When Mercedes-Benz decided to redesign their CL-Class of cars, I took a long breath and wondered out loud. “How can they improve a perfect design?” came the echoes from deep within. The last CL I’d driven was the CL 65 AMG, with its hand built twin-turbo, 6.0 liter V12 that poured out 604 horsepower and a whopping 738 pound feet of torque. At $180,000 and some change, it was a bargain considering its supercar performance. So the bar was set real high when I got the opportunity to drive the all-new CL-Class.
The new model is based on the successful redesign of the S-Class, Mercedes’ flagship sedan. It’s a more brutish design than the svelte, rounded CL it replaces, but it works well. At 199 inches of overall length, the new CL is only six inches shorter than the S-Class. This is a big car. My tester was the CL550.
Outside, the CL’s rounded roofline remains. It starts from the “A” pillar with a slight bow upwards, then drops off rather quickly as it flows into the trunkline. Two sculpted ridges have been incorporated into the beltline – one high and one low, which gives the doors and rear quarter visual depth. Side skirts carry all the way into the rear bumper, which help to provide a ground effects look. Dual chromed exhausts are enclosed in a rear finisher panel, and the rear quarter panels have power indentations that remind you of a sculpted athlete’s powerful glutes. The real change comes in the huge fender flares both front and rear that give the CL a hulking image. The flares work on this car because Mercedes has wisely filled the wheel wells with staggered width 18″ wheels on performance rubber. From the front, headlights that wrap around into the front fenders and a subtle chin spoiler compliment the traditional chrome slat grille and three-pointed star. This is a beautiful work of art.
Step inside the new CL, and you are treated with Rock Star luxury. This is a pillarless coupe, so entry front or rear is easy, particularly the rear seats as the CL’s front seats automatically move forward once a chromed latch is lifted. Up front, the broad, burled wood (other finishes available) center console is dominant. On the lower console is Mercedes’ Cockpit Management and Data System (COMAND) controller, which is light years easier to use than BMW’s I-Drive controller. A dedicated phone keypad (nicely covered in wood) rests just above the COMAND controller. Just in front of the COMAND controller are four direct access buttons for the most common controls a driver normally uses – the audio system, telephone and navigation, and some specialized seat controls. To the left and right of the COMAND controller are buttons to change suspension damping, control audio volume, raise or drop rear headrests, and a “favorites” button that can be programmed to control a function not already listed. Moving upwards, there’s a row of direct access HVAC buttons (redundant buttons as you can also control HVAC via COMAND). Just above these buttons is a gorgeous analog clock that’s easily read from all seating positions. Above the clock is the COMAND display screen which also has a unique feature. You can adjust it so that it is canted towards you the driver, or you can electronically swivel it to share with passengers (trust me, they will want to join in the fun).
The COMAND system itself is fairly easy to use, as long as you use the direct access buttons (there are also direct access buttons on the multi-function steering wheel). These buttons get you right to where you want to go without having to scroll through countless menus just to control one function. I still prefer non-controller based navigation and audio systems, but of those on the market today, the Benz system ranks with Audi’s as the most user friendly. The rest of the cabin is all about comfort. Heated and cooled seats, adjustable interior lighting and yards of supple leather define the space. Overhead, a glass sunroof gives you options for stargazing, while LED lighting bathes the interior with a soft glow. Even the footwells front and rear are illuminated with indirect lighting.
Before I tell you about the on road experience with the CL, you need to understand what propels this beauty. The CL550 comes standard with a 5.5 liter V8 making 382 horsepower and 392 pound feet of torque. Peak torque is available at a low 3,000 rpm, making acceleration an all smiles event. Mercedes-Benz has long been revered for their V8 engines. The 5.6 liter eight that graced the SL sports car and S-Class of the late 80s is still considered one of the best V8 engines ever. This current 32-valve motor uses aluminum heads and block, and is mated to a sophisticated seven-speed, driver adaptive automatic transmission. The tranny adjusts shift points to the driver’s current driving style. The driver-selectable “Comfort” mode starts the vehicle moving in 2nd gear, or 2nd Reverse gear, and upshifts at lower rpm to help improve control on slippery surfaces. It allows this rear-wheel drive vehicle to handle light snow without stranding you. Premium fuel is required for this and all Mercedes-Benz vehicles.
The engine moves this 4485 pound vehicle smartly. The drill is actually pretty simple: hit the gas hard when you need to accelerate, and you pretty much own the road. I’ve had CL’s bear down on me in the “hammer” lane before, and the sight of a suspension that drops the car at speed for better aerodynamics, HID headlamps and bulging fenders almost guarantees that you won’t have to “flash to pass.” Folks will know that you’re packing some serious iron and just get out of your way.
The big Benz sedans and coupes have always been rolling showcases of the best that Sindelfingen can produce. The new CL carries on this tradition by being a literal alphabet soup of technology. For example, ABC (Active Body Control) utilizes a coil spring and an electronically controlled hydraulic cylinder in series, plus a separate gas-pressurized shock absorber at each wheel. Using a total system pressure of up to 2,900 psi, ABC continually adjusts each wheel’s suspension to counteract vibration, pitch, dive, squat, and roll. ABC also provides automatic all-wheel level control, driver-selectable ride height, and automatic lowering at higher speed. The result of this high tech suspension control is a vehicle devoid of nasty habits when traveling at high or low speeds. And you can control the damping of the ABC system for “Sport” or “Comfort.” It’s a very complex system that works extremely well. Ride comfort and quality, no matter what speed you are traveling, are exceptional. Other significant alphabet soup contributors are BAS or brake assist, which senses emergency braking and applies full available power boost; and ESP, or Electronic Stability Program, which is a feature all cars should have, ESP compares the driver’s intended course, via steering and braking inputs, to the vehicle’s response, via lateral acceleration, rotation (yaw), and individual wheel speeds. ESP then brakes individual front or rear wheels and/or reduces excess engine power as needed to help correct understeer (plowing) or oversteer (fishtailing). ESP also integrates all-speed traction control, which senses drive-wheel slip under acceleration and individually brakes the slipping wheel or wheels, and/or reduces excess engine power, until control is regained.
And of course, no Benz would be a Benz without a full cadre of safety gear. In addition to nine airbags (including a driver’s knee
airbag), anti-lock brakes and of course seatbelts with pretensioners and force limiters, the CL also features Benz’ PRE-SAFE technology. PRE-SAFE is a radar based system that detects if a crash is imminent by measuring your speed with the rate you are closing on objects in front of you. If the system detects a crash is imminent, a flurry of activity takes place. Seatbelts are pretensioned and the braking system is pre-charged (using BAS) for maximum stopping power. Front seats are raised to optimal position for maxium driver control and seatbelt effectiveness.The sunroof and side windows close if a rollover accident is detected. Side bolsters in front seats are inflated, and rear headrests are raised. We’ve experienced PRE-SAFE in controlled demonstrations, and the system works as advertised. Anything to help prepare you for a crash is a plus to occupants.
The new CL550 comes in at a base price of $100,675, which includes a $775 destination charge. My tester came in at $116,525, and included as significant options Distronic Plus radar cruise control ($2,850); the “Premium II” package (rear view camera, active/ventilated seats, dynamic front seats, Night View Assist, and Keyless Go-$5650); and the AMG Sport Package (19″ inch wheels, Sportline suspension configuration – $5600). Of these options, two are must haves. Set Distronic Plus, and the gap you set between your vehicle and those in front of you is automatically maintained. If the vehicle in front slows, your car will automatically slow to keep the proper gap (it will not stop your car if the car in front of you stops – you must maintain control at all times). When the vehicle accelerates again, Distronic Plus will accelerate the car to maintain the gap. Night View Assist is a technological marvel. It uses an infrared camera and dashboard monitor (the gauge cluster in front of the driver becomes the monitor) to display greyscale images that might otherwise go unnoticed. That deer down the road, or the school kids dressed in dark clothing will be displayed by this system with amazing clarity.
The 2007 CL550 is a complete sports coupe. Mercedes-Benz has always paid special attention to making sure the coupes it produces are special machines. This new CL is no exception. For even more power, you can opt for the CL600 (twin-turbo V12-$144,975), or the soon to be released CL63 AMG (price TBD).