2011 Mercedes-Benz CL550 4Matic review:

2011 Mercedes-Benz CL550 4Matic

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No pillars
Mercedes-Benz successfully combined a stately demeanor with sporty good looks for the CL550. A coupe with dimensions similar to that of the S-Class may seem extravagant, but the nicely curved roof and the pillarless side windows provide ample justification. Emphasizing the sport character of the car, Mercedes-Benz opts for an embedded badge in the hood rather than an upright ornament.

With no B pillars, the side windows give the cabin an open-air feel.

The car maintains Mercedes-Benz's luxury reputation with its cabin appointments. The front seats are big, high-tech easy chairs, with power controls on the doors offering a wide array of adjustment, and even more fine-tuning available through the car's cabin tech interface. These seats also offer active bolstering, holding occupants in place securely against sideways g-forces. And the most ridiculously opulent feature, four different massage settings to reinvigorate tired muscles. These seats make you feel loved.

Further on the trend of high-tech envelope pushing, Mercedes-Benz makes its night vision system available in the CL550. Most people could not tell at a glance, but the speedometer is actually a video display. Hit the night vision button, and infrared projectors throw unseen light far ahead of the car, the reflection of which gets picked up by an infrared camera and displayed in place of the speedometer. The speed indicator becomes a lateral bar at the bottom of the screen.

This system is mainly useful on very dark roads. Drivers are not supposed to concentrate on the screen, just give it an occasional glance to reveal what waits in the darkness ahead. This system also comes with pedestrian recognition technology, but it didn't seem to operate at low speeds, refusing to highlight crowds on San Francisco streets. And we didn't find any lone walkers out for an evening stroll as the car barreled along on mountain highways.

Blind-spot detection lights up this icon in the side mirrors.

A few other driver assistance technologies make the cut for the CL550, including blind-spot detection and lane departure warning. The blind-spot system offers the usual warning, lighting up an icon in the side mirrors when another car is off the CL550's quarter. This is one of our favorite safety technologies. Lane departure warning notifies drivers about drifting over lane lines by vibrating the steering wheel. But the vibration is too subtle, and the notification has no audio component, making it unlikely to wake up a dozing driver.

For entertainment, Mercedes-Benz breaks new ground with its split-view LCD. With technology that seems on the verge of magic, the driver sees normal infotainment system content such as navigation, phone, and audio. But the passenger gets to watch DVDs on the very same screen. In fact, video playback is locked out for the driver when the car is in motion. The drawback to this system is that the technology reduces the overall screen resolution, making it look less crisp than it would be without the split view option.

The navigation system is a fine feature in itself, with a number of views, the richest showing full 3D renderings of buildings in select cities, along with topographical terrain features. In 3D view, the sky changes to reflect the night and day. Mercedes-Benz integrates traffic information with this system, showing traffic flow and incidents on the map. Under route guidance, the system shows which lane you should be in for upcoming turns.

The navigation system shows traffic and 3D features.

In previous years, Mercedes-Benz showed reluctance to integrate with Bluetooth phones, but the CL550 offers a feature-rich system. It paired easily with an iPhone and copied over the contact list, making it available on the screen and through voice command.

Smartphone owners will also get access to many telematics features through the Mbrace app. With it, drivers can remotely lock and unlock the doors and get directions to their cars, using the CL550's and the smartphone's GPS. Mbrace also has concierge services.

To equal the comforts of an owner's manse, Mercedes-Benz equips the CL550 with a standard Harman Kardon audio system. In fact, this system would put many home stereos to shame. It produces an incredibly clean sound with exceptionally clear detail. Midranges are, perhaps, too rich, with the minute layers of vocals overwhelming the ear.

Quite a range of audio sources feed this stereo, including the onboard hard drive, which reserves space for music, HD radio, satellite radio, iPod integration, and a six-disc changer which reads both CDs and DVDs. To take it over the top, Mercedes-Benz even includes two SD card slots.

In sum
For its big, expensive sedans and coupes, Mercedes-Benz pushes technical barriers, and the 2011 CL550 is no exception. From its suspension to its cabin entertainment, the company has fitted the CL550 with almost every conceivable high-tech feature. Dropping the old 5.5-liter V-8 in favor of the more efficient twin turbo 4.6-liter was a good choice, although it still needs refinement for low-speed driving. The seven-speed automatic transmission is about as good as you can get with a torque converter, but the suspension is the real high point, as it handles rough pavement like no other.

The car cuts a unique profile, and should even be recognizable to those feeling lost in all of Mercedes-Benz's letter designations. The pillarless side windows are a particularly nice touch. The cabin tech interface uses an aesthetically pleasing design in step with the image Mercedes-Benz is trying to project, but it is not the most intuitive layout. Coupes can often be impractical cars, but Mercedes-Benz includes some good ergonomic touches, like attaching the front seat belts to the seats instead of the sides of the car.

Mercedes-Benz covers the basic cabin tech features with excellent equipment, from the 3D maps in the navigation system to the Harman Kardon audio system. But it adds many features on top, such as innovative driver assistance. The telematic service's smartphone app is a nice, modern touch.

Tech specs
Model 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL-Class
Trim CL550 Coupe 4Matic
Powertrain Twin turbo direct-injection 4.6-liter V-8, seven-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy 15 mpg city/23 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 18 mpg
Navigation Hard-drive-based with traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Disc player Six-disc changer
MP3 player support iPod integration
Other digital audio Onboard hard drive, SD card, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD radio
Audio system Harman Kardon 11-speaker 600-watt 5.1 surround system
Driver aids Night vision, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detection, lane departure warning, rearview camera
Base price $113,150
Price as tested $122,475

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