Rarely do navigation systems tell you much about a car. Sometimes in their complexity or their inaccuracy, they impact your impression of a vehicle. But almost never do these devices reveal anything about the soul of the vehicle into which they are plugged.
So it is with unmitigated delight that we gaze upon the high-definition navigation screen of the 2007 Mercedes-Benz CL550 luxury coupe. There on the screen is a crisp, clean satellite view of our world's roads, cemeteries and gas stations, but also a red triangle to represent the vehicle we are driving. Few navigation systems make our dingy world — full of scruffy lawns and blowing plastic shopping bags — look so tidy and sensible. Beyond that, though, there's a translucent white circle around the little car on the screen that makes it look as if the car is cruising around town in a bubble.
We presume that the bubble is meant to be a fudge-factor for the GPS system. In other words, the car is somewhere in this whitish zone, if not exactly where it is represented within the bubble. We would ask Mercedes if this is the bubble's purpose, but we don't really want to know the answer.
Instead, we cruise around, safe and comfortable, in the protective bubble that is the 2007 Mercedes-Benz CL550.
Despite its 382-horsepower 5.5-liter V8, elaborate roll-snuffing suspension technology, race-worthy brakes and 0-to-60-mph sprint of a scant 5.5 seconds and the quarter-mile in 13.9 seconds at 101.5 mph, the CL550 is not a sport coupe. No, not even with the optional $5,600 AMG Package that adds big 19-inch wheels, low-profile tires and a racy-looking body trim.
Surely those big 19s helped the big CL550 circle the skid pad at an impressive 0.85g and barrel through the slalom at 65.6 mph. They surely didn't hurt when it came time to slam the left pedal, as the hefty CL550 halted in a very short 115 feet from 60 mph.
This $116,525 two-door is, instead, a high-performance luxury coupe. This might sound like we're splitting an already fine hair, but one brief drive in the CL550 will convince you.
"Man, this thing is soft," exclaims the editor in chief. He is calling us from a similar car in Los Angeles with two questions: "How do I firm up the suspension settings?" And, "How do I turn on the damn radio?"
Truth is, you can firm up the suspension via a Sport/Comfort button on the center console that also adjusts the shifting schedule of the seven-speed automatic transmission. Mercedes claims that in Sport mode its Active Body Control suspension technology reduces pitch and roll by a significantly greater margin than in Comfort mode. But we were hard-pressed to tell the difference, as the ride feels equally compliant either way. And the CL's response to steering inputs feels just as leisurely. Perhaps Mercedes should have named the modes "Comfort" and "Comfort with Even Less Body Roll."
Remember, this is a vehicle based on the large-and-in-charge S-Class sedan. The CL is a four-seat coupe that is just a hair less than 200 inches long and presses the scales at 4,514 pounds, making it longer than a standard-wheelbase Chrysler minivan as well as heavier by more than 500 pounds. It's not made for tossing around. It is designed to transport one well-heeled driver and a (presumably) lovely companion at great speed to a faraway destination and assure a timely, unruffled arrival.
This the CL550 will do. Credit the suspension, which puts potholes and tar-strips as much beneath the CL's consideration as they are literally beneath its tires. Credit the thick glass of the cabin with its infrared reflectivity and acoustic-insulating properties. Credit the steering, which because it's a little lax immediately off-center rarely reacts at all to crowned pavement or those troublesome truck troughs. Credit the super-smooth and nearly mute V8.
It might not be the recipe for an involving experience, but the CL550 is a finely tuned combination of complementary ingredients.
The inside line
But we never answered that question about the radio, did we? We were as confused and frustrated on our first drive as the editor in chief. It took us 30 minutes to figure it out. Hell, we even figured out the front passenger seat's power-operated shoulder support before we discovered the audio system's "On" button. It's on the passenger side of the center console, hidden from the driver's view by what appears to be a large, leather-padded guitar pick.
It turns out this guitar pick houses a telephone keyboard and acts as a comfy rest for the heel of your right hand as you operate the BMW iDrive-like control knob for the information/entertainment system. Say what you will about these mouselike interface devices, but this one is exquisitely rendered in aluminum with a knurled edge like a freshly minted quarter. It also allows the CL's cabin to appear clean and elegant while incorporating a staggering number of minor electronic miracles.
In a world where the cheapest buzz box comes with power windows and sunroof, a $100,000 car has to do a little better. And so Mercedes has delivered the expected technology-intensive luxury features, including a power rear sunshade, power assists for door closures, radar-based parking assist and surround-sound audio system. Yet Mercedes has also worked on the side of the equation that determines ambience.
For example, you'd expect a car like this to hide its cupholders under a beautifully veneered cover and then ensure that each deploys with a smoothly damped action. But when you open that lid, shouldn't the frame that actually holds your beverage rise smoothly to meet the bottom of your drink container and provide a little extra stability? Of course it should, and so it does in the CL.
And shouldn't you have the capability to adjust the ambient accent lights hidden under the trim on the dash and door panels to six different brightness levels? Yes, of course. And should the pictograms and letters on the screen of your luxury ride look like they came from a Commodore 64? They shouldn't, and that's why the CL's screen displays a photorealistic profile of the car when you change the myriad lighting and convenience configurations. And yes, if you change the lighting configuration, that change will be faithfully represented by the picture of the car.
Of course, we can't say why the huge, center-mounted speedometer is a computer representation of a speedometer and not an actual gauge like the fuel, coolant temperature and tachometer dials that surround it. Seems like a lot of extra work by the computer gnomes in Stuttgart for only a little customer benefit. But, hey, it's neat and the carefully scribed line of gray around its perimeter perfectly matches the gray line painted on the real gauges.
Clear, healthy skin
The CL's new body is as smooth and elegant as its interior. It's a single bubble membrane pulled oblong by the wind, leaving a few stylish ripples along its flanks.
In pictures, the CL comes off like a Scion tC with elephantiasis. In person, though, it has gravitas. It has presence. Its tall, blunt nose is a graceful solution to new pedestrian safety standards in European markets.
With heavy-lidded eyes and a scat-eating grin, the CL's face reminds us of the guys we went to college with. It also looks like a piece of Spree candy, but that's another matter.
Not for Fancy Dans
Lest you think the CL550 is for poseurs and Fancy Dans, rest assured that the car generates test-track numbers consistent with its six-figure price tag.
It's not as quick as the Bentley Continental GT. But then, for the price of the Bentley, you could buy the CL550 and a nicely equipped E-Class. The CL550 accelerates and stops at almost exactly the same rate as the BMW 650i and grips the skid pad nearly as tightly. Of course, you won't be surprised to learn that the BMW slithers through the slalom faster. Meanwhile, the CL550 spanks the $30,000-cheaper Jaguar XK in every event except the slalom. Again, no surprise.
For Bentley-baiting performance (and price) Mercedes also offers the CL with two other engines that are even more powerful. And the company recently unveiled the CL65 AMG that is motivated, if we remember correctly, by a small nuclear power plant.
But even if Mercedes offered a version of the CL-Class motivated by as much power as is produced by the sun, it would still be a bubble like the CL500. A very fast bubble, but a bubble nonetheless.
Second Opinion Inside Line Editor in Chief Scott Oldham says: I want a CL550.
Big shocker, huh? Front page stuff. Should be all over the tabloids in the morning, right next to the Bigfoot sighting and Britney's latest underwear episode. "Auto Editor likes $116,000 382-hp Mercedes."
Jeez, what else is new? Wait, this just in: Coffee tastes good in the morning.
The thing is, I'm not hot for the CL because of the usual reasons. Sure, it's got a big price, a big V8 and a beautiful bod, which is cool, but I want a CL550 for what it doesn't have — B-pillars. This is a true hardtop, and that makes it quite a rare bird these days. In fact, there are only three pillarless coupes left to buy: the Mercedes CL, Mercedes CLK and the Bentley Continental GT.
For those of you younger than my father, hardtops were all the rage back in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. They were the body style for high-end cars, and the stylish choice for such legendary machines as the 1957 Chevy Bel Air and the 1962 Lincoln Continental. Heck, Bo and Luke's General Lee is a hardtop.
So I want a CL550, but only until the CLK63 Black Series arrives. Don't even get me started on fender flares.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.