The Mercedes CL550 is one of the most exclusive Mercedes models sold on our side of the pond. With the highest base MSRP of any non-AMG product, and rarer on American roads than all but the boxy G-class and the incredibly rare SLS AMG, the CL plays in quite a different league than the S-class on which it is based. I am told that Ford sells more F150s in a day the CL’s yearly sales figure and judging by the number I see on the road, I am inclined to agree. The CL was separated from the S-Class line in 1998 to help aid in the exclusive reputation of the model. For those that wonder, CL supposedly stands for Comfort Leicht (or Comfort Light in my native tongue). The comfort is obvious (and mandatory at this price point), but “light” must truly be a relative term as the CL tips the scales at a biscuits-and-gravy fed 4,700lbs. Does this matter? Let’s find out.
Why is the CL so exclusive? Aside from the fact that personal luxury coupés generally sell like ice to Eskimos in the US, the answer is mostly price. The “base“, CL550 starts at $113,150. Distinction is alluring to premium luxury buyers; the price affords them a level of uniqueness that can’t be found at the $80,000 pricing level. Strangely enough, what appealed most to the luxury car shoppers I quizzed at a local luxo-barge meet, was the CL’s blend-in-ability. When the CL arrived, it did so with a much lower sense of occasion than the (cheaper) Range Rover Supercharged I had the week previously. Sure the front grille is menacing, but the overall profile is swoopy and sedate. The CL just doesn’t lend itself toward becoming “rolling bling” like an Escalade or GL and for that I am eternally grateful. Instead of bling, the CL exudes grace and large proportions. The side profile is dominated by sashless windows and absent b-pillars. For 2011 Mercedes has tweaked the exterior with a revised front and rear clip integrating the ever-so-popular LED running lamps. The real changes for this year however are under the hood.
Although the model number remains the same, Mercedes tossed out the 5.5L V8 in the CL550 in favor of an all-new 4.6L twin-turbo V8 engine. You may be wondering why the 2011 model isn’t called a CL460 (I know I still am). Nobody seems to know why the name remains, other than to placate buyers who might turn their noses up at trading in their old CL550 for a lower number. Sound silly? You’ve never spoken with a certain segment of car buyers.
Proving once and for all there is a replacement for displacement, this new smaller V8 puts out 429HP and 516lb-ft of twist (47HP and 125lb-ft more torque than the outgoing V8) and does it all with a power curve as flat as Kansas. If you own last year’s CL63, it may be time to trade-down to a CL550. Our tester served up 60MPH in 4.6 seconds, only one-tenth slower than a 2010 CL63 I was able to get my hands on. If that’s not enough of a reason here’s another: The CL550’s standard 4Matic AWD means I arrived at 60 in 4.6 seconds with zero drama on wet pavement, broken pavement, or around a corner. Try that in your CL63.
Should you be in the market for something faster and have an even fatter wallet, Mercedes offers not one but three engines above the CL550 to choose from including no fewer than two AMG trims. What’s the cost of this extra thrust you ask? The CL63 AMG is one-rung up from the CL550 at $150,250, and it gets you to 60 in 4.4 with its 536HP blown V8. If 12 cylinders are more your style, the 510HP CL600 will scoot you to freeway speed in 4.5 for $157,000. The big-daddy CL65 AMG is the king of the pack at $209,300 sporting an insane 621HP, 739lb-ft twin-turbo V12 good for a 4.2 second sprint to 60 [Ed: and is the last two-door available with this Götterdämmerung of an engine].
The CL550 may be the “cheap” CL, but in my mind it seems to have nailed the personal luxury coupé as squarely as its fire-breathing siblings have missed the mark. The CL550’s air suspension delivers a glassy smooth ride, and while it does seemingly little to quell body roll in the corners, the grip is still more than adequate. The real springs found in the other CL models may sound sporty (and they do improve the corner-carving ability) but a stiff suspension is at odds with both the [almost] 5,000lb curb weight of the V12 and the CL’s luxury pretensions. Similarly the 7-speed auto found in the CL550 suits the role of a large luxury coupé to perfection with shifts that are fairly quick and glassy smooth. This is far more than can be said of ye-olde 5-speed that connects the V12s to the rear or the herky-jerkey “Speedshift” contraption the CL63 is “blessed” with.
Aside from the mechanical differences, few technological goodies separate the CL550 from the upper-crust CLs. The CL550 still comes standard with standard navigation, stitched dashboard bits, key-less go, iPod/USB interface and all manner of standard luxury amenities. Although options like the radar cruise control, split-view video screen, massaging seats and heated steering wheel may be included in the other CL models; you can get essentially everything in the base CL as well, with the exception of the heavily bolstered AMG seats with quilted leather. If you recall my review of the S400 hybrid , I complained that the S-Class’ interior just didn’t look special enough when compared to the LS600. I was afraid the CL would give me the same let down but I was pleasantly surprised to find the CL delivers all the same shapes, but covered with stitched leather and pleather. The extra effort dresses up the interior more than I could have expected and easily brings the CL into firm competition with interiors from Maserati and Aston Martin.
Let’s talk gizmos. The Mercedes Command system is not quite as intuitive as the BMW iDrive and isn’t capable of voice controlling your music device in the same way Ford’s SYNC product can, but all is not lost for the tech weenies like me. The optional split-view screen allows the driver to see the navigation system and the passenger to see something else like watch a DVD or play with the radio. The system works far better than I had expected with the display remaining completely crisp while in operation and totally indistinguishable from the regular command system screen.
The iPod interface worked well with my iPods and my iPhone4, but it is a little strange that Mercedes doesn’t put track forward/backward buttons on the steering wheel instead making you use the in-speedometer menu and buttons to change tracks. The Navigation system’s voice command system utilizes a very natural voice and readily understood every address I threw at it, more than can be said for many luxury car systems. In addition to the usual goodies, the Command system lets you adjust all manner of strange options you didn’t know could be adjusted like the footwell temperature, how “direct” you want the air blowing on your personage, what color you like your LEDs to glow and how high you want your trunk lid to open.
So what’s it like to drive? I should first state that I have a large soft spot for large, softly sprung vehicles that go like stink. If that’s what you like in a luxury car, the CL delivers in spades. Body roll is well controlled even on the twistiest of mountain highways, and despite the porky curb weight, the wide tires deliver plenty of grip. When you do try to toss this 5,000 luxurious pillow into the corners, the chassis is very predictable and rather forgiving when you reach the limit of adhesion. In the end however there is just no denying the laws of physics; the hefty curb weight of the CL550 (the lightest CL) consorts with the numb steering to make the CL seem less than nimble than it is.
Still, I wouldn’t call a large Bentley coupé “nimble” either, and with these prices in mind, it should be no surprise that the CL competes with the likes of Aston Martin, Maserati and Bentley. A BMW 6 you ask? Too cheap. This means cross shop¬pers are logically looking for something slightly cheaper and more discrete than a Continental or Roller, and in this light the CL550 might even be considered a value. While words like “practical” and “value” should never be used in the same sentence as a $126,000 car (as tested), it is the fact that the close siblings (CL600, CL63 and CL65) are so rare and only a few tenths faster that the best “deal” under 200K might well be the CL550. How’s that for a TTAC bombshell?
Mercedes provided the vehicle for our review, insurance and one tank of gas.
Statistics as tested
0-30: 1.91 Seconds
0-60: 4.6 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 12.9@106