Mercedes CL550 Review

Jay Shoemaker
by Jay Shoemaker

During my soujourn on the other side of the pond, I was delighted to score an early drive in the new CL550. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm was somewhat blunted by the French Mercedes salesman’s incessant questioning. He kept interrupting my concentration to ask me how to adjust his seat massage system. Then, thanks to his oafish fiddling with the car's COMAND navigation system, I was distracted by a computerized frenchwoman ordering me to make a U-turn s’il possible. I contemplated pulling over sur le grand-rue to garrote both of my companions, but I couldn’t find a Parisian parking space of sufficient enormity to berth the German dreadnought. Tant pis pour moi.

America used to build gigantic Eldorado and Continental coupes like this: impossibly large luxobarges with rocker panels suitable for a secret stash. No more. The list of modern coupes just under 200 inches long begins and ends with the CL550. While the mighty Merc shrinks when you weigh anchor, we’re still talking about a two-door that’s only slightly larger than a Range Rover. Aside from Darth Vader’s Maybach-derived Exelero, automotive size-queens have found their car.

Of course, coupes of all dimensions generally succeed on their appearance. Although there's more than a touch of CLS to the rear, the CL550’s got so much snout you’d be forgiven for thinking that mon ami photographed the test car with a porno lens. Still, props where props are due: the latest CL is sexy in a German Cabaret sort of way: projecting a mix of brand appropriate aristocratic arrogance and unabashed kink. In fact, I suspect more than a few Parisian pedestrians thought my nearasdammit $100k ride deserved immediate immolation.

Luckily, California hasn’t had a proper riot for years. And anyway, the monster Merc is an inside out kinda car, reserving most of its delights for the cabin’s residents. Of course, all the luxury toys are present and accounted for. The materials may be a bit serious minded, but they're well up to the Bentley benchmark. On the downside, despite winning a gong from a German authority on seating comfort (the mind boggles), I couldn’t find a comfortable sitting position– no matter how much I tilted, squabbed and lumbared. Clearly, the CL550's chairs were designed for drivers whose girth matches their motor’s.

Big yes, but this behemoth can boogie. To make Merc’s two-and-a-quarter-ton two-door handle like a car rather than, say, a tank, Munich’s boffins deployed second generation ABC (Active Body Control). The faster acting hydraulic servos transform the elephantine CL550 into something approximating an anti-gravity device. Roll, dive and/or squat are virtually nonexistent, at any speed, during any maneuver. Grip is available in appropriately large doses. Of course, with the sound insulation, the CL550’s tires could have been squealing like teenage girls at an Orlando Bloom film festival for all I know.

That’s the penalty for the poise: a dearth of dynamic feedback. Not only is your body isolated from anything other than graduated G-forces, but the CL550’s steering (complete with bus-like helm) is too slow and numb for rewarding control. Mercedes’ seven speed transmission, rightly and universally praised for its seamless cog swapping, adds to the non-sense of isolation. In fact, with Mercedes' ever-improving sound system cranking out insufferable Europop, the CL550 could well be the world’s fastest driving simulator– if you know what I mean.

If only the video screens windows provided a better image view. The CL550’s front windscreen is a bit of a bunker slit, the rear pillar is to three quarter visibility what sweatshirts are to bikini tops, and the back bumper is a few klicks to the rear. Good thing Merc provides CL550 pilots with parking aids fore and aft, night vision assist and Distronic plus radar-guided cruise control. While the technology protects against inflating insurance premiums, it adds to the feeling that the owner’s role in the erstwhile driving experience could be a little, um, superfluous.

Disengage cruise control, depress the go-pedal and there’s a large measure of hanging on involved. The CL550 sprints from rest to sixty in 5.4 seconds. The top end is electronically limited to 155mph– the exact point at which the heavy machine begins to feel nimble. Unless you’ve done serious circus time as human cannonball or the automotive equivalent thereof (i.e. own a Brabus-fettled Merc), the CL550’s in-gear acceleration doesn’t disappoint. The brakes are formidable! Or so the salesmen said when I avoided squishing an old Peugeot like a new accordion.

As I returned the CL550’s key fob to the friendly Frenchman, I wondered who’d end up owning the car. Back when I was an aspiring plutocrat, I found the last generation CL hugely appealing. Now that most of the plutocratic population is either behind bars or awaiting sentencing, this group’s sway over the buying habits of the upwardly mobile has diminished. These days it’s bling avant tout. (Hence the CLS550.) Still, there’s a soft spot in my heart– and an empty spot in my garage– for this extravagent teleportation chamber. Sometimes getting there is more than half the fun.

Jay Shoemaker
Jay Shoemaker

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  • Robert Farago Robert Farago on Oct 15, 2006

    I have removed the anti-French comments under this article and the replies to same. (Please note: Mr. Shoemaker was not attacking the French in general.)

    Also, while I will allow political discussions relating to the issues raised by TTAC's reviews and rants, there are limits. Here are the basic rules, in case you've forgotten.

    1. No accusations of anti-domestic bias against this site, its authors or commentators. Any such comments can be sent directly to me at

    2. No personal attacks.

    3. No bad language. OK, limited bad language.

    3. Nothing exceedingly off topic.

  • Logankf Logankf on Oct 16, 2006

    "While the mighty Merc shrinks when you cast anchor..." So you're saying that it shrinks when you stop? I would think it seemed smaller from the drivers seat while underway, which would mean you had "weighed anchor". Sorry, I am in the Navy, so I couldn't let it pass.

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