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Expert Reviews 1 of 2
By Joe Wiesenfelder
December 31, 2009
Sometimes, being the only car of a particular type or price can put you in a lonely place — lonely enough that automakers usually avoid it, preferring to make their own copy of what everyone else is selling, and pricing it to match. The Mercedes-Benz CL-Class is an exception, an exclusive car in a couple of ways. For one thing, it's a large coupe, and that's a rare animal. In some ways it compares with the BMW 6 Series and the Jaguar XK coupe, but it's larger and starts around $30,000 higher than those models. At $107,900, it has the highest base price and lowest sales numbers of any Mercedes — except the $495,000 SLR McLaren, which is an animal rare enough to be extinct after the 2009 model year. All in all, being a lone wolf seems to be working out just fine for the CL-Class.
To oversimplify, the CL-Class is a two-door version of Mercedes' S-Class full-size sedan. Arguably, anyone who wants the best of both worlds can opt for the CLS-Class, which has four doors and the lines of a coupe, but Mercedes says that car's smaller size and lower price appeal to different buyers altogether. See them compared here.
The CL-Class comprises the CL550, the CL600 and two high-performance AMG models, the CL63 and CL65. The CL550 is the only version that sticks to a naming convention Mercedes once followed pretty closely: 550 stands for the CL550's 5.5-liter V-8 engine. After that, everything unravels: The CL600 has a turbocharged 5.5-liter V-12, the CL63 has a 6.2-liter V-8, and the CL65 has a turbocharged 6.0-liter V-12. I tested the CL550. S-Class Foundation The CL-Class is an impressive car for one very good reason: It has everything that helps the S-Class dominate the full-size luxury-sedan market. Stretched taut over a coupe form, the sedan's handsome lines look bolder, sportier and younger. The CL is 5.6 inches shorter from bumper to bumper than the S-Class, its roofline is 2.2 inches lower and its wheelbase is 8.3 inches shorter. Inside, this translates to slightly more legroom, an inch less headroom and 2 inches more hip room in the front seats. It's the backseat that takes a hit in the two-door, losing 10 inches of legroom and 2 inches of headroom ... and a whole seat, come to think of it. The CL seats four, total.
The S-Class is quite roomy to start with, so even with the decreases, the CL's backseat is serviceable for adults, providing they aren't too tall and the front occupants don't set their seats back all the way. The greater challenge is getting in and out. A chrome handle on the outboard side of the front backrests tilts them forward and sets the power seat in forward motion to ease entry, but there's no avoiding the low roofline, which seems poised to ring your chimes no matter what you do. To compare, the BMW 650i and Jaguar XK, which are also four-seaters, don't measure up in backseat headroom and legroom.
The CL's trunk capacity gets nipped and tucked, too, measuring 13.5 cubic feet versus 16.3 in the S-Class and 15.9 in the CLS, though it beats the 650i's 13 cubic feet and the XK's 10.6 cubic feet. The greater problem is that the CL's backseat doesn't fold to extend the trunk space forward. This is common among large cars, and especially luxury models, whose owners supposedly don't demand the feature. Still, when you need a little more space, it would be good to have, especially because the backseat itself is difficult to use for bags, parcels, etc. Performance to Match Looks Despite its size and 4,650-pound curb weight, the CL550 has performance to match its looks. It shares its engine and seven-speed automatic transmission with the S-Class, and as of the 2009 model year, it comes only with 4Matic all-wheel drive — an option on the S-Class. 4Matic adds $3,000 to that sedan's price, but even with the feature, the S550 costs $15,550 less than the CL. You also pay for all-wheel drive in terms of highway fuel economy. The CL is rated 14/21 mpg city/highway, matching the S-Class 4Matic and bringing a gas-guzzler tax of $1,300.
At least the thirsty drivetrain pays off, with zero-to-60-mph times around 5.5 seconds. (All the other CL-Class versions take about a second less — while increasing the price anywhere from about $35,000 to $96,000.) The seven-speed transmission is just as happy to accelerate gradually and smoothly, and steering-wheel-mounted paddles allow you to shift manually if that's your thing. Or you can choose between Comfort and Sport settings, which make the transmission more or less reactive in automatic mode, and adjust the adaptive suspension's firmness as well. Lap of Luxury As in the S-Class, the cabin is a highlight of the CL-Class, with exceptional-quality materials and perhaps the best-executed ambient lighting in the market, with a line of yellow-orange LEDs that encircle the cabin, providing both illumination and decoration after dark. The excellent Comand multimedia control system lets you select the intensity.
More than just luxury, it's high-tech features that make a car like this exclusive, and the CL doesn't disappoint. There are only a handful of stand-alone options, including a heated steering wheel, Bluetooth cell-phone connectivity, an iPod control cable and 19-inch wheels. The most interesting stuff comes in option packages, though, such as the radar-intensive Distronic Plus Package. High-Tech Features Distronic Plus takes adaptive cruise control — of which Mercedes was a pioneer — to another level. Adaptive cruise uses a front-mounted radar device to maintain the following distance from the car ahead. The "Plus" means Distronic allows the car to come to a complete stop, then accelerate again when the lead car takes off. I found the feature effective to the point of being freaky more than 95 percent of the time. Unfortunately, sometimes a car turning away in front of me or a sudden bend in the road caused a surge in acceleration, which once caused a hair-raising lurch toward an oncoming car. Obviously, the system should be used with extreme caution, preferably in stop-and-go highway traffic, not when intersections are likely.
The package also has rear-mounted radar units that provide a blind spot warning in either side mirror when another car is in your blind spot, an increasingly common feature.
Less common is the Parking Guidance feature, which helps you parallel park. (Click on the video icon to the right to see a demonstration.) Unlike a feature first seen in Lexus' flagship sedan, the LS 460, Parking Guidance doesn't turn the steering wheel for you and back into the space; that requires electric power steering, which the CL lacks. Instead, graphics on the instrument panel show you exactly how far to back up and how much to turn the wheel in a few steps. It doesn't have quite the gee-whiz factor, but it beats Lexus in a few areas: It can measure parking spaces as you drive along at less than 10 mph, and it won't let you try to fit in one that's too small. It allows you to be closer to the parked cars when you start out (Lexus puts you farther into the street), and there's no complicated setup requiring the backup camera, which the Lexus requires. (Lincoln doesn't have a direct competitor to the CL-Class, but it bears noting that its optional parking system combines the best of the Lexus and Mercedes systems.)
Another cool option is Night View Assist, a night-vision camera mounted high in the windshield that displays an image on the instrument panel's LCD screen. It can see a larger area than your headlights illuminate, and because it can read heat signatures as well as light, animals and people really stick out in the image. Urban areas like Cars.com's hometown, Chicago, are bright enough that Night View Assist isn't truly necessary, but you could say the same of a $108,000 car. In the world of luxury cars, bragging rights are more important than necessity. Does your golf buddy's car have night vision? I didn't think so. Safety Typical of full-size luxury cars, the CL-Class hasn't been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but it does have a boatload of safety features. There are nine airbags, including two frontal ones, a side-impact torso bag for each of the four seats, side curtain airbags and a driver's knee airbag. Antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control are standard. For a list of all standard safety features, click here. CL-Class in the Market The S-Class sedan outsells the CL-Class roughly 10 to 1, but that doesn't make the big coupe a failure. Even though two-doors aren't as popular here as they are in some foreign markets, Mercedes says the U.S. is the CL's biggest market. Exclusivity is a major consideration among luxury-car buyers, and the rarity of large luxury coupes seems to be serving the CL-Class — and its buyers — well.