Mercedes CL550 brings luxury for all seasons

2011 CL550 Mercedez-Benz Review

Mercedes CL550

There was an old joke about an artist displaying his latest painting, which looked a lot like a blank, white canvas until he was asked about it, and explained that it was a white cow, eating marshmallows, in a snowstorm. I spent a week trying to find artistic backdrops during a Minnesota winter week’s test-drive of a Mercedes CL550 Coupe, but every time I got focused, I thought about that joke.

That’s because we were hit with a 20-inch blizzard just before the new Mercedes CL550 showed up for me to drive for a week, and the car was a spectacular pearlescent “diamond white” paint job covering its low form that was as pleasing aesthetically as aerodynamically. Wherever I parked it, there seemed to be a white car with a white background. All week long. But that was the only thing reminiscent of a problem with the car and the climate.

Every year in the Upper Midwest, the reality of wintertime collides like a 20-inch blizzard with the glamor of owning and driving an expensive luxury car. The Mercedes CL550 might provide a remedy for that dilemma.

Most luxury cars are of conventional front-engine/rear-drive layout, which is comfortable and satisfying when it’s warm and pleasant outside. That can be year-round in warmer climates, or it can be spring, summer and fall in the chillier northern areas. Mercedes always has been out there, along with BMW, stressing front-engine/rear-drive, and also stressing that its high-tech traction and stability measures can get you through the winter.

That may work is some winter areas, where the occasional snowfall hits and then goes away, but a seemingly endless winter like the 2010-11 term, running from November into and presumably through March, makes you realize that even with the right tires mounted, there can be a lot of anxious moments. In most cases, you simply park your sports or luxury car and drive the SUV or “winter” car out of the other garage bay.

CL550 side-front

The white CL550 stands out, even axle-deep in snow.

Mercedes, however, also has something called 4Matic, which is a technically-advanced all-wheel-drive system, and that can definitely be the perfect solution for the uncompromising luxury car buyer who demands style and sizzle and also needs to drive through winter’s worst moments. BMW has its “X” drive, also an AWD system that can be added as an option on most sedans and SUVs. In both the cases of Mercedes and BMW, the technology of their AWD systems has finally attained the level that for decades gave Audi, with its quattro, a clearcut advantage in snowbelt states.

When I got word that I was going to have a week to spend with a 2011 Mercedes CL550 Coupe, it was exciting news, even though it was arriving just about the same time as one of those amazingly redundant blizzards blanketed Minnesota. Because I had recently driven several assorted big and middle luxury cars with rear-drive and even front-wheel-drive with questionable tires, I was frustrated that this low and sleek two-door coupe would probably be a major handful.

Turns out, I was wrong. The CL550 that showed up was equipped with the 4Matic system — a luxury four-place sports coupe with incredible power and performance, harnessed by a slick and sophisticated all-wheel-drive system.

It could have only been better by adding all-out winter tires, but going from the low-profile, high-performance rubber to low-profile all-season tires was more than adequate for my week with the car.

We must get one thing out of the way right up front, of course. The CL550 costs more than normal consumers can come up with. The test car had a “base” price of $113,150, and loaded up with all the key optional ingredients is stood at $127,870.

For that, the CL550 4Matic 4-Passenger Coupe comes loaded, with a 4.6-liter V8 engine fed by twin turbochargers — Bi-Turbo, in Mercedes-speak — and conjuring up 429 horsepower at 5,250 RPMs, and 516 foot-pounds of torque, peaking through a full span of 1,800-3,500 RPMs. A 7-speed automatic transmission that is driver-adaptive and has sport and Eco shift modes, and the 4Matic all-wheel-drive system has 4-wheel Electronic Traction System.

If you had a clear day, free of Minnesota’s favored obstacle-course-quality chuckholes, you could go 130 miles per hour in this beast, and it’s electronically limited to 130, probably by the tires, which might be softer than the car would have on the unlimited-speed autobahns of Germany, near its Stuttgart home.

There is another issue with high-performance, low-profile tires, which look so great on specialized alloy wheels, and as luck would have it, I learned about said issue on a Mercedes SL550 last fall. Driving on a dark street in downtown Minneapolis, we made a right turn around a corner and heard and felt a horrible jolt as we made the turn. Continuing on gingerly, we wondered how such a jolt from one of countless washout chuckholes could have failed to cause some sort of damage. Fortunately, the damage was contained on the brand new and expensive tire, with a bit of a scar on the wheel. The car was all new for 2011, just recently introduced, and it turned out the only tire of its kind in the whole Twin Cities was at Maplewood Imports in the northeast suburbs. The guys at Maplewood did a quick and efficient job of fixing the problem and assuring us there was no other damage.

Ordinarily, I would think that difficulties could only be from a lack of frigid-weather traction from tires that have compounds that are extremely hard for long wear and hard cornering, and lose their flexibility when it gets cold. But chuckholes, too numerous to see and too dark to readily spot, can offer a new challenge. We’d like to think springtime can bring some massive repairs to such streets, but budget restraints can offset such hopes.

Anyhow, I remained extra-aware all week while driving the CL550 Coupe in much worse, full-winter conditions. Maybe the snow filled in the chuckholes, but the car had no problem with ice, snow or any road conditions.

For that hefty price tag, the equipment lives up to my timeworn theory about German cars: Expensive, and undoubtedly worth the price.

CL550, rear

Attention to detail includes taillights, exhaust pipes.

The dual-overhead-camshaft V8 isn’t large, by U.S. standards. At 4.6 liters, it defies the tradition that performance cars need 5 or 6 liters, or more, of displacement to deliver potency. The obvious answer to large displacement is technology, and in this case, it is running air-fuel mixture into the intake via twin turbocharging, and the very slick 7-speed automatic with manual override capabilities puts all those 429 horses–and more importantly the 500-plus foot-pounds of torque–to work through all four wheels.

Steering is precise with the new direct-steer, speed-sensitive rack and pinion system, and cornering is perfected with the Airmatic air suspension with its adaptive damping. Front suspension is 4-link with antilift control and a stabilizer bar, while the rear multilink is independent and has antisquat and antidive control. The brakes are similarly overbuilt, with internal ventilation and cross-drilled 13.2-inch front discs with 4-piston calipers, and 11.8-inch rear discs with single piston sliding calipers. We know the brakes would haul the four 18-inch alloy wheels down in a hurry, because the test car had the sport package, which increases wheel size to 19 inches, and the brakes never flinched.

Inside, the very supportive and comfortable seats offer the stimulation of a massage, in case merely driving the car isn’t stimulating enough. You sit in the seat and the car virtually hands you the shoulder harness, practically hooking it up by itself, and you should pause to take full advantage of the 14-way power assist that includes lumbar support, memory setting, and heating or cooling. There are airbags surrounding occupants to provide full protection to head, neck and all other parts within the steel reinforced cabin.

Connectivity is a key ingredient of fine cars these days, and the CL550 meets those standards, with a 40-GB hard drive GPS navigation system with Bluetooth interface and voice controls. The Logic7 Surround audio is an 11-speaker unit from Harman-Kardon, with Dolby 5.1, a high-definition radio, SD card redia, and Sirius satellite. A center controller reads through an 8-inch display.

More hands-on features include keyless entry and ignition, power tilt and sliding sunroof, with a power rear sunshade. Bi-Xenon headlights with active curve and cornering, and ambient lighting inside as you sit in your premium leather and real wood cocoon.

From that command post, you are also aided by electronic stability control with a pre-safe function that predicts if you’re going to find protection imminent. That’s because cameras, radar and sonar keep you alerted to your surroundings, and take care of you if you still are mindless enough to ignore the adequate warnings. For example, there is an active lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist that makes it difficult to stray from your lane without signaling. The premium package on the test CL550 includes a rear-view camera, with night-view assist straight ahead that includes pedestrian detection. The driver assistance package adds Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control with pre-safe braking help, and a blind-spot detection that coordinates with the lane-keeping assist.

The Distronic device is flat amazing. You have adaptive cruise, which maintains your interval with the car ahead. It slows, and your CL550 slows to maintain the interval, and if it accelerates or you change to a different lane, your CL550 resumes its preset speed without you touching the gas. More important, if you see brakelights from the car ahead, for example, and you tap your brakes out of caution, you may not realize that car ahead has made a panic stop–but the CL550′s radar realizes it, and if you’ve tapped the brakes, it will take over to apply your brakes as hard and as long as necessary to assure that you do not crash into that car ahead.

How much is that CL550 worth again? Oh, $127,870. And, how much is it worth for you to avoid crashing into a car ahead, or a pedestrian, for that matter? Priceless? Right.

Mercedes E550 Cabrio

Midsize E-Class also gets a Coupe, and a Cabrio, with the roof folding back into the trunk.

Fuel economy on the sizzling-hot Bi-Turbo V8 is 15 city and 23 highway. We got 22.5 in conditions that were wintry enough, after one of our 20-inch snowfalls hit Minnesota.

Mercedes, of course, makes other models, with the S being the largest sedan, the E being the middle, and the C being the most compact, and each size gets its own coupe for the sportier customers. I had the occasion last summer (remember summer?) to drive an E550 Cabrio, which is a sleek coupe similar in stunning silhouette to the CL, but with its own personality. That one had the larger 5.5-liter V8 without the turbocharging, and it also was a bullet, via the 7-speed automatic with its steering-wheel paddles for manual override.

That E550 Cabrio also happened to be gleaming white with tan leather inside, and it had a power top that folded itself away under a power platform above the trunk, making it the ideal spring-summer-fall car, because it converted from a sleek coupe to a convertible. It might be warm enough inside to be workable in the winter, too, but I don’t believe that car comes with 4Matic. So, much as I liked it, if I could afford to do it, I’d have to have one for summer boulevard cruising. But I wouldn’t part with my CL550 4Matic Coupe.

The metallic pearl of the Diamond White, by the way, meant never mistaking the CL550 for a white cow eating marshmallows in a blizzard, and the 4Matic kept all four wheels taking us to our assigned destination, all the while swathed in that Savanna/cashmere premium leather interior, with the burl walnut wood trim, which made it a cozy sound studio against the worst Mother Nature could hurl at us.

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