Scott Mead, Contributor
In a world where the terms "luxury," "performance" and "cutting-edge technology" are used in the same breath as "coffee" and "fishing tackle," Mercedes-Benz brings fresh meaning to these terms with the all-new CL500, raising the benchmark for the automotive industry.
After our initial meeting with this latest iteration of the CL-Class, all we could think of was one thing: How could we obtain a set of keys to this machine for a six-month test drive? If it's not the elegant lines of this two-plus-two luxury sport coupe that starts the adrenaline flowing, the endless rush of power will. To put it bluntly, we love this latest Stuttgart import.
On the outside, the new coachwork takes styling cues from the earlier 220/280 SE Coupes of the early 1960s - wraparound rear glass, sweeping C-pillar and full-length accent lines - while melding a new lower profile and familiar E-Class oval headlamp treatment to create a drag coefficient of only .28. Incorporating a raked grille and long, flat hood, Mercedes designers gave the CL500 a "lighter" and racy appearance.
While the design mates classic lines with aerospace technology, the driver's visibility isn't any better than previous generations. The large C-pillar combined with the large front headrests makes it difficult to see oncoming traffic. Likewise, the large A-pillar containing the side curtain airbags restricts visibility during cornering. With its hybrid body consisting of aluminum (body and roof), magnesium (inner door panels) and composite materials (front fenders and trunk lid), the CL500 still tips the scales at a hefty 4,155 pounds, shaving 580 pounds from the previous generation.
At over 2 tons, the CL500 doesn't feel like a heavyweight, nor is it a slug on the road. On the contrary, the 5.0-liter, 24-valve V8 is a broad-band torque monster, generating maximum twist of 339 ft-lbs. from 2,700 to 4,250 rpm. No matter what gear is selected, stabbing the throttle-by-wire accelerator pedal initiates an instantaneous blast of power to the rear wheels and a throaty roar through the exhaust pipes.
Shifting duties are handled through a new driver-adaptive, five-speed electronic automatic transmission with a "Touch Shift" manual gear selection. The Mercedes system is truly adaptive to the driving conditions, "sensing" the driver's driving style through throttle position and comparing that information to road-speed changes and engine load. During a spirited run through a section of tight canyon driving, the system adapted to our on, off and on again throttle input, staying in third gear and downshifting smartly when second was needed. Exiting the canyon onto suburban roads, the transmission returned to buttery-smooth shifts to maximize fuel economy.
If there were ever a Mercedes for the driving enthusiast, the new CL500 is the vehicle. With its revolutionary Active Body Control (ABC) system, body roll, dive and squat are virtually eliminated. Try as we might through twisty canyons, emergency braking and hard acceleration runs, the CL500 remained flat and level, almost daring us to try to upset its balance.
Utilizing a hydraulic servo mounted atop each coil spring, the system senses body movement just as it begins and makes corrections to the servos within a fraction of a second. The system works so well that conventional antiroll bars are no longer needed.
In the "Normal" mode, body roll is reduced by 68 percent compared to the last generation CL, and 95 percent reduction is available by pressing the "ABC Sport" switch on the dash. During our testing, we tried the ABC in Normal and Sport mode, noticing only a slight increase in dampening in the Sport position. Combined with the standard electronic stability control, the CL500 is enormously confidence-inspiring to drive. Our only complaint: the vehicle requires a lot of steering input, making "shuffle steering" a necessity.
As expected from Mercedes, the interior of the new CL is a blend of the finest appointments and techno-wizardry. Up front, our leather-wrapped, 14-way adjustable, heated and ventilated seats were a dream for those with lower back problems. Miss your appointment with the masseuse, no problem. Just press the "pulse" button on the seat cowling and driver or passenger are treated to a mid- and lower-back massage as the main lumbar chamber "breathes" by inflating and deflating every 30 seconds. We used the pulse feature during our entire 150-mile test and emerged refreshed and relaxed, ready for another stint at the wheel.
Like the cockpit of a Lear jet, the essential switchgear is within easy reach in this beautiful, uncluttered design. Controls and instruments fall naturally to hand, with large, cold cathode illuminated gauges placed front and center of the driver. Wiper, turn signals and xenon headlamp switches are only a short touch away. As usual, the switchgear was first class with a positive "click" with each depression of a switch or button. Front passengers are also treated to burled walnut dash accents, vanity mirrors that have normal and close-up magnification and a slick spring-up, swivel-out cupholder for two cans of soda or jars of Grey Poupon.
Dual climate controls are a breeze to use, but the stereo controls took some getting used to, and don't try to learn the navigation system while driving as it's quite cumbersome for the first-time user. As one colleague noted, "You definitely need a navigation system to use the navigation system."
While the rear seats are comfortable, we humbly suggest you use the space for children under the age of 12 or a weekend bag. Picking up the kids from prep school, they'll have plenty of storage for Game Boy cartridges or CDs in the rear center console. Pull down the rear armrest and there's additional storage and a set of cupholders.
Ingress and egress is a breeze for front passengers, thanks to the unique articulating, double-jointed hinges that allow the doors to swing out and away from the body. Athletic youngsters will be able to clamber out of the backseat, but adults will need the assistance of a winch.
"Quiet as a church mouse" is the best way to describe the interior noise levels experienced in the 'Benz. Mercedes engineers used an acoustic wind tunnel when designing the new CL500, and their work paid off. Wind and road noise were barely audible, yet noise levels weren't dampened to the point that occupants couldn't enjoy the sweet V8 sound. Due to the lack of road noise and the ABC smoothing the ride, we found ourselves -- on numerous occasions -- traveling 20-30 mph faster than we thought.
At its $85,500 price point, the CL500 is in a class that only elitists can afford. Pitted against the Jaguar XK8 (at $66,200) and the Aston Martin DB7 (at $125,000), the CL500 provides more standard amenities and greater interior comfort than its counterparts. For those lucky few who can afford this limited-production masterpiece (only 2,500 will find their way to the American shores this year), leave the kids in boarding school, pack a bag and plan a weekend driving trip...a long driving trip on a twisty, two-lane road.
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