Warren Clarke, Automotive Content Editor
People who buy premium cars with six-figure price tags tend to fall into two camps. One group wants models that are rolling temples to opulence, dripping with prestige you can spot from miles away. The other prefers cars that offer a more low-key, but no less accomplished, interpretation of luxury. For this latter group, there's the 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL550.
Mercedes-Benz handles luxury with relentless competence, and as one of the costlier models in its lineup, the CL550 is a poster child for luxury done right. The coupe glides down the road like it owns it, juggling comfort and performance with confident dexterity. Within the cabin, endless expanses of lustrous wood and whipped-butter leather add up to quality that's everything a discerning shopper in this segment could hope for.
For all the quality of the materials, Mercedes also handles luxury with a fair degree of design austerity, and this leaves the CL with a cabin that's a few degrees chillier than the warm, artisanal impression delivered by the Bentley Continental GT, one of the CL's more formidable rivals. There's also the matter of exclusivity to consider. The CL shares some parts with its less expensive sibling, the S-Class, and those who've experienced this big sedan will feel a certain déjà vu when nestled within the CL's cabin. Then again, this connection also works in the CL's favor, as the S-Class is the signature of Mercedes-style speed and competence.
Unlike this Mercedes, cars like the Bentley Continental GT, Maserati GranTurismo and Aston Martin V8 Vantage come from brands that focus solely on the top price tiers of the luxury-car range, and this gives them an edge in both actual and perceived specialness. But that's not to take anything away from the breathtaking CL, a coupe that will delight those who appreciate this automaker's singular approach to motoring.
Our 550's 4.6-liter V8 might be the least gifted engine in the CL's lineup (the other choices are a 5.5-liter V8, a 5.5-liter V12 and a 6.0-liter V12), but it's hard to imagine anyone needing more than this mill provides. Paired with a seven-speed automatic (a manual transmission isn't available), the V8 delivers a whopping 429 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque. It's quick but never obtrusive, unspooling its power in a consistently smooth way.
All that power helps this heavy all-wheel-drive coupe positively dart from a standstill to 60 mph in just 4.6 seconds at the Edmunds test track. It doesn't measure up to the latest Bentley Continental SuperSport, which gets down the road in 3.8 seconds, but it's a tick ahead of the Maserati GranTursimo S Automatic, which makes the same run in 4.9 seconds. Weighing in at 4,678 pounds, our CL is one hefty piece of machinery, but its brakes bring it to a stop in just 111 feet, with solid pedal feel and negligible fade.
Though winding roads aren't the natural habitat of cars with the CL's grand dimensions (with an overall length of 200.6 inches, it's almost as long as full-size sedans like the Ford Taurus), the Benz's quick steering and good cornering grip help our coupe maintain its poise when the road twists. The CL also reaches decent speed in the slalom, weaving through cones at a respectable 64.7 mph.
The cost of the CL550's indomitable V8 is EPA-rated fuel economy of 15 mpg city/23 mpg highway and 18 mpg combined. Still, while hardly a gas sipper, the coupe fares better that the GranTurismo at the pump (13/20/15). In our travels in the CL, we observed mileage of 17.5 mpg.
With the CL, road roughness is filtered without neutering the driving experience. This car remains communicative and engaging while casting a sumptuous blanket over bumps and pockmarks on the road surface.
Thanks to the assertive bolstering of the front seats, we weather deep turns without the indignity of sliding willy-nilly about the cabin. For an even tighter embrace from the seats, there's a feature that mechanically varies the bolsters during cornering, although this feels like overkill given the already snug fit. There are infinite adjustments available, so the seats can be raised, lowered and tilted to meet the needs of most, and even offer a massage feature. Still, those with extra poundage might feel smothered by the chairs' prominent topography.
Cabin stillness is one thing that most luxury-car shoppers expect, and the CL doesn't disappoint. Its interior is as peaceful as a Zen garden, though we observed some road noise on the highway.
As you'd expect, the list of amenities on the CL is utterly comprehensive. If you frequently travel down dark roads you'll appreciate the car's night-vision technology, which uses an infrared camera to generate a picture of what lies ahead. When in use, this system swaps out the car's digital speedometer for a display that shows a remarkably clear image of upcoming terrain.
A split-view option is particularly useful. It allows different media to be displayed simultaneously on the car's display screen, which means that driver and front passenger can use different media functions at the same time. For example, while the front passenger tinkers with the audio system, the driver can keep his sights set on navigation.
There's a full complement of electronic nannies available to help make driving safer and less stressful. A blind-spot warning system issues an alert upon detecting a vehicle in your immediate vicinity. There's also a lane-keeping function that vibrates the steering wheel to let you know if you've drifted outside your lane. If you continue to drift, the system applies the brakes to a single rear wheel to help coax the car back into its intended lane.
When it comes to in-cabin storage opportunities, pack rats will be disappointed to find just a couple of middling bins, and there's no place to stow tall water bottles. Granted, this is a coupe, but it's a pretty huge one, and as such, we expected to find more room available within its pillars for toting belongings.
With 32.2 inches available, there's good rear legroom (the Bentley Continental offers 38.6 inches, while the Maserati GranTurismo yields just 30.1 inches), though getting back there requires some patience and dexterity. The bucket-seat setup accommodates only two passengers, and the bolstered seats are a close fit even for those with leaner physiques.
At 13.5 cubic feet, trunk capacity is generous when you consider that GranTurismo buyers have to make do with just 9.2 cubic feet, although the Bentley delivers 16.7 cubic feet. There's enough room to simultaneously tote golf bags and a standard-size suitcase, making this an ideal coupe for golf vacations. Maneuvering the car is never a nail-biter since it offers good outward visibility.
Design/Fit and Finish
With its pillarless roof and organic curves, the CL is a particularly graceful-looking beast. Still, to the untrained eye, it looks like just another Mercedes, which may be a positive or a negative, depending upon your perspective.
The cabin is plush but not ornamental, an impression determined by the traditionally spare cues of the Mercedes design vocabulary. All materials within look and feel tremendous, though lingering smudge marks on the beige leather of our test car's armrest suggest it may be vulnerable to blemishes over the long haul.
Who should consider this vehicle
Drivers who want a luxury coupe that meticulously covers all bases without making a big show of telegraphing wealth will appreciate the 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL550. In cities like New York, Miami and Los Angeles, the car tends to blend in with all the other Mercedes models on the road, affording the driver a certain degree of anonymity. If you're looking for something that's more of a standout in all environments, you'll be better served by the Bentley Continental GT, the Maserati GranTurismo or the Aston Martin V8 Vantage.
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