The Gentlemen's Cross-Country Cruise Missile
Driving a grand coupe like the 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL550 instills mixed feelings. First, it makes us keenly self-conscious. Like it or not, cars like this say something about their drivers. And no matter now spectacularly awesome they might be, there's no ignoring a machine so massive and so pricey.
Second, it makes us a little giddy. We'll gladly overestimate our sense of importance in exchange for unalloyed gratuity and complete disregard for practicality. This is, after all, pretentious luxury. And pretentious luxury isn't burdened by any commitment to utility. Pretentious luxury, in fact, is glorified in a car like the new CL.
The 2011 CL550, then, is big, beautiful, quiet, fast and as pretentious as it is impractical. And it's not a car for everyone.
Is It a Car for You?
The new CL550 is not a car for you if you'd be proud to drive an old Porsche 911 to your high school reunion. Sure, the 911 is equally impractical, but shows a modicum of restraint. It says "I have good taste and I might be able to afford more car, but you'll never know." The CL leaves no doubt about either.
The new CL550 is not a car for you if your family count extends past two — including you. Sure, the backseat will comfortably swallow a 6-foot-2 male, but getting him back there requires a Brock-Lesnar-size man with a shoehorn and a bad attitude.
The 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL550 might just be your car, however, if comfortable cruising at high speed through wet weather is among your desires. Its grace, comfort and effortless speed over the open road are virtually unmatched. It tops our list for rapid transcontinental transit. And it ain't bad in the city, either.
That all-weather versatility is thanks to the fact that every CL550 sold in the U.S. is all-wheel drive — a choice Mercedes says is due to a high take rate in the Northeast. Every 2011 CL550 is also equipped with an all-new V8 engine that displaces 4.7 liters (4,663cc) and utilizes direct injection and turbocharging to produce 429 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque — numbers 12 and 32 percent higher than the previous CL550.
Fuel economy, claims Mercedes, is improved as well. The EPA rates it at 15 city/23 highway/18 combined mpg. We achieved 17.5 mpg in mixed driving over 768 miles.
It Is So Choice
Regardless of your station in life, everyone should drive a car like this just once. Accompanying the unavoidable downsides are moments of raw, pure joy. Sure, it is fast (more on that momentarily), but there's a sense of invincibility when piloting a big Benz coupe like this that doesn't occur in vehicles that aim to impersonate such luxury.
There's a sense of occasion as the CL rolls away from a stop — as if you've set something in motion that genuinely matters. Inside, it is utterly silent with the exception of a subdued exhaust burble. It is so sealed against the elements — and despite the lack of a B-pillar — that as speed builds, the world flies by devoid of road or wind noise.
The paddle shifters offer a measure of control over the CL's seven-speed automatic, which is appropriate for such a big thing. There's a small attempt at rev matching — not the racy, quick-revving kind, mind you. Rather, the electronics supply just enough revs to keep the lower gear from slamming home with any sense of distraction. Upshifts, whether executed manually or automatically, manage to be both rapid and smooth.
Throttle response, at least in the default mode, is just plain slow. Dip into the throttle from a standstill and the CL responds with utter indifference. Sure, it moves, but not before your foot has dug substantially deeper into the throttle stroke than necessary. Fortunately, "Sport" mode — activated by a button on the center console — provides a much-needed bump in response while simultaneously increasing shift speed.
One of the best traits of a big-motor Benz is its ability — without technique or concentration — to effortlessly produce just plain silly acceleration numbers. Stomp the CL's throttle to the floor from a standstill and without drama, noise or wheelspin the huge coupe will hit 60 in 4.7 seconds (4.4 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip).
Turn off the electronic aids and there's little to be gained. The 0-60 time decreases to 4.6 seconds (4.3 seconds with 1-foot rollout). The quarter-mile requires only 12.8 seconds and is accomplished at 109.6 mph.
Halting the 4,678-pound CL550 is the job of 13.2-inch front rotors, four-piston fixed calipers and optional 255/35ZR20 Continental SportContact 2 tires on five-spoke AMG wheels. All seven stops from 60 mph were fade-free. Only 111 feet was required.
Big but Confident
It might surprise you to know that this almost 17-foot-long coupe handles well, too. Now, don't get the wrong idea. The 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL550 is no Lotus. Forget about changing directions in a hurry — it's not that kind of machine.
But find the right freeway on-ramp or, better yet, a road endowed with long, constant-radius corners and you'll be amazed at the grip, confidence and outright speed the CL will achieve. At 200.6 inches long it is, well, big. For perspective, it's slightly longer than the 2011 Toyota Sienna minivan. Yet its speed through our 600-foot slalom, at 64.7 mph is almost 2 mph quicker than the last E550 sedan we tested. So it might just transition better than you're imagining.
Although the CL's air spring rates are in constant adjustment (up to every 0.05 second), their base setting can be increased by pushing a dash-mounted button. We measured lateral acceleration using the stiffer setting at 0.84g. Fortunately, stability control remains at bay most of the time whether "on" or "off."
Help! I Can't Drive
It's OK, because in the 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL550, you hardly need to.
If you haven't experienced it, active cruise control is one of the grandest motoring achievements in the last decade — and no one does it better than Mercedes. The CL's Distronic Plus will consistently hold its distance to the car in front and confidently bring the coupe to a halt. Returning to the preset speed requires a tap of the cruise control stalk.
The real magic, however, comes in the intuitive yet comfortable manner in which the system handles intruders. Inevitably, in L.A. traffic, someone steals your space cushion with a last-second lane change. In this case, the system can use surprisingly strong braking to quickly yet gracefully increase the gap once more. Similarly, increasing gaps in traffic are met with a subtle throttle application appropriate for returning to speed without feeling rushed — which seems well-suited for those unburdened by deadlines. As for us, well, we mashed the throttle.
Also present are an array of lights and buzzers called Active Blind Spot Assist designed to prevent drivers from encountering a territorial dispute and finding themselves in an undignified and time-consuming side-of-the-road affair involving the authorities. It's a little too conservative most of the time, but it works. And it can be switched off.
We never witnessed the presence of Active Lane Keeping Assist, which, we suppose, means we either don't drift in our lane or it doesn't work. Probably the former. All of these technologies come together in the $2,950 Driver Assistance package.
The CL also has a heated steering wheel, which, until now, we always thought was a feature for old women with poor circulation. Now, however, we know it's only for those who drive with their hands at the leather-covered one- and three-o'clock positions, as that's where all the heat is focused. Certainly some heat leaks onto the wooden bits of the wheel, but it's largely lost beyond the leather.
Perhaps the greatest convenience feature in the CL is the COMAND system that displays navigation (with real-time traffic data), audio, video and phone functions on the 8-inch screen. The $710 split-view option allows the driver and passenger to use different media on the display at the same time — a feature that can be a real marriage-saver and one that happens to be illegal in 13 states.
Then there are the seats that are heated, cooled, offer four levels of massage and can manipulate the front bolsters to "hold their occupant in place during cornering." The massagers are nice and of some value on long trips. But the moving bolsters are a gimmick unless, of course, you want to surprise your unsuspecting passenger with a bolster to the kidney during hard cornering — a combination sure to negate any favor the split-view screen might have won.
It's only mildly ironic that a car with "Blue Efficiency" badges on its flanks comes with an unavoidable $1,300 gas-guzzler tax. Including this tax and destination fees, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL550's base price is $115,325. Our car, outfitted with five options (Premium package, Driver Assistance package, Sport package Plus One, the split-view screen and the heated steering wheel) rings up a $129,615 price tag.
So what we have here is a highly luxurious, genuinely comfortable, easy-to-drive, heavily outfitted, solidly built, extremely fast coupe with all-weather usability. It's a rare combination. And one that, unsurprisingly, happens to be very expensive.
And it might not be as space- or fuel-efficient as Mercedes would like you to think. But it is a machine fit for royalty — as elegant as is it beautiful. And, yes, it's a bit pretentious. But if you choose to drive one of these, well, being pretentious is just fine.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of this evaluation.