Mercedes-Benz pushed the automotive technology envelope substantially this decade with the S-class sedan, but following close on that model's heels has been the beautifully sculpted Mercedes-Benz CL550 coupe. Both the S-class and CL-class get tech features such as night vision, massage seats, and adaptive cruise control, and both come in at well over 100 grand, loaded.
And Mercedes-Benz hasn't been sitting on its laurels, as the 2009 CL550 gets tech updates to keep it competitive. But what the car really needs is an overhaul of its in-dash electronics, giving it a similar package as that found in the lower tier C-class. While the CL550 features new gadgets such as blind-spot detection, its iPod interface is terrible and Bluetooth integration is very limited.
On the road
As a luxury vehicle, the 2009 Mercedes-Benz CL550 had a lot of comforts in store for us as we drove east on the freeway from San Francisco. We took advantage of the massage seats right away, using the big metal console knob to dial in a slow and vigorous pummeling. Before setting out, we had tried to pair an iPhone with the car's Bluetooth system, but it wasn't compatible, so we merely hooked it up to the iPod connector in the glove compartment. To our dismay, the car's LCD remained blank--we could only see what was playing on the instrument cluster display, and control of the music was limited to skipping forward or back.
Being on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge as we started out, we hit the night view button, and got to see a video image of the view forward in place of the speedometer. We've seen this tech trick before on Mercedes-Benz vehicles, but it remains a cool one. To keep our interest up, the CL550 brings in blind-spot detection as a new feature, with a red triangular hazard icon lighting up in the sideview mirror whenever another car was riding next to us off our rear quarter. Contributing to our ride, the CL550 cruises smoothly; with the adjustable suspension set on Comfort, the car glided over bumps and holes. Seven speeds on the transmission and a 5.5-liter V-8 led to equally smooth power delivery. We could ride like this forever, or until the gas ran out. At 17.3 mpg on the trip computer we didn't think we could get far, but Mercedes-Benz puts massive tanks in its cars, so the 23.8 gallons of the CL550 would give us plenty of range.
After running east for a few hours, we turned around and gave up this soft freeway driving for a winding two lane track through the Oakland hills. Suburbia was in the rearview mirror when we put the suspension into Sport mode. We didn't notice a big difference in ride quality, so threw it hard into the first corner to see what would happen. The car felt heavy and the power steering felt light, but body roll was minimal. The transmission didn't aggressively downshift, so we worked the steering-wheel-mounted paddles for the next turn, pushing it down to third. The RPMs were up, the engine made a delightful purr, and the car powered out of the turn easily. A light rain fell, but this CL550 came with 4Matic, Mercedes-Benz's all-wheel-drive system, so traction didn't seem to be a problem. We shifted down to second for the tighter corners, and the car still held on, albeit with a certain amount of understeer as we maneuvered the heavy front end around.
Putting it back into the office garage, we had to step back and admire the nicely curving roofline. It was a very enjoyable drive and we immediately began plotting our next excursion. We like the idea that, with the CL550 you can say, "I'm going out to get a massage," then just spend the afternoon driving around.
In the cabin
Mercedes-Benz excels in driver aid electronics, and our loaded 2009 CL550 featured the full roster. But in features we consider core--navigation, cell phone integration, and digital music--the CL550 lags. The company seems to have grudgingly adopted some of the most cutting edge features, but they feel bolted on, with poor integration.
For example, the CL550 adds traffic reporting to its navigation system for 2009, but it lacks dynamic rerouting or proactive alerts. We like the resolution of the maps in this navigation system, and it calculates routes quickly and accurately, but it will let you drive right into a complete traffic jam. Unlike other cars we've seen with live traffic, you have to watch the screen for traffic issues and hit the detour command if you want to get around an incident. The navigation system also doesn't let you search within a points of interest category for a specific name, forcing you to browse through lengthy lists of restaurants, for example.
Mercedes-Benz resisted Bluetooth for a long time, opting for a cradle docking system for cell phones. But recent models have included Bluetooth. Unfortunately, the number of compatible phones seems very limited, as we tried both a Samsung phone and an iPhone, finding neither worked with the system.