 with the ESP activated. Suffice it to say, you have to execute really stupid maneuvers to get the car to spin. Lots of cars have stability control systems these days, but we haven't encountered anything better than Mercedes' ESP yet.
As you might guess, the CL500 was quite popular with our editorial staff. In less than a week, we had cracked off more than 1,200 miles. All of the features came into play, such as the 14-way power seats that have three memory positions, pulse massage, heating elements and optional venting fans. The optional Parktronic system made parking lot navigation amazingly easy. We also enjoyed the steering wheel-mounted controls than can be used in conjunction with the central display in the instrument cluster. By using these buttons to adjust the audio system and trip computer, we were able to keep our eyes on the road.
With this much seat time, we were able to find some faults. First off, the rear seats aren't meant to hold adults for long periods of time. Yes, they are comfortable, but legroom isn't all that great unless the front passengers move their seats up. We also noticed that while the frameless windows and pillarless roof design looked cool, a very annoying wind noise was being created on the driver's side because the window was not properly seating up against the weather stripping. Other quibbles included a trick but nonetheless limited cupholder that couldn't hold large cups or bottles, a trunk-mounted CD changer (Uh, Mercedes, you know these things can be installed in the dash, right?) and a slightly misaligned driver's door. Oh, and the trunk is smaller than a Daewoo Nubira's.
Now, call me crazy if you want, but if Farmer Bob ever rear-ends me, I'd much rather be in a CL500 than a Nubira (phone call to Mercedes be damned). There are six airbags, including front, side, and side-curtain shields. Seatbelt pretensioners and belt-force limiters are used at all four passenger positions. As with all Mercedes-Benz vehicles, sensors inside the front passenger seat detect whether a passenger is present. If not, the passenger-side airbags will not deploy. The CL500 also has the BabySmart feature that deactivates the passenger-side front airbag only if a BabySmart-compliant child-safety seat is placed on the front passenger seat. And though it's impossible to verify, Mercedes says the most critical component to crash safety the CL500's frame has been designed to provide the maximum protection possible.
Allow me to end with this: if you have $90,000 to spend and you want a unique luxury coupe that comes very close to perfection, then go and get one now. You won't be disappointed. A Jaguar XKR and Aston Martin have their place, but they aren't quite on the same level. I could also see someone making an argument for a S500 over a CL500, seeing as how it offers much greater utility while still maintaining the same power and nearly all of the features. But somehow, a S500 just isn't as unique or special. Let me put it this way: A C320 owner sees a S500 and a CL500 driving down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Which one is he or she going to want to own?
System Score: 9.0
Components. Since this is a two-door coupe, there are no rear doors in this vehicle. Therefore, the speaker setup consists of a minimum of speaker positions, but the ones that are there sound fabulous. This Bose system consists of a pair of six-inch mid-bass drivers (one in each door) coupled to a nicely placed pair of tweeters up above. The tweeters are built into their own enclosure just above the door, which tucks between the rearview mirror and the dash. They sound great. The rear decks hold a 12-inch woofer that rocks your socks off. There is a sizeable power amp hidden somewhere in the car that produces clean and unfettered amplification. The entire system is controlled through a video screen in the center of the dash. Other components include a six-disc, trunk-mounted CD changer. Bass, treble, fade, balance, etc., are adjusted through a series of rocker switches and round knobs, all of which feed into the video screen for verification and display.
Performance. It must have been a daunting task for the Bose engineers to come up with a sound system that would rival the fine pedigree of this luxurious automobile, but they've managed. You would expect the system to sound amazing it'd better, right? and it does. The rear deck-mounted subwoofer produces accurate and tight bass, as good as any OEM system I've heard. As my notes say, "Bass is thunderous and subtly aggressive, without ever becoming overbearing." Mids are well balanced and articulate. I had a little problem with the tweets, which to my ear sounded just slightly over-bright at high volume levels, producing a bit of rasp and hiss, but the good news here is that that brightness is well within operating tolerances and can be adjusted with the on-board tone controls. My notes say, "Female vocals and acoustic string instruments come through unsullied and clear, although slightly over-hot to this reviewer's ear." I also note, however, that "the system produces very detailed and complex material with ease." The power amp is ballsy and power-packed, providing more than enough juice. On the whole this is one fine audio system, wrapping you in elegant sound the same way the leather seats surround you in comfort.
Conclusion. A few notes for Mercedes. The rear deck crackles a little on powerful bass notes and should be better sealed. Also, I found some of the controls confusing and difficult to use. Much of this confusion disappears after playing with the system for a while, but I still question some of the choices made by the designers. For instance, volume and seek controls are on rocker switches as opposed to round knobs, making for the occasional dicey driving decision. Give me a round knob any day. Also, some of the verification and "enter" functions, such as switching from radio to CD, or CD to tape, are cumbersome and hard to learn. These are minor complaints for a system that sounds as good as any factory install I've heard. It may not be the loudest system on the planet, but it oozes class and refinement. Other than a few minor ergonomic miscues, it's close to perfection. Give it a nine. Scott Memmer
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