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A sumptuously appointed cabin combines leather and wood-trimmed refinement with some of the best in-car gadgetry we've seen, including some very well-equipped seats. Mercedes' signature 5.5-liter V-8 ensures that the CL550's performance matches its looks, while some advanced safety features such as radar cruise control, Night Vision Assist, and Pre Safe make this $100,000 super coupe one of the safest cars on the road.
Test the tech: Night rider
To devise practical tests for all of the tech features on the 2007 Mercedes-Benz CL550 would take us a lot longer than the week that we were given to spend with the car. In addition to being a consummate piece of German engineering and a stylish, pillarless coupe, the CL550 is also a giant computer on wheels, with more technology toys than the average home. Thus spoiled for choice, we chose for our test the most unique technology feature on the car: its infrared Night View Assist monitor, designed to help give the driver a better idea of obstacles in the road after dark.
Night View Assist use beams of infrared light from projectors in the car's headlights to illuminate as much as 500 feet of the road ahead. The resulting scene is captured by an infrared camera mounted near the rearview mirror, which then creates a grayscale image of the road ahead and sends it to the high-resolution display in the CL550's instrument panel (the latter also functions as a virtual speedometer when Night View Assist is off).
To test this remarkable feature/gimmick, we decided to drive the CL550 at night looking only at the Night View Assist monitor: we figured that since we'd practically learned to drive with onscreen games such as Out Run and Gran Turismo, this test would not present too much of challenge. Just to be safe, however, we conducted our test on an unlit, disused parking lot--and, according to our lawyers, we by no means advocate any attempt to replicate this test on any roads, either public or private.
To set ourselves a sufficiently challenging test, we constructed a slalom course from some boxes we had laying around the office. The idea was that we would try to drive the entire course without taking our eyes from the Night View Assist screen. In this way, we would get a good idea of the screen's usefulness for negotiating the road as well as its ability to illuminate potential hazards.
Having set up the course of five boxes (there are few things as suspicious as a couple of guys pulling boxes out of the back of a $110,000 car in the middle of an abandoned lot), the first thing we noticed when looking at the Night View Assist monitor was that we could see only four of them, albeit with impressive clarity. Due to the angle of the infrared camera, the view of the road on the screen does not include whatever is within the first 15 to 20 feet of the front bumper. This did not bode well for our slalom test.
We soldiered on, however, and proceeded to try to drive the course using only the evidence of the screen. As we couldn't see the boxes as we approached them, this proved to be extremely difficult, and in the end, we were not able to negotiate the course without the aid of our peripheral vision. Our conclusion, therefore, is that, while it might be a useful technology for highlighting obstacles at a distance on particularly dark roads, the Night View Assist does not make it any easier to negotiate driving in densely packed or congested areas such as city roads.
In the cabin
Installing oneself in the cabin of the 2007 Mercedes-Benz CL550 is like getting into a tailor-made suit; the perforated leather seats exhale as you snuggle into them, and the hand-polished burled walnut trim glints from the center stack, door sills, and steering wheel. From a luxury standpoint, this is one of the best appointed cabins we have ever seen. All of the switchgear in the CL550 is solid and well positioned. On each door, a bank of chrome-trimmed controls provide a means of adjusting the 14-way power seats, while dedicated buttons let you set the seats to one of three memory positions and one of six heated or cooled temperatures.
That would usually be enough seat technology to score high points, but on the CL550 there is far more in store. A button to the right of the center console opens up a whole menu dedicated to programming the CL550's dynamic multicontour front seats. Similar to those we saw in the 2006 BMW M5, the CL550 has the option of dynamic seats, which use active side bolsters to physically resist lateral movement of the driver and front passenger in their seats while in cornering. Rather than the pivoting side supports in the BMWs, the CL550 makes use of pneumatic chambers, which inflate to correspond inversely to steering movements (a left-hand turn will cause the right-hand chamber to inflate, and vice versa). The dynamic seats can be set to one of two levels, depending on how spiritedly you are planning to drive, or they can be turned off.
Having had our kidneys pummeled by the active bolstering through a particularly winding section of Northern California coastal roads, we were overjoyed to discover the final party trick of the active seats: a Pulse mode massage feature. Driver and front passenger use the COMAND dial to customize their massages, with options including the specific areas of the back and shoulders to be worked on, and the level of firmness with a delicious range of options: slow and gentle; slow and vigorous; fast and gentle; fast and vigorous.
It should be clear by now that the CL550 was designed with comfort and convenience as a primary focus, a fact that is apparent in every aspect of the cabin layout. In the natural resting spot for the driver's right hand, a leather-trimmed teardrop-shaped pad provides a comfortable perch for one's palm while twiddling the COMAND dial situated directly in front of it. Unlike the disappointing versions of the COMAND system we have seen recently in other Mercedes-Benz models (the 2007 Mercedes-Benz E550, the E320 BlueTec, and the SL550 models, for example), the LCD screen on the CL550 delivers stunning clarity. The maps and menus on the CL550's wide-screen display appear particularly bright, thanks to the screen's positioning deep in the dash and shading courtesy of a leather-stitched cowl.
The COMAND system in the CL550 is so intuitive and easy to use that it is difficult to believe that it was designed by the same company that devised the clumsy interface in the 2007 Mercedes GL450 (among others). Using the silver dial mounted toward the front of the CL550's central console, drivers can tab between navigation, entertainment, phone menus, and system settings with ease. Two bars across the top and bottom of the display give a clear means of tabbing between different functions, which can be done either by pushing the COMAND wheel up, down, left, or right; or by turning the dial.