Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - CL-class - CL500 coupe
Styling, luxury, performance, technology, seats, relative fuel economy, voice command, active cruise control
Room for improvement
Auto lever too easy to knock out of place rear-seat access steering wheel test car’s infuriating dash squeak
31 Aug 2007
AUSTRALIAN millionaires do not have many choices when it comes to high-end, luxury-orientated, true four-seater two-door coupes.
There are really only four: the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti ($562,000), Bentley’s Continental GT ($375,000), the upcoming Maserati Gran Tourismo (which will probably be priced around the high-$200K mark), and Mercedes’ latest CL, which kicks off with the $308,000 CL500 model tested here.
Everything else is compromised through a lack of rear-seat space (Jaguar XK, Porsche 911) or by having more mundane car-based DNA (BMW 3 Series Coupe, Mercedes CLK, Audi A5, Peugeot 407 Coupe and even the BMW 650Ci, since it shares its underpinnings with the 5 Series).
So judging the Benz is purely a matter of perspective. If you are looking at the segment from the top down, it is a relative bargain, because you are getting a proper Bentley competitor for much less money.
And, to be sure, we kept a latest-model Continental GT at hand to see exactly what heights the CL500 can scale.
After all, it is worth noting that, while the GT has a Continental Flying Spur brother, both share much of their internal architecture with the Audi A8 and Volkswagen Phaeton – cars that were created to crush the S-class sedan that donates much of its platform and interior componentry with the big Benz coupe.
Of course, with the British car, for the extra money you get all-wheel drive and a W12 nuclear powerplant of an internal combustion engine that is capable of propelling the GT to almost 320km/h against the rear-wheel drive Benz’s powerful but not explosive 5.5-litre V8.
The big ‘B’ also ensconces you in an English drawing room of an interior, with four adjustable seats, acres of tree, dinky metal knobs and your usual array of high-end luxury car trappings like satellite navigation, heated and air-conditioned seats and electric soft-close doors and boot.
But the Mercedes also has all these, as well as radar-controlled cruise control, night vision infrared lighting and the world’s best voice-activated satellite navigation system.
Open the lightweight but still solid-feeling door of the Daimler product and you will find incredibly comfortable front seats that are sumptuous to sink into and adjust in ways you never thought possible. Needless to say, just about anyone could find an ideal driving position.
Interestingly, while the Bentley has a style and ambience that recalls the past, the Mercedes is about the future.
Its very BMW 7 Series-style dashboard architecture features rich and densely detailed screen graphics, elegant piano key-like buttons to activate many of the various climate functions, fantastically intuitive front electric-seat adjustment and a moderately simple computer mouse-inspired controller for some of the other settings.
Striking yet simple, the whole cabin has a dramatic modernity denied to the Bentley inhabitant, with surfaces that look, feel and smell justifiably expensive.
Particularly noteworthy is the perceived quality of the wood and stitched leather trim – both befitting a Bentley rival.
More importantly, the CL500 has the ambience of a coupe because you are sitting within a dome with no centre pillars, with side windows that fall cleanly away. These add another dimension to the Mercedes (and the Bentley also) that sets it apart from the more upright S-class sedan.
All it takes are the push of four buttons (it should be only one) to raise the windows and suddenly you are once again cocooned in your own climate-controlled micro environment with a brilliant Harman Kardon audio system.
But it is not all good news inside.
For a start, our test car had a persistent squeak emanating from the instrumentation panel that sounded like somebody was determined to drive us insane by continuously crushing a cheap biscuit pack wrapper.
While the twin rear seats are spacious enough for a coupe, getting in and out of the back is not so easy despite the fairly quick electric seat sliding mechanism, and there is not the same feeling of luxury back there compared to the S-class sedan.
The CL500’s steering wheel is really quite ugly, with low-rent A-class-like buttons that are out of step with the rest of the car’s rich cabin feel.
As with most recent Mercedes models, the automatic gear lever is too easily knocked out of Drive and into Neutral due to its column-shift positioning. A fix is needed, and fast.
Nevertheless, none of these really detract from the CL500’s overriding luxury feel.
And, speaking of riding, the suspension system is about as sophisticated as such things get.
Dubbed Active Body Control, it uses hydraulic cylinders at the axles to counteract body pitching and roll when the car is on the move, and then uses a big computer brain to constantly adjust the amount of body damping according to the speed you are going – for instance, above 60km/h, the ABC set-up lowers the body by up to 10mm to reduce drag and improve stability.
It all sounds pretty complicated, but the upshot is sufficient ride absorption and suppleness combined with exceptional handling agility, although you still hear the suspension working over little road irregularities, and sometimes larger speed humps test the amount of wheel travel available.
While it seems a little incongruous throwing the CL500 through tight corners, its electronic suspension set-up keeps the car flat, with less lean (and more grip) than you might imagine. Clearly, this car is set up for fluid progress.
Having said that, switching off the stability and traction control system turns this into a tyre-smoking, tail-wagging hot rod. Not that you are inclined to such anti-social behaviour, but the choice is yours.
The engine is virtually silent until you either wind down the (double-glazed) windows or stick your boot right in and suddenly the scenery just blurs past.
The 285kW 5.5-litre powerplant will rocket the big coupe to 100km/h in 5.4 seconds.
As with its other Mercedes applications, the 7G-Tronic – with its drive-by-wire connectivity – is fabulously smooth and intelligently geared for maximum efficiency.
A word about the Distronic Plus active cruise control system: not only does it automatically stop and then allow the car to resume the pre-set speed limit when safe to do so, it monitors objects around you and audibly warns you when it thinks you are approaching something too fast even when the cruise control is not set.
The extraordinary level of technology is a huge part in the appeal of the Mercedes CL500.
While the design is certainly striking enough, with its massively curved profile, blistered wheel arches and stylistic flourishes (like the integrated tail-light detail, ovoid rear glazing and pillarless silhouette), it is the most conventional and conservative compared to the stately Bentley, striking Ferrari and gorgeous Maserati.
But the CL500 feels special, ticks all the right luxury, performance and comfort boxes, and is a technical tour-de-force.
And for that we think it is an exceptional and effective alternative to all of the above.
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