The 2007 Mercedes-Benz CL550 is a beautiful car both inside and out. With its curvaceous profile, bold front nose, pronounced fenders, and flared rear wheel arches, it boasts some of the most elegantly beaten sheet metal on the road. From the inside, the view is arguably even better--especially with the windows down, as the lack of a B pillar gives the CL550 an open-air feel.
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).
We set up an obstacle course to navigate using the CL550's Night View Assist feature.
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.
The infrared camera provides a crisp image of the road ahead, but it can't detect objects that are close to the front bumper.
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.
The Pulse function on the Mercedes CL550's seats gave us plenty of relaxing drive time.
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.
Most audio and navigation functions are controlled using the COMAND dial, which is situated just in front of the phone key pad.
Like the 2007 Mercedes-Benz S550, the CL550's navigation system features a 20GB hard drive, which enables it to provide lightning-quick response and refresh times for inputs. Programming a destination is straightforward: drivers use the COMAND wheel to select state, city, or street, then use a rotary action to select the required letters and numbers. A particularly impressive feature is the system's ability to calculate addresses by ZIP code.
Like the iDrive system in upscale BMW models, the CL550's COMAND interface features haptic feedback, which gives a physical indication when the limit of a range of menu options is reached. With the destination entered, the system calculates the route in less than three seconds--a vast improvement on the navigation systems in lesser Benz models. Zooming in and out using the dial is also impressive, as the system is able to go from a nationwide view to street-level perspective as quickly as the driver can turn the dial.
Another option for zooming maps is the CL550's voice command system, activated at the push of a button on the steering wheel. Pressing the button and asking the system to zoom in or zoom out has the effect of adjusting the map by a single level of magnification at a time. Other functions of the voice command that we discovered--there was no user's manual in our test car, meaning that we had to use our favored method of trial and error when evaluating the tech--include switching between the radio, CD, and navigation screens. The voice-command system is not Acura caliber (a request to adjust the cabin temperature was met with a request for clarification), but it was gratifying to have some of our speculative commands understood.
Also to our liking is the CL550's turn-by-turn voice guidance for navigation routes, which we found prompt and accurate. When approaching a turn or an intersection, the map screen divides into two, with the right-hand side showing a detailed close-up of the road configuration--a nice feature for negotiating complex junctions.
The Mercedes-Benz CL550's LCD screen gives crisply rendered high-resolution maps for the standard GPS navigation system.
As well as providing a convenient platform for controlling the COMAND dial, the center console-mounted pod also contains a hard-button keypad for making calls using the CL550's hands-free calling interface. While we do like this feature in theory, we were not able to use it in practice as our car was equipped with neither the $200 MHI proprietary hands-free calling interface (which works with only 5 cell phone handsets) nor the $408 Bluetooth interface that works with a mere 20 models of phone. We are not at all impressed with the necessity to splash out hundreds of extra dollars on a phone module for a car that bases at $99,000. Perhaps the most ridiculous thing on the CL550's option sheet is a $400 phone cradle that works only with the Motorola Razr--why anyone would spend that much money to tie themselves to a single (outdated) model of phone is beyond our ken.
Back to more positive subject matter, the CL550's audio system is very impressive. The standard in-dash six-disc CD changer handles regular Red Book CDs as well as MP3-encoded discs. When playing the latter, the audio system instantly indexes all the tracks on the disc, making them available in list form on the LCD screen. The driver can then use the COMAND dial to navigate the entire library of tracks at a glance. In addition to MP3 discs, the audio system can handle DVD Audio discs, but WMA-encoded discs are not accepted. All sources play back via the CL550's 600-watt, 11-speaker digital surround sound system, which delivers startlingly clear and crisp audio reproduction.
Under the hood
"Where do you put the key?" asked the parking attendant as we went out for our first test drive. It's a good question. Our tester was equipped with the Mercedes Keyless Go package that enables you to get into the car and fire it up without having to take the key from your pocket. The CL550's 5.5-liter V-8 engine is called into life with a touch of a chrome pushbutton start, giving the driver access to plenty of performance potential.
With net power of 382 horsepower and net torque of 391 pound-feet, the CL550 can get itself from zero to 60mph in just 5.4 seconds--no mean feat for a car with a curb weight of 4,360 pounds. Like many of Mercedes' high-end 2007 model-year cars, the CL550 comes with a seven-speed, driver-adaptive transmission, which apparently learns the driving style of whoever is behind the wheel, adjusting the timing of up- and downshifts accordingly.
For those who wish to adjust their own shifts in more spirited driving conditions, the CL550 features manumatic shifters on the back of the its steering wheel. As a testament to the spirited driving that can be done with the shifters, your correspondent was flagged down by the California Highway Patrol and given a speeding ticket while driving in manumatic mode.
Performance and safety technology on the 2007 Mercedes CL550 are almost as plentiful as the car's cabin gadgetry. Like the 2007 SL550 that we reviewed last month, the CL550 comes with Mercedes' Active Body Control (ABC) suspension system that's designed to reduce body roll in cornering, accelerating, and braking. Using 13 sensors placed around the vehicle, the ABC system theoretically detects and counteracts vertical- and transverse body roll by regulating the suspension via hydraulic servos located at each corner. Unlike the ABC system on the SL-Class, which has a separate setting for Sport mode, the CL550's ABC appears not to be adjustable. One performance feature that can be adjusted is the CL550's automatic shifts, which can be set to either Sport or Comfort modes depending on your mood.
For having such a large engine, the CL550 displayed passable gas mileage in our week-long test drive. Over 200 miles, we saw an average gas mileage of around 20mpg in mixed city and freeway driving.
The CL550 has a virtual speedometer, which is displayed on the instrument-panel-mounted LCD screen.
Driving the CL550 around town, we found its power-assisted, speed-sensitive, rack-and-pinion steering a little too light for our liking: we understand that the CEOs and Hollywood agents likely to buy this car don't want to do any more work than they have to, but we would have preferred a little more resistance and feedback to remind us that we were actually driving. In fact, if you prefer outsourcing your driving duties, the CL550 is the car for you. As part of the $5,650 Premium II package, the CL550 comes with Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control, which enables drivers to peg their speed to that of other cars on the freeway. And one of the most innovative safety technologies on the car is the as-standard Pre Safe system. Pre Safe works by monitoring data from the car's braking- and electronic stability systems. If the systems suggest that the car is getting out of control, the car automatically adjusts a number of interior settings to minimize the effects of any potential impact: measures include adjusting the driver- and front passenger seats for more effective airbag deployment; inflating the seat's outboard side bolsters; and closing the windows and sunroof. Fortunately, we did not get to see any of these functions in action.
Our 2007 Mercedes-Benz CL550 came with nearly every available option. As well as Distronic Plus ($2,850) and a heated steering wheel ($450), we got the $5,650 Premium II package, which includes active ventilated front seats, dynamic multicontour front seats, a back-up camera, Night View Assist, and Keyless Go. With a gas-guzzler tax of $1,300, a destination fee of $775, and a base price of $99,000, our tester claimed the title of CNET Car Tech's most expensive review vehicle ever, with a price tag of $110,925.
The CL550 is a car at the crossroads of consummate luxury, admirable performance, and advanced onboard and driving technologies, although most people will need a second mortgage before they start to think about owning one.