Editor's note: This review was written in June 2011 about the 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL550. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL550 is stunning — both to look at and to drive — in a way not many cars are.
The CL550 is plenty quick, though it's not at the top of the CL-Class heap in terms of power. Nor is it practical, economical or subtle; it's simply a gorgeous automobile for people who can afford to not care about such things — or its $113,000-plus starting price.
The coupe version of the S-Class sedan, the CL-Class sits very near the top of the Mercedes-Benz range, and would be a rare thing in anybody's lineup: a large coupe. And when I say large, I mean it: The CL is roughly 200 inches long. That's the same length as a GMC Acadia — a crossover that seats up to eight people in three rows (see them compared).
Still, the CL is one of the best-looking cars on the road. That's partly due to the fact that Mercedes gave it a stretched-out form; there's a low, sloping roof and no pillars between the front and rear side windows. The car is also fairly wide, and the overall impression is of a very low, wide car. Interestingly, it's not hard to get in and out of the front seats. I never felt like I was falling onto the ground, as I have in other coupes.
The CL was restyled for 2011, with a reworked front end, and LED running lights and taillights. The CL wasn't ugly before, but I think the changes were done well. (Compare a 2011 to a 2010 here.)
As much as I like how the CL looks from the outside, it's on the inside that Mercedes outdoes the competition: Everything you see or touch looks and feels good. If I shelled out the cash for a CL, I'd feel like I got my money's worth every time I sat in it. And it's not just that the interior is opulent — though it is — but that it also manages to be functional.
Mercedes uses its Comand multifunction knob and display to control navigation, audio and some seat settings, in lieu of a touch-screen. The car also provides enough buttons for things like fan speed, defroster and radio volume that you only have to use Comand for a few select functions. It's a well-integrated system (more on the gadgets later), but the immediate effect is that it creates a very clean, uncluttered interior.
Now for the pretty stuff: The lack of a middle roof pillar means a lot of light comes into the cabin and you never feel claustrophobic in the CL. The next thing that caught my eye was the leather, both the amount and the quality. There are few surfaces not covered in leather, and there's plenty of exposed stitching, which always looks nice. It looks especially nice because Mercedes chose thread that's the same color as the leather, rather than going for a contrasting style. It also feels good when you touch it. Anybody can put leather in a car, but not everybody does it as well as Mercedes. The same holds true for the wood trim: I'm not a fan of the stuff on principle, but Mercedes picked good-looking materials and used them well.
The controls, vents and various buttons all have a good, solid feel to them. That's to be expected, but some automakers miss the details. Mercedes doesn't.
Room in the backseat is worth mentioning: It's tolerable, but I wanted more space for my feet and a touch more headroom. I'm just over 6 feet tall, so folks of more average height might be slightly more comfortable. Larger people, though, should only be expected to ride short distances in the rear of the CL.
Driving, Part One
This might be the time when you'll wonder if you are getting your money's worth, especially if you're a performance junkie. The CL550 we tested is the base model of the CL range. All other versions — CL600, CL63 AMG and CL65 AMG — offer more power.
The V-8 in the CL550 is new for 2011 and offers more power than the previous engine (429 horsepower and 516 pounds-feet of torque, up from 382 hp and 391 pounds-feet in 2010).
|CL550||429-hp, twin-turbocharged 4.6-liter V-8|
|CL600||510-hp, twin-turbocharged 5.5-liter V-12|
|CL63 AMG||536-hp, twin-turbocharged 5.5-liter V-8*|
|CL65 AMG||621-hp, twin-turbocharged, 6.0-liter V-12|
|*An optional performance package bumps power to 563 hp.|
The engine defaults to an Economy setting that moves you from a standstill in 2nd gear, and that's OK. The problem is that when you press slightly harder to get a bit more power, you got a lot more power. It snapped my head back on many occasions, and I never adjusted to the Economy mode in all the time I spent driving the CL550.
Don't get me wrong: I don't mind the power, but I do mind its surprising, sudden application. When I was able to just cruise along the road, Economy mode was fine — but heaven help you if you need to accelerate suddenly. Other editors noticed a lag going from a stop or from slow speeds.
You can also choose a Sport setting that shifts the transmission at higher engine speeds and is more sensitive to accelerator inputs. I preferred this mode simply because it was more predictable. (It also seemed to allow the engine to make more of a snarling sound than the Economy mode — a good, slightly menacing sound.)
In either mode, the transmission — a seven-speed automatic — kicked down to lower gears quickly for passing, and it felt all but seamless when moving between gears.
I was less fond of the steering. The CL550 has Mercedes' Direct Steering system, which has a variable-ratio steering rack for better response in tight corners. It's certainly quick to respond, but it felt numb. Also, the steering is very light and felt lighter the faster I went — not reassuring at highway speeds. At times, I felt like I was steering a video game rather than handling a car. I would've liked more feedback.
Driving, Part Two
The CL's standard Airmatic suspension is hard to fault. It can operate in either its default Comfort setting or a firmer Sport setting. Without going into technical details, I'll say that it absorbs bumps like little else I've driven.
I drove the CL on my normal route and experienced nothing but a muted "whump" over a road imperfection that makes other cars crash and bang. Granted, that was in Comfort mode, but when I switched to Sport I didn't notice any real degradation in ride quality, just a slight jiggle on really bumpy roads.
Where I really noticed the difference while driving in Sport mode was on highway on-ramps; it does a nice job of holding the car steady. That, combined with the CL's standard all-wheel drive, lends a lot of confidence at sane — but still fast — speeds. It's stable and gets a great amount of grip. I didn't get anywhere near the CL550's limit; there was always enough grip and comfort to put a big smile on my face.
One thing with which I wasn't as enamored was the need for Mercedes' optional blind spot warning system, which I normally don't use. Unfortunately, the CL550's standard mirrors are just too small to be of much use. As far as highway driving goes, the mirror issue is the only major fault I noticed. Other editors pointed out that there was absolutely no road or wind noise, making the CL an excellent road-trip car.
The CL's standard equipment list is long. Our test car came with a number of option packages; here are some of the highlights:
For starters, the blind spot monitors are included in a package that also gives you adaptive cruise control, which maintains a set following distance from the car in front of you, even if it slows. With that package, you also get lane-keeping assist, which thrums the steering wheel if you go over a lane marker without signaling. I tried it out, and it works obtrusively enough to alert you that you've strayed, but not so harshly that you think you've broken something and/or are about to die.
A Premium Package includes massaging front seats. They're nice, work as advertised and can be set to Active mode, meaning the same bolsters that massage you can inflate to hold you in your seat better when you make a turn, then deflate when you hit the straightaway. I skipped the Active setting and snugged the bolsters up to my body just for driving around; it felt more natural and comfortable than having the seat suddenly start pushing on me.
The Premium Package also includes Night View Assist PLUS, which uses invisible infrared headlights to display a view of the road on the screen where the speedometer usually appears. It's a good idea, but not necessary in the city, where there's plenty of ambient light to begin with. Perhaps if I lived in the country it would have impressed me more.
Safety, Reliability & Mileage
The CL has not been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, nor is there reliability data for it. The CL550's mileage is estimated to be 15/23 mpg city/highway, and it takes premium gasoline.
CL550 in the Market
The CL550's price is enough to guarantee it a solid spot in the market. In other words, if you can afford more than $100,000 for a car that doesn't have rear doors, who cares if it's not the fastest version out there? I doubt you'll feel like you're getting ripped off by not choosing the more powerful CL600 or an AMG version. The CL550 is still a stunner.
And that's the appeal of the CL550: It's not something I judge by how well it carries groceries, handles child seats or rips around a racetrack. It's more logical to judge it by the luxury experience it provides, and in that sense the CL550 does quite well.
If your criteria include owning the most beautiful car on the block, and having it also be luxurious and comfortable, it will be hard to find something better than this.
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