Setting a high standard that cut both ways.
by Marc Stengel
I am not going to apologize. I am going to explain. It certainly isn't because I expect to persuade anyone into parting with $90,000 for an automobile that I take up the subject of Mercedes-Benz's CL500 touring coupe. It goes without saying that 99 percent of the folks reading (and writing) this are categorically unable to spend that much on a car. Of the remaining one percent who can afford to, half of them are too calculating to do such a thing while the other half will blithely fork out for this very conspicuously consuming showpiece in spite of anything I have to say.
I happen to believe, however, that there is a role for the elite in our world, and it is primarily to establish benchmarks or standards of achievement. I also happen to believe that "elite" is not automatically synonymous with "best" when, in fact, elite more accurately signifies rare sophistication. Among autos, the CL500 is undoubtedly rare and inarguably sophisticated. Regardless of pocketbook, any auto enthusiast will benefit from an experience of driving the CL, because ever after he or she will know how well every other vehicle measures up to the CL's lofty standard. Moreover, he or she will know how fleeting, even impossible, it is to be the very best at anything.
Not that Mercedes-Benz hasn't tried exceptionally hard to make its CL-Class coupe the best in the world. Actually, there are three of them: the CL500 deploys a 5.0-liter V-8; the CL55 uses the same V-8 with a bit longer piston-stroke to displace 5.5 liters; and the 2001 CL600 debuts a stunning new V-12 that displaces 5.8 liters. Horsepower figures range from 302 to 354 to 362, respectively. Base prices likewise jump from $87,500 to $99,500 to $117,200, giving the CL500 a dubious opportunity to claim "entry level" status in such august company.
The benchmark these cars set is a technological one. Much of this technology is conspicuous, much of the rest is invisible; all of it, however, changes dramatically the otherwise mundane experience of driving a car.
Something as simple as the roofline of the CL for example is a case in point. The beautiful arch from front to rear not only creates a generous, airy expanse of glass on both sides of the car but also it makes its graceful vault without need of a strengthening pillar between the side windows that would otherwise obscure an occupant's view. It is one of the longest such clear spans in automotive architecture, yet unseen buttressing elsewhere renders the CL500 immensely rigid from top to bottom, front to rear.
Mercedes exploits this solid platform, moreover, in a way no other company in the world presently can. The CL coupes are the first cars in the world to incorporate robot-like Active Body Control (ABC), which stabilizes ride quality by defying cornering forces. Using 13 sensors and two computers, ABC monitors the fore-and-aft "pitch" and side-to-side "roll" of the vehicle at all times, then instructs a high-pressure hydraulic system to compress or expand the coil springs at each wheel for the sake of maintaining a level ride. At its Normal setting, ABC reduces body roll by 68 percent; in Sport mode, by 95 percent. It is, in fact, so uncanny to corner aboard so flat a platform that Mercedes-Benz's engineers decided to retain a five percent vestige of roll sensation. Otherwise there would be none of the traditional cues to alert a driver he is approaching extreme, possibly untenable, cornering speeds.
Standard on the CL600, and a $2800 option on the CL500 is another technological tour de force. Distronic cruise control uses radar to enable the CL to maintain a set distance behind preceding vehicles. Distronic controls both acceleration and up to 20 percent of maximum braking force to set an "adaptive" cruising pace which the driver can adjust via a thumbwheel controller in the center console and a dash-mounted display operated from the steering wheel. An optional Parktronic system ($995) uses four sensors embedded within the rear bumper and six more up front to alert the driver of impending contact with solid objects when the car is moving slowly backward or forward.
Inside, Mercedes-Benz has elevated its COckpit MANagement and Data (COMAND) system to new levels of sophistication - and inscrutability. COMAND assumes full responsibility for all audio chores (AM/FM/weatherband radio, cassette player, CD changer) and GPS navigation. It also allows hands-free operation of an optional Motorola Timeport telephone. Mercedes' COMAND, however, is not exactly what most people wish for, and its "personality" is more than a little reminiscent of HAL's - things must be done as COMANDed, or there will be unsavory consequences.
Twisting the convenient knob on the radio unit, for example, does nothing to control audio volume. That's a job for a compass-like directional scroller: hit North for more volume, South for less. Selecting a radio channel or CD track is not a pushbutton matter, as most folks might expect. It's twist-knob-and-menu exercise - just the kind of programming activity not to be performing at fast, flat cornering speeds, no matter how effective Distronic is at establishing a mobile safety-bubble.
Much more than any space-age concept car at the auto shows, the CL-Class from Mercedes-Benz is a real-world, daily-driving exemplar of the latest advances in automotive technology. It is serene to drive. It is muscular, flattering, attentive to every whim. It represents an elite benchmark for these qualities that is useful for evaluating any other car on the road. Its often confusing complexity sets a lofty standard too. Many lesser cars profit by this particular comparison, and it reminds us what can happen when the elite stay slightly out of touch.
2001 Mercedes-Benz CL500
Base Price: $87,500; $90,140 as tested
Engine: 5.0-liter V-8, 302 hp
Transmission: five-speed automatic with Touch Shift, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 196.6 x 73.1 x 56 in
Wheelbase: 113.6 in
Curb weight: 4115 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 16/23 mpg
Safety equipment: Front/side/head airbags, ABS, Traction & Stability Control, optional Distronic (radar) Cruise Control and Parktronic collision warning
Major standard equipment: Active Body Control, COMAND audio/navigation system, dual-zone HVAC, TeleAid emergency/assistance service, power windows/seats/locks
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles
© 2001 The Car Connection