photos courtesy Mercedes-Benz
December 4, 2006
Saltzburg, Austria – When the speedometer needle of my Mercedes-Benz CL 63 AMG reached the 255 km/h (indicated) mark there was an almost-imperceptible electronic “blip” as the speed limiter, common to this class in Germany, kicked in. My co-driver was asleep in the passenger seat and started slightly when the limit was reached. He took one look at the speedometer and went back to sleep again.
The truth is that truly great automobiles like the CL are not only safe at that speed, but relaxing too. Not for a moment when these speeds were reached on the fast Munich-Saltzburg Autobahn did I feel the slightest apprehension. The car was dead stable, wind and tire noise were minimal and at all times the car felt solid and entirely predictable – as it would have done if the limiter had allowed me to reach the 300 km/h I’m sure the car is capable of. Huge brakes with discs the size of dinner plates awaited the slightest pressure on the pedal to bring the amazing CL 63 AMG quickly back down to normal speeds with no drama at all.
I’ll lay out more details of the car later in this feature, but first, a little history.
The letters “AMG” derive from the two gentlemen who founded the company – a Herr Aufrecht and a Herr Melcher. The “G” comes from Grossaspach – birthplace of Aufrecht. AMG has been in business for close to 40-years and became so respected through race successes and a series of awesomely fast road cars, Mercedes was prompted to buy a majority interest. Today, Mercedes-AMG has an almost legendary reputation among well-heeled performance car buffs. No other automaker comers close to the company in the way in which it cleverly exploits the tuner’s reputation.
Aufrecht now operates an independent race car production facility and builds the Mercedes-Benz AMG CLK-based touring car racers under contract. The first race success for AMG came in 1971, when a Mercedes 300 SEL 6.9 – a huge brute of a car – won its class in the 24-hour race at Spa in Belgium and finished second overall. Countless race victories followed and in 1988, AMG joined forces with Mercedes-Benz for the first time to take on the hotly-contested German Touring Car Championship, or DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft).
In 1997, AMG performed the remarkable feat of building the awesome Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR race car in just 128 days. The car went on to win the FIA-GT World Championship in 1997 and 1998. More recently, an AMG Mercedes won the 2006 DTM with Bernd Schneider. In Europe, touring car racing is second only to Formula One in spectator interest and the DTM is the top series. As the “performance nameplate” of Mercedes-Benz, AMG has its approximate equivalent in BMW’s “M” models and Audi’s “S” versions.
The 2007 CL is the latest in a long line of flagship coupes from Mercedes-Benz that have always been showcases for the company’s cutting-edge technology. In the past, sophisticated electronic and mechanical innovations previewed in the CL ranges have gradually drifted down to less expensive cars within the Stuttgart automaker’s extensive lineup.
The “big coupes” from M-B now go back a good many years and there have been some splendid highlights, in addition to one or two models that didn’t quite capture the imagination the way they should have done.
As with other products in the AMG lineup, there are various body modifications, many of which play a serious role in aiding aerodynamic stability at the speeds mentioned earlier. The wheel arches are flared, though subtly so, and there are large air intakes and side vents. The radiator grille is exclusive to the AMG CL and lower body side skirts extend from front to rear and meld with the rear apron. Two huge chrome tailpipes enhance the rear view as well as serving a functional purpose (and they sound great too!). The overall look of the car is exceptionally striking, though even the “non-AMG” 2007 CLs are wonderful-looking large coupes.
Of course, a car like this is all about raw power and buyers get that in substantial amounts. Under the hood is a 6.3-litre V8 developing 525 horsepower (more than the V12 CL 600 bi-turbo’s 510). It’s a silky smooth, highly responsive unit that will propel the car to 100 km/h in something like 4.6 seconds and quickly reach the 250 km/h or so permitted by the maximum speed governor.
AMG engines are built at the AMG plant at Affalterbach near Stuttgart under what can only be described as laboratory conditions. I visited the plant recently to find that each engine is built stage-by-stage by one man who wheels the block from station to station, adding components as he goes. When the engine is completed and ready to ship to a Mercedes-Benz assembly plant, the engine builder signs a metal plaque on the unit to confirm his highly skilled handiwork.
The transmission is highly sophisticated and complex and perhaps that’s why Mercedes-Benz chose such a fussy name for it: “AMG SPEEDSHIFT 7G-TRONIC with DIRECT SELECT” (the capitals are Mercedes’). It uses a steering column-mounted lever that you tap to select P, R, N, and D. The seven-speed box can be manually operated using F1-style paddles behind the steering wheel, though with 465 lb-ft of torque available at 5,200 rpm, I found it best to leave well alone and let this electronic marvel do its job. I guess there are situations where manual shifting would be handy – very twisty and steep mountain passes, for example – but for most applications, fully automatic mode is just fine. Incidentally, there are three shift modes selectable – S, C and M, for sport, comfort and manual.
As one might expect, the car has all the latest stability control systems common to Mercedes-Benz automobiles and their rivals nowadays, plus a few upgrades of existing technology. The last generation CL featured stability control, a technology that made its debut with that model. At the time, I concluded that the car was just about impossible to get into serious trouble. The new model is just that much better and offers more vehicle control systems than can be described in a feature like this. A CL driver would have to do something really silly indeed to lose control, the safety margins are so extensive.
Best of all, the CL 63 AMG’s dynamic capabilities are very impressive, contributing to commendably precise handling characteristics. Suspension is aided by Mercedes’ Active Body Control (ABC) and almost eliminates body movements that threaten stability when starting off, cornering and braking. The last model had it pretty well right and the new car has even better control over the effects of fast ‘evasive” manoeuvres. The “sport,” “comfort” and ‘manual” settings change not only transmission characteristics, but also accelerator response and spring/damper settings. This electronic technology takes care of business with amazing prowess. Aerospace engineers will tell you that many of today’s military aircraft – the B2 bomber, F117 and F22 fighters and others – simply wouldn’t fly without computer input. Perhaps we’re reaching the same stage with automobiles.
It came as no surprise to me that the CL’s interior is an opulent combination of fine leathers and woods with no real surprises for people familiar with Mercedes-Benz products. Naturally, there’s much emphasis on a very high level of luxury, but most controls are easy to use and reach. Even so, most automakers in this class still have work to do with simplifying navigation, HVAC and sound system controls. Why don’t they build the interface around the kind of computer controls we’re used to with our PCs and Macs? Click on an icon and all the heater controls appear on the screen. Another click and the radio settings appear. It can’t be that hard to manage. At least the car’s lengthy roster of safety systems need no driver input and the CL has to be one of the safest cars ever built.
I did like the wonderful IWC clock the car is equipped with. AMG has a deal with the famed Swiss watchmaker firm Schaffenhausen and the partnership is most appropriate – even though the IWC wristwatch you may want to buy to go with your new CL will cost you upwards of $6,000.
Mercedes-AMG products are expensive, there’s no denying that, but for people who want the best in safe, high-performance road-going automobiles, they are probably worth every penny. This is one supercar I’d be happy to drive across a continent with. No firm prices have been announced for this model yet, though a basic CL is estimated by Mercedes-Benz to cost around $130,000 to $183,000.
Will we see a twin turbo V12 CL 65 version of this car before too long with over 600-horsepower? You can pretty well count on it!
Manufacturer’s web site