Review: 2009 Mercedes-Benz CL 550 4MATIC




Conspicuous consumption is something of a Mercedes-Benz specialty, what with the reams and reams of V8 and V12-powered luxury cars it offers. Two doors, four doors, hard top or convertible, they all can be optioned with tens of thousands of dollars worth of options and extras.

But the Benz at the very top of the pile is the CL. Sure you might argue it would be the SL or SLR. But no, the CL is it for sure, simply because it doesn’t offer anything you can’t get on the mechanically identical S-Class but with two fewer doors. You’re willingly reducing its effectiveness as a vehicle simply for style.

Easy argument, you say? Maybe, although like its S-Class sibling, the CL is very sensitive to colour and wheel choice. Dark is certainly better. The CL’s face is more of a slippery eel, with elongated headlamps and a smiling lower air intake. From some angles, you think Buick, which is why I mentioned the colour.

The model on test here is the ‘entry level’ version, if there is such a thing, the CL 550 4MATIC. Power comes from Mercedes’ 5.5-litre V8, producing 382 hp and 391 lb-ft of torque. This is not a wussy engine by any stretch, and thanks to the seven-speed automatic gearbox, it’ll hustle this 2,095 kg train car to 100 km/h in 5.4 seconds. Because this is Canada, Mercedes-Benz must think we need protection from everything, including slick roads, which is why the CL 550 comes standard with all-wheel drive. Not the high-powered versions, mind you, probably because 700 lb-ft of turbocharged V12 torque would bust the system…

Anyway, there’s something vaguely immoral about driving a vehicle that does absolutely everything for you. Does your back ache? Let the 14-way power adjustable, headed from seats with a massage function get the knot out. Can’t be bothered to turn around in your seat when parallel parking? No matter. Between the rear-view camera and the PARKTRONIC sensors, you’ll get it in there without creasing a fender.

Other technology includes: Active Bi-Xenon headlamps with washers and cornering lights, ADAPTIVE BRAKE system with hill start assist, ambient lighting, auto-dimming mirrors (rear-view and driver’s side), cellular telephone preparation with Bluetooth adapter, COMAND APS with navigation and PCMCIA interface for MP3 playback from memory cards… Phew! And that was only down into the ‘C’s. How about this: a continuously-variable door hold system. Rather than having two preset detents when opening a door, the CL will hold it for you wherever you like, which must be a difficult thing given the size of them. You could park a Smart Fortwo in the door-sill.

The $5,200 Premium Package includes drive-dynamic multi-contour front seats that inflate or deflate various sacs and pouches as you corner, climate comfort front seats, keyless ignition and a night-vision camera. Yes, you read that correctly. An infrared camera is mounted under the front bumper, and when activated, the main display fades away to be replaced by a screen full of white, amorphous blobs.

What’s amazing is that in the transformation to grosse coupe, Mercedes-Benz ditched the B-pillar in the process, meaning one of the most unobstructed views this side of a ‘60s Lincoln.
The interior itself is familiar to anyone who’s sat in an S-Class before, meaning more an architectural feel than car cockpit. The high-gloss burl walnut dash encases all of the HVAC and harmon/kardon stereo controls, but there’s a leather covered ‘mouse’ that sits over the COMAND dial that’s there purely to be twisted, twirled and clicked to death.

The rear seats are equally plush, access being granted by a gigantic chrome sculpture on the side of the front seats. And while space is generous, you know that you’re automatically a second-class citizen back here. While the back of an S-Class is meant to be enjoyed, sometimes even by the owner if he has someone to drive for him, the back of a CL is just transportation. Leather-lined luxury transportation, mind you, but transportation just the same.

Speaking of driving, the CL will do that. Drive, I mean. It’s not especially sporty, although the 19-inch wheels and Active Body Control would try to convince you otherwise. If you switch everything to ‘sport’, you’re ruining the whole idea of the CL. Go buy an SL or a CLK or CLS. There is an AMG Sport package for $6,500, but it’s just an aesthetic thing. Different wheels and a tacked-on body kit.

Perhaps the most impressive tech is the DISTRONIC PLUS package, which is the brilliant radar-based cruise-control system paired with the brake-assist system that will keep a constant distance from the car in front, and if that car slows down dramatically – or stops completely, whatever the case may be – the CL will do whatever it has to in order to keep that same distance. This includes stop completely. Once you learn to trust it and not have your foot hovering three millimetres above the brake pedal, it’s the perfect way to travel in congested traffic. One step closer to having robotic cars and I can’t get enough.

At a starting price of merely $130,500, can this car be considered plutocratic enough? Considering all the kit and kitsch that comes with, it would almost seem to be a value. There isn’t much else out there that’s similar. Perhaps the Maserati GranTurismo? In ‘S’ guise, it’s about the right price, if perhaps a tad smaller. And completely at odds with the CL’s pavement-crushing mentality. What’s also amazing is that the batshit insane CL 65 AMG is nearly twice the price at $241,000. Does each turbo and additional piston really cost as much as a Yaris?

Still, Mercedes-Benz sure knows how to keep the plebes distracted by big, shiny things with big, shiny wheels while those in the know sneak by in the back…

Price as tested: $130,500

Summary: Conspicuous consumption concentrate

Exterior Design: 7/10. Snore city, but a sleeper.

Interior Design: 9/10. 14-way, heated, cooled, massaging front seats. Nuff said.

Engine: 6/10. Utterly forgettable V8

Transmission: 7/10. Seven-speed auto old-hat by now

Audio/Video: 9.5/10. It has frickin’ night vision. All it needs are frickin’ lasers…

Value: 5/10. Not a value, especially compared to an S-Class with two more doors.

Overall (not an average): 7/10

By Mark Atkinson

Photos courtesy Mercedes-Benz Canada