With a ride that feels like lying on an inflatable bed floating in a pool of clouds, the 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL550 4Matic Coupe stakes its place in the luxury segment. Its seats gently massage tired muscles and hug their occupants with bolsters that respond to cornering forces.
The audio system emits symphonic detail in a cabin that seals out external noise like a bank vault. And with it sitting near the top of Mercedes-Benz's model lineup, you would need the contents of a bank vault to buy the CL550.
Mercedes-Benz fits the cabin of the CL550 with superb standard technology and then makes more items available that push the tech envelope even further. Think blind-spot detection, adaptive cruise control, and even a night-vision system. Imagine a main video screen that lets the driver look at navigation while the front passenger watches a movie.
But the biggest change to the CL550 for the 2011 model year is that Mercedes-Benz punctured the meaning of its model designation. For five years, anything with a Mercedes-Benz badge and the numbers 550 on its trunk lid sported a 5.5-liter V-8 under the hood.
On a new fuel efficiency kick, Mercedes-Benz replaced that big V-8 with one slightly smaller, bolstering its efficiency with forced air and direct injection. The new engine, which should become a staple across the company's bigger vehicles, is a 4.6-liter V-8 using direct injection for fuel delivery and low-pressure twin turbochargers, one on each bank of cylinders, for added power.
The CL550's new engine produces substantially more power than the one it replaces, and gets slightly better fuel economy.
With its smaller displacement, the new engine shows a small increase in fuel economy, going from the 2010 CL550's 14 mpg city and 21 mpg highway up to 15 mpg city and 23 mpg highway for the 2011 model. During our time in the CL550, we averaged 18 mpg, and observed the trip computer showing numbers above 22 mpg on freeway cruises. For such a minor increase, the new engine technology hardly seems worth it. Until you look at the power numbers.
Where the old engine produced 382 horsepower and 391 pound-feet of torque, the new one weighs in at 429 horsepower and, wait for it, 516 pound-feet. Obviously Mercedes-Benz was more interested in power than fuel economy increases.
According to Mercedes-Benz, with this new engine the CL550 hits 60 mph in 4.8 seconds. But at least one of those seconds must have been spent just getting the car up to 10 mph. The CL550 is strangely sluggish. With light throttle, it feels as if the parking brake were still on. Give it more gas to break free of the molasses, and it tends to lunge forward.
This inertia does not feel like turbo lag, which would be unlikely considering the low pressure of the forced air. Instead, it seems based in the car's tuning, as if Mercedes-Benz' engineers figured one way to save gas was if the car did not actually move.
The E/S button to the left of the COMAND dial switches the car between Sport and Economy modes.
Along with this new engine comes a button that toggles the car between Economy and Sport modes. At first, it seemed the Economy mode was responsible for the car's reluctance to get off the ground, as similar modes in other cars tend to detune the throttle. And to some extent it is, as putting it in Sport mode led to a slightly better takeoff. But it still proved difficult to modulate the accelerator for low-speed maneuvering without making the car lunge forward.
Once past the CL550's low-speed lurching, it picks up velocity like a fireball. There's no stopping this elegant coupe as it heads past the 30 mph mark, and it easily sails up to freeway speeds and beyond. Given the insulated nature of the cabin, the car can hit 100 mph before the driver knows it.
The seven-speed automatic delivers smooth shifts, enhancing the luxury experience. Because of the huge amount of power, the transmission never needs to make violent downshifts. The drive selector, Mercedes-Benz's odd stalk on the column, keeps it simple, with Drive, Reverse, and Park. Sport mode is engaged with the button on the console, which also affects the throttle.
Thin paddles on the steering wheel also allow manual gear selection. Unlike most automatics, it is actually worthwhile manually shifting gears in the CL550. This transmission makes sure gear changes happen with almost the authority of a manual transmission by using a lockup clutch to help the torque converter.
Further ensuring the best ride possible is an air ride suspension, which treats bumps in the road as a king treats serfs. It rides over them with little notice, keeping the body of the car practically immobile. One little complaint about the CL550's suspension is that Mercedes-Benz puts the button to switch it to Sport mode next to the LCD, a difficult place to reach when the car is under way and illogically far away from the Economy/Sport mode button for the power train.
AMG wheels are a sporty, but expensive, option for the CL550.
And like the button says, this suspension offers a Sport mode. When engaged, the car does not suddenly become a superstiff low-to-the-ground sports car. The ride stiffens up a little, and the car handles cornering with more ease. The body leans less in the turns as the suspension counteracts body roll.
As if all that drive train and suspension technology isn't enough, Mercedes-Benz makes its 4Matic all-wheel-drive system standard on the CL550 Coupe. The company boasts that 4Matic is so well refined that it adds very little weight to the car. As the CL550 weighs over 4,600 pounds, the additional weight is a small percentage overall. Driving the car on rain-soaked roads, the effect of the all-wheel-drive system was not particularly noticeable. And all of the CL550's suspension systems shrug off reasonably hard cornering, preserving the car's feel of comfort and balance.
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.
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.
|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|
|Price as tested||$122,475|