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.
You can't normally use the night vision feature during daytime, but it was dark enough on the lower deck of the bridge.
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.
The steering in the CL550 is a little over-powered for our taste.
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.
Traffic is a new feature in the CL550, but there is no dynamic routing to get you around traffic jams.
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.
As for audio, the Harman Kardon system in the CL550 pumps 600 watts out of 11 speakers, and uses Logic 7 processing to take two-channel audio sources and separate them into 7 channels. We found the audio quality to be high, with very good clarity in the high range, although midrange vocals were just a little muddy. Available audio sources include Sirius satellite radio, a six-disc changer, which can handle DVDs and MP3 CDs, and the aforementioned substandard iPod interface.
Beyond that trio of cabin tech, the CL550 sports Distronic Plus, Mercedes-Benz's adaptive cruise control system, which uses forward facing radar to match speeds with slower moving traffic. We found the system easy to set using the simple stalk controller, helped by the instrument cluster display which shows the speed you've set and the car's actual speed. In practice, the system works well, and had no problem slowing us down to speeds below 20 mph in a traffic jam. We only fault it for not accelerating quickly enough when we changed lanes to get around a slower car. The radar for this system is also used for collision warning, as the car will sound a tone if it thinks you are about to crash into the car ahead. If you fail to hit the brakes, it will go into precollision mode.
The night vision system is another technology we've seen before. It throws out infrared beams, with an infrared camera picking up an image and displaying it on the instrument cluster. You wouldn't want to try and drive just by looking at the display, but it does offer information about the road ahead on dark nights that can be taken in with a quick glance.
This icon in the mirror is amber at parking lot speeds, but turns red when a car is in your blind spot at speeds greater than about 20 mph.
Finally, the blind-spot detection system is new for Mercedes-Benz. We found this system very effective at letting you know when a car is hidden off the CL550's rear quarter, with a red icon lit up on the sideview mirror. If you signal to turn while the icon is lit up, it will flash and the car will beep, giving you an extra warning. Unlike some systems we've seen, the icon only lights up when another car is solidly in the blind spot, if it's approaching but still visible in the rearview mirrors, or right next to the CL550, the icon won't light up.
Under the hood
You get plenty of power out of the 2009 Mercedes-Benz CL550's 5.5-liter V-8. This double-overhead cam aluminum power plant delivers 382 horsepower at 6,000rpm and 391 pound-feet of torque from 2,800 to 4,800rpm, giving the car some low-end power bias to get its 4,639 pounds moving. Mercedes-Benz claims a 0 to 60 mph time of 5.4 seconds, making the CL550 a surprisingly quick coupe.
Mercedes-Benz has done a good job of refining the automatic transmission, so this seven speed shifts smoothly on its own, yet follows your lead when you use the paddles for manual mode. There is a little hesitation between shifts when you click the paddles, but it would be tough to push in a clutch and change a manual as fast.
Mercedes-Benz's refined all-wheel-drive system comes with the CL550.
Our CL550 was equipped with Mercedes-Benz's 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, a first for the CL-class. This system has been refined to the point that it only adds 154 pounds to the car, according to Mercedes-Benz. A multiplate clutch on the center differential is supposed to make it act like a limited slip, but getting this car into a situation where 4Matic would make a difference takes some irresponsible driving. That said, we did push it around on some wet corners with intermittent rises, putting the car in a nonoptimal traction situation, but it showed no signs of leaving the road.
From a sport perspective, the steering wheel tuning is on the light side, making it easy to throw around quickly but not providing as much feedback as we would like.
The CL550's big V-8 isn't what you would call economical, with an EPA mileage of 14 in the city and 21 on the highway. During our time with the car, the mileage stuck at 17.3 mpg for a mix of city and freeway driving, keeping to the middle of the EPA range. When gas prices go up again, this CL550 would be hard to justify. Surprisingly, the car earns a ULEV II rating for emissions, a step above the minimum.
The 2009 Mercedes-Benz CL550, with the 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, goes for a base price of $107,000. Fortunately, many features, such as the navigation and Harman Kardon stereo, are standard. Options on are vehicle included the Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detection, night vision, massage seats, and iPod kit. The total price for our CL550, which includes a $1,300 gas guzzler tax, comes up to $122,910. That's a hefty price for a car with poor iPod and cell phone compatibility. For that kind of money, you could get the Maserati GranTurismo, which looks even better than the already impressive CL550. Or you could get a few miles per gallon better fuel economy with the Lexus LS 600h.
In our ratings for this car, we consider the design outstanding. The pillar-less roof gives it an open feeling with the windows down and the roofline is very attractive. We also like the sculpture along the sides. The interface for cabin tech drags the overall design score down just a little; it's good but not the best we've seen. We would have downgraded the cabin tech score substantially for the poor iPod and Bluetooth connectivity, but features like blind-spot detection, night vision, and the massage seats buoyed it back up. There are a lot of toys to play with in this car. As for performance, while we are impressed by the power and the all-wheel-drive system, that overall score gets lowered because of to the mediocre gas mileage.