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Describing the development of the new 2007 Mercedes-Benz CL550 coupe, Lead Designer Holger Hutzenlaub does something people from Mercedes rarely do. He admits a mistake.
"We may have been a little too timid with the design of the previous-generation CL," he said. "This time around we wanted to make the car look more assured, more powerful, more...well...uh...." We can tell he wants to say something like "badass," but he settles on "confident" and moves on.
Hutzenlaub is right about the previous-generation CL500. Its exterior design was understated to the point of being forgettable. The fact that it was an otherwise flawless coupe wasn't always enough. Now that Hutzenlaub's team has given the new CL550 a more memorable shape, all the engineers had to do was keep up.
Big car, small streets
The engineers at Mercedes-Benz rarely get left behind at anything, so it's no surprise that the CL550 feels just about perfect a half hour into a drive on the Spanish island of Mallorca. The narrow, shoulderless streets make the car feel massive, mostly because it is. At 199.4 inches in length, this new CL is 3 inches longer, nearly an inch taller and slightly wider than the previous model. Those numbers put it about 9 inches longer than a BMW 6 Series and only about 5 inches shy of the S-Class sedan.
Weight is up, too. At 4360 pounds, the CL550 is more than 500 pounds heavier than the 650Ci and has nearly 700 pounds on the Jaguar XK. Program Chief Hans-Dieter Multhaupt says the extra pounds come from additional safety equipment, more interior features and the bulked-up hardware needed to give the CL even better performance.
The biggest chunk of that hardware is Mercedes' new 5.4-liter V8 and the seven-speed automatic transmission that goes with it. Together they shave nearly a second off the previous CL's 0-60 time of 6.3 seconds, according to Mercedes. Sending 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque through the rear wheels, the new engine is one of Mercedes' cleanest, most fuel-efficient V8s ever, while the gearbox not only offers seven speeds, it also has three shift programs: Comfort, Sport and Manual.
Adjustable transmissions are nothing new, but in this CL the system is integrated with Mercedes' second-generation Active Body Control (ABC) suspension which is now standard. Going from Normal to Sport not only gets you more aggressive shifts, it stiffens up the adjustable struts and quickens the engine's throttle response. Manual mode delivers even quicker shifts and gives you full control of the gearchanges through steering-wheel-mounted buttons. Throttle and ABC settings remain the same.
The ABCs of cornering
On wide-open stretches we leave it in Comfort mode and that's what we get. There's no road noise or wind howl as the CL basically goes into Lexus mode at 75 mph. It's one of the few situations where the CL feels light on its feet, as it glides over rough pavement without feeling overly soft. This is the kind of driving this coupe was made for, and if we never hit a turn we would call it perfect and leave it at that.
Then we approach the hills north of Palma de Mallorca, where we set it to Sport just before hitting a set of tight switchbacks. Mercedes says the new ABC system reduces body roll by 45 percent, which is not bad considering it uses no antiroll bars. Combine this with slightly wider front and rear tracks and the big coupe barely tilts a degree or two, even when the tires are squealing. Sitting dead flat makes it easier to keep your bearings in tight turns, but without the physical sensation of leaning over, it's hard to tell when you're getting close to the limits.
The CL's weight is obvious here. On long, sweeping turns the grip from the standard 18-inch wheels and tires runs out quickly, and when you transition from one tight corner to the next, even the sophisticated four-link aluminum suspension can't always make it graceful. The four-piston front brakes fare much better, as their drilled and ventilated rotors provide plenty of bite with little fade.
A new variable-ratio, speed-sensitive steering system is designed to provide better on-center feel at higher speeds while maintaining one-finger effort in parking lots. It was perfect on the highway, but feels a little light in the mountains. The BMW 6 Series and Jaguar XK coupes deliver better road feel. We doubt most CL owners will notice.
Switching to manual mode allows us to flip through all those gears in the transmission and give the engine a workout. There's a good reserve of power at any engine speed and the shift buttons on the back of the steering wheel work quickly enough. Problem is, like most V8s in this class it's so refined you barely feel or hear much from under the hood, draining some of the fun out of the drive. Other manufacturers have addressed this by actively enhancing their engine's exhaust notes to reinsert some personality; the CL could use the same.
A flagship cabin
There's no need to liven up the CL's interior. It's carried directly over from the S-Class sedan and it has the kind of clean, elegant design you expect. There's not a single piece of trim that doesn't look and feel like it belongs in a $100K coupe, and you can upgrade it further with Alcantara trim and custom colors.
Like the S-Class, the transmission shifter is now just a small stalk on the steering wheel so there's less clutter and a decent set of cupholders. There's an iDrive-like interface, but the menus are clearer and the controller easier to use.
Although the doors are big, they open easily and with none of the complex hinges used in the previous model. Seatbelts integrated into the seats themselves do away with the CL's power-retracting belt holders, another one of the previous model's oddities. The standard seats feature plenty of adjustment, and of course there are optional versions with heating, ventilation and massage functions.
There's more room in back, too. Adults could use the rear seats for short drives without worrying about how they're going to pry themselves out later. Trunk space has also been increased slightly for a total of 17.4 cubic feet, more than enough room for a weekend's worth of baggage.
No mistakes this time around
Most of our time in the CL was spent on roads that rarely complemented its size or intent, yet we still had a hard time finding anything wrong with the big coupe. It looks better, goes faster and feels more comfortable than its nearly perfect predecessor. There's too much weight on board to throw around quickly, but if you want light buy a Lotus. If you want a luxurious, quiet and fast GT, the CL550 is as good as any car on the road. And thanks to Mr. Hutzenlaub, it looks good doing it.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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