2004 Mercedes-Benz CL600 V-12 RAGGED POINT, Calif. We tried to avoid tourist traps. But we needed gasoline, food and restrooms -- all of which are in short supply on the 80-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 1 that skirts the Big Sur coast. So we pulled into this place, a commercial patch amid mystic beauty, and parked the silver 2004 Mercedes-Benz CL600 V-12 coupe. Tania Anderson, my driving partner, noticed it first: Tourists exiting buses detoured before going to restrooms or fast-food stands. They first stopped to ogle the CL600. "Hot car!" said Tania, a private-jet flight attendant, frequent movie extra and bona fide car nut. "They'd rather look at that car than [heed nature's call]." "Yeah," I said. "It's different." It was an understatement born more of embarrassment than insight. The difference, in this case, came in the form of a 5.5-liter, 493-horsepower V-12 engine capable of moving the CL600 from 0 to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds. At least, that's what the engineers at Mercedes-Benz claimed. We didn't try to clock that speed ourselves. You can do many things on Highway 1, things wonderfully memorable and astoundingly dumb. One of the dumbest things you can do is to speed around the curves of the highway's numerous rail-free cliffs, which afford little room for error. We wanted to see the scenery, not become a part of it. We drove here southbound from Monterey, stopping often to photograph the region's brilliant displays of nature. Occasionally we'd find a bit of straight, uncluttered road and let the CL600 run, which it did effortlessly. There was no macho exhaust note, no grunt-and-launch acceleration. There was nothing except speed, delivered so smoothly it was frightening. "You're at 90!" "What?" "Ninety!" shouted Tania. "Look at the speedometer!" I slowed down. But I got a chance to shout the same thing at her when she got behind the wheel, which gave me no small amount of satisfaction. At one point we activated the CL600's optional Distronic Adaptive Cruise Control system, which is a super-smart cruise control similar to the one used in the 2004 Cadillac XLR roadster. Mercedes-Benz's Distronic uses a radar-based sensor to maintain a preset distance between you and the car or truck ahead of you. It automatically varies the car's throttle opening and applies partial braking force (up to 20 percent of maximum braking power) to maintain the preset driving distance. Neither of us liked the Distronic feature. It worked perfectly. But "it's too perfect," said Tania. "It's like somebody taking over the car and driving it for you." I agreed and turned Distronic off. At one point, we got into a debate over the wisdom and ethics of building a car so powerful, so luxurious -- outfitted with full Napa leather upholstery, hand- polished chestnut wood trim, and every conceivable convenience and entertainment item. But that debate ended when we pulled into this place, which is really quite beautiful despite its commercial kitsch. All those people who paused to look at the CL600 after getting off those buses answered the question for us. "I don't care what anyone says, people are attracted to wealth," Tania said. And I said "Amen" to that. Nuts & Bolts Complaints: Mercedes-Benz has been rapped lately for quality problems. After driving the CL600 and several of the company's other top-line cars, I think I know why. Mercedes-Benz has gone "plug-in" crazy, snatching up every electronic gizmo it can find and installing them in its cars without being certain that the things will work, or that buyers will easily understand them. The onboard navigation system remains a case in point -- still too complicated, too clumsy. You've got to turn on the radio to make it wo k. Praise: A beautiful piece of machinery. Extremely well engineered, well balanced. An absolute joy to drive -- with the navigation system off. Head-turning quotient: High. "People are attracted to wealth." Ride, acceleration and handling: Superior in every respect. Layout/body style: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-door, four-passenger coupe with no center pillar. Engine/transmission: The CL600 is equipped with a 5.5-liter V-12 engine that develops 493 horsepower at 5,000 revolutions per minute and 590 foot-pounds of torque between 1,800 and 3,500 rpm. The engine is linked to a five-speed automatic transmission that can also be operated manually. Mileage: We averaged 15 miles per gallon in mostly high-altitude highway driving. Premium unleaded fuel is required. Safety: Curtain air bags, traction and stability control systems, Distronic cruise control, electronic brake assistance -- in short, all of the safety that big bucks can buy in a car. Price: The price has not been publicly announced at this writing. But Mercedes-Benz sources said the CL600 probably will have a base price of, gulp, $126,000. Purse-strings note: If you have the money, go for it.
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