May 14, 2007
Usually, when automotive reviewers use nautical terms to describe a car, it’s for a humorously negative effect. Boat metaphors are trotted out to describe soft, unresponsive handling, unmanageable exterior dimensions and excess weight. About the last thing we want to be saying about a car is, "what a boat!"
But that’s the reaction I had to the Mercedes-Benz CL550 when I first clapped eyes on photos of it circulated to the press several months ago – but in an entirely positive way. Yup, the CL550 is big and heavy, but the nautical air given off by its styling struck me as entirely in keeping with its place in the automotive landscape – and its perspective customers. Long of nose, pointy of prow, elegant of line and oozing wealth and power from every stylistic pore, the CL550 looked like it would fit right in parked near the harbour in Monaco.
As you can imagine, Monaco is a place so densely stocked with gazillionaires’ yachts that they almost rub shoulders at the dock; it’s also a place where the big, powerful personal coupe still reigns supreme as a mode of landlubbing transportation.
Hey, just like there are high-performance cars, there are high-performance boats: Perini Navi and Wallypower are producing multi-million-dollar yachts whose high-tech construction and luxury set new benchmarks and whose designs would destroy any nautical stereotypes you might have. In many ways, so does the CL toy with your preconceptions of what a big coupe should be. In terms of its looks, the way it is made and the way it drives, it’s far removed from anything you may be expecting.
The look is certainly striking. Based on the latest-generation Mercedes S-Class platform, the CL looks like a totally different animal, thanks to its use of Mercedes’ "sporty" grille with its huge star emblem. Instead of the four-door’s somewhat clumsy-looking cycle fenders, character lines from the corners of the headlights arc over the hood and through the body in one continuous stroke; see the CL accelerate away from a stoplight and that stroke looks the same as on a majestic motorboat, curving gently downwards as the car moves majestically forward.
Like the CLS sedan, the CL’s roof is another simple arc, but there’s more going on in this more-expensive model: there’s no central pillar which provides a nearly open-air experience when you have the windows down – and the curve of the rear roof pillar tapers to a sharp point where it meets the body. It’s almost as if the roof of the CL is like the canopy you find on the back of some yachts – a covered surface that, through its design, protects you from the elements but leaves you gloriously outside.
Indeed, driving with the windows and sunroof open is the ideal way to enjoy the CL. You get just enough wind in your hair to look ruffled when you arrive at the club, but not enough that your hair is actually messed up. The huge roof opening and the large side glass mean you can work on your tan while still remaining safe. And all those open apertures make it easier to enjoy the sound of the 382-hp 5.5-litre V8. At idle it’s almost silent, but when you’re hard on the gas, it has a deep, distant bass rumble that reminds you of a gathering storm – or of huge, powerful marine engines churning big propellers and moving vast quantities of water just below the surface. It’s never loud, but boy does it feel powerful.
This – surprise, surprise – is no illusion. The CL may be a big car, but it moves like a much smaller one, except in parking lots where you thank heavens for its parking sensors and rear-view camera. Toe into the gas and the car wafts forward on a wave of torque; soon you’re reeling in the horizon at seriously illegal rates of speed. The brakes are equally powerful, with a long pedal travel but plenty of feel. While it would be impossible to call the CL actually nimble, it wheels around corners with impressive stability and balance for its size and there’s more steering feel than you would expect. Intervention from the stability-control system is also quite subtle – and you get lots of leeway to play before it steps in to shut the fun down.
Like the S-class, the CL is often quite unconventional in what you find under its skin. For one thing, the extensive use of composite materials for body panels such as the front fenders and the trunk lid make it a lot lighter than such a big coupe would normally be. Aluminum is used in the engine and suspension pieces while the extensive use of high-strength steel means less material overall has to be used to create a structure and cabin environment that is safe and secure.
The chassis is also high-tech in its use of electronics: in addition to the expected alphabet soup of ABS, ESP (stability control), ASR (traction control) and BAS (emergency brake assist), the CL is also equipped with ABC (active body control), a suspension system that keeps the body level no matter how hard you’re cornering. Protection comes in the form of enough airbags to fill the whole cabin with inflatable pillows, and Mercedes’ Pre-Safe system which uses radar and accelerometers to sense an impending collision. When it thinks you’re about to hit something, it moves the seats into the best position for impact, closes the windows and sunroof and tenses up the seatbelts.
Optional features include an adaptive cruise-control system that reads the distance to the car in front and can even drive the car (save for steering) through stop-and-go traffic; a night-vision system that extends your view forward several hundred feet beyond what even the powerful bi-xenon headlights can illuminate; lights that look around corners; adjustable ride height and a seven-speed automatic transmission so brilliant it’s always in the gear you want before you even know you want it.
But, like in the latest yachts, technology is here as much to pamper the customer as it is to serve a practical purpose. So the CL’s interior is a digital denizen’s dream house. The instrument panel, while having analogue gauges, is actually a large-screen display which transforms into the night-vision panel when the sun goes down. The killer Harman-Kardon Logic7 audio system can play DVDs while stopped and you can browse your iPod’s playlists through the steering-wheel controls or the COMAND interface built into the centre console. You can control the navigation system by voice as well as by console input and the car recognizes many other phrases as well, to adjust everything from the cabin temperature to the radio preset. Bluetooth means you can dial and browse your phone’s address book without removing it from your pocket.
Then there are the seats: they power-adjust 14 ways (you can even lengthen and shorten the bottom cushion) and also feature a built-in massage function which you can adjust for intensity and position. Go around a corner and the side bolsters pump up to hold you more tightly in place; Move the seat back if you’re taller and the head restraint motors up as well to the correct position. In addition to heated surfaces, you can also choose ventilation on hot summer days; there are even memory settings for the passenger side. Access to the rear seats is easy, and there’s plenty of headroom back there under the curving roofline and when the windows are open, the car’s pillarless design makes for a truly airy atmosphere.
The rest of the cabin’s fittings are as impressive as the seats. Nappa leather is draped across the dashboard, with seams artfully accentuating the creases in the design. Huge planks of real wood decorate the doors and dashboard; they look more like custom cabinetry than trim panels and indeed, the centre console origamis open to reveal cupholders, storage bins and slots for the six-disc CD changer and compact-flash card reader. The steering wheel – dare we call it a tiller? – is hewn from a big piece of wood with leather where you grip it and ambient lights on the doors bathe the cabin in a pleasant glow at night.
Priced at over $130,000, the CL550 occupies an interesting place in the market with no direct competitors. The BMW 6-series and Lexus SC430 are significantly less expensive and also smaller; the SC430 does, however, share some nautical styling, its designers claiming to have spent a year on the Riviera doing "research." On the other hand, cars like the Aston Martin DB9 and Bentley Continental GT are significantly more expensive without offering much more in terms of equipment or technology.
It’s important, too, to compare the CL550 to discretionary purchases that aren’t cars. As often as not, buyers purchase a big Mercedes coupe not instead of another car, but instead of a piece of art, a shiny bauble, or an expensive vacation. Judged on that basis, well, you get a lot more metal in the CL550 than you do in, say, a Patek Philippe perpetual calendar watch; you get more functionality than you do in a static mural that merely hangs on a wall; and you can drive this big, boat-like car for a whole year for the cost it’d take you to fill a Wallypower 118 with jet fuel for a two-week trip on the water.
None of this makes the CL550 an actual good value, but it does put it in context a bit. Unlike other luxury cars – and indeed, even other expensive Mercedes – it’s a truly indulgent, personal purchase – one that can’t really be justified by any logical imperative. As a car, it’s truly a boat – but oh, what a boat it is.
At a glance: 2007 Mercedes-Benz CL550
Base price $131,900
Price as tested $134,500
Engine: 5.5-litre V8
Power: 382 hp
Torque: 391 lb-ft)
Fuel consumption (city/highway/as tested): 15.4/9.7/14.0 L/100 km
Manufacturer’s web site