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DRIVING FOR DISTINCTION

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Fri, Jul 13, 2007

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

DRIVING FOR DISTINCTION

By JOHN GRAFMAN

In the ever-increasingly competitive marketplace, companies have an uphill battle distinguishing their brand from every other company in similar genres. Such a dilemma faces Mercedes. For years, the brand was the meaning of the words "luxury automobile." Now it seems everyone is jumping into the game and grabbing a piece of the action.

Most notably, Lexus has been for years eating into the luxury pie, slice-by-slice. One has to give credit where credit is due, and Toyota's upscale brand has earned its stripes. The handiwork has been impressive, but normally falling into fail-safe products - meaning, four-door sedans for the most part. Mercedes went a different direction on some of its products and took the mass-market appeal out. In its place, it created personal appealing products. The CL550 is just that. Not a car for everyone, nor is it meant to be.

Make no mistake, everybody loves this car. But it doesn't fit the criteria the mass market yearns for. So those looking for four-doors or a utility vehicle configuration will need to pick out a different flavor, and Mercedes has plenty for those buyers. On the other hand, this model offers presence that simply isn't available from the likes of the Japanese companies, or Americans. And the Europeans really only have a few that I will stick in the same field.

While not in the same price range (unless "very expensive" is an all-encompassing group), the Bentley Continental GT is one of the few cars that provides a feel that this one offers. Again, set aside feature comparisons or pricing even, I am talking about sheer drama and the feeling this affords as being unique.

While on the subject, this might be a fine time to mention that this vehicle is indeed for those who tote an American Express Black Card. So as to not put unwanted miles on perhaps the owner's vintage classics or other rare vehicle, this is a damn nice ride for everyday commuting. I gather this will be only one of several cars in the driveway and garages of those able to swing the devil-may-care price tag of $100K. Hey, you can't take it with you, right?

What does one get for 100 big ones? Anything you want, baby. The truth is the car does feature cool devices that will please any gadget fanatic. Perhaps the most outstanding of all is included in the additional $5,650 Premium II package. The Night View Assist is an exceptional night vision feature that turns night into day at a flick of the dash-mounted switch. Located smack dap in the display with the gauges, at the touch of the silver switch the gauges disappear and the large screen appears with amazing clarity - even in the darkest conditions. However, trying to drive while looking at this is akin to piloting a plane by instruments only. As roads have many intersections and road conditions vary, this is not a practical idea on urban streets. On long, deserted roads, this comes into its own. Like the car itself, the wow factor overshadows the other more tangible aspects, as impressive as they may be.

Other features are simply some of the best examples on the market. It will be hard to not be very impressed with the sound produced by the 11-speaker, 600-watt Harman Kardon system. The reproduction is quite entertaining. And in conjunction with the Sirius system, it's hard to beat. No matter how loud the audio is, it still comes across perfectly. The channel changing, which is displayed on a large center screen, is a little awkward. The center control knob on the center console just forward of the armrest doesn't seem to coordinate as elegantly as the channel changing on the steering wheel or dash mounted buttons for preprogrammed channels. Nonetheless, it does the job. I would also like to have more options for adjusting the sound. Mercedes provides not only the requisite 6-disc in dash changer that's DVD audio capable, it also provides a memory card slot to boot. Well, maybe we can finally discard the cassettes we have been holding onto.

All aspects of the CL are massaged thoroughly. The 6 mm side glass, for instance, is laminated to provide noise insulation and infrared reflectivity. Trunk closure is a one-touch operation. GPS navigation with a 20-gig hard disk is standard. Interior ambient lighting feature, heated front seats, digital tire pressure monitoring system, and Tele Aid emergency calling and communication system are just some of the great features.

Parktronic uses radar proximity to aid in avoiding the far end of the garage wall when returning home. It comes standard, as it should in a car this massive. When one conjures up images of a coupe, typically it is much smaller. The CL doesn't scrimp on dimensions. The back seating is generous and pleasing after the added effort of getting to them, which, as always, is the crux of a coupe.

Driving the CL is a pleasure, to be sure. But it isn't the size of car meant for a tight-coned course like those found at Hot Import Nights. The second generation Active Body Control (ABC) does offer a very nicely controlled suspension that automatically adjusts and blends handling and control with the realties of deplorable roads. I do favor the isolation from undulating surfaces over a hard suspension, which rattles the fillings from you teeth. The ABC doesn't force one to make a sacrifice. On the other hand, I would be pleased to have the steering feel more direct and less isolated. Again, Mercedes is preparing this for more civil purposes than some might have in mind. Perhaps the top speed limited to 130 is a tip off.

That top speed seems a shame, especially when considering the 5.5-liter motor that can motivate the CL with 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque. In spite of the generous size and feature-laden interior, the car can still manage a very respectable 0-60 seconds in 5.4 seconds.

The seven-speed tranny is as smooth as it gets, and does an admirable job on shifting speeds. Is seven the lucky number? Certainly there is a gear for every purpose, but in more sporty activities, it does require a few more down shifts to put it in the right gear for fun - solely due to having such a big spread. If in seventh gear, it is a long way down to fourth, and especially third. Yet, the paddle combo works as it is meant to, and the location on the backside of the steering wheel is nicely concealed. The transmission also has the center console adjustment for comfort, sport or manual mode varying the shift points. Out of the ordinary is having the primary shifter on a stalk, but it is functional and maintains a more open feel to the CL.

As a matter of design, the cabin is very airy. The absence of a B-pillar allows for a more flowing design on the outside, and some of the best over the driver's shoulder views I have had in a long time. And as long as drivers are still in control, the ability to see unobstructed is a passive safety feature that one can't quantify.

Regardless of how it's viewed, be it from the inside out, or from the exterior gazing on the muscular and flowing lines, it is hard to confuse this Mercedes with anything else. Mission accomplished.

SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Winning the battle for luxury car distinction, but there's always a price to pay.

For more info please go to www.mbusa.com

SPECIFICATIONS

Price $103,875

Engine type: 5.5-liter 32-valve DOHC V8

EPA mileage estimates City/ Highway: 15/22

Horsepower: 382 @ 6,000 rpm

Torque: 391 lb.-ft @ 2,800-4,800 rpm

Drive configuration: Front engine / rear-wheel drive

Transmission type: 7-speed automatic with electronically controlled shifting and driver adaptive programming shifters

Suspension: Front: 4-link independent with anti-lift control, gas pressurized shock absorbers, and stabilizer bar Rear: Multi-link independent system with anti-squat and anti-dive control

Active Body Control (ABC) ABC, an active suspension system, utilizes a coil spring and an electronically controlled hydraulic cylinder in series, plus a separate gas-pressurized shock absorber at each wheel. Using a total system pressure of up to 2,900 psi, ABC continually adjusts each wheel's suspension to counteract vibration, pitch, dive, squat, and roll. ABC also provides automatic all-wheel level control, driver-selectable ride height, and automatic lowering at higher speed.

Wheels / Tires: Front: Standard: 18-inch 9-spoke alloy, 225/45R18 high performance Rear: 18-inch 9-spoke alloy, 275/45R18 high performance

Brakes: Front: Vented discs, vacuum assist, 13.2-inch diameter Rear: Vented discs, vacuum assist, 11.8-inch diameter

Brake Assist (BAS) BAS senses emergency braking via the speed at which the driver presses the brake pedal and immediately applies maximum available power boost, potentially reducing the overall stopping distance by eliminating the delay caused by a common human tendency not to brake hard enough, soon enough. Reducing pressure on the brake pedal releases BAS.

Overall length: 199.4"Overall width: 73.7" Overall height: 55.8" Curb weight (lbs.): 4,485

0-60 mph: 5.4 seconds

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