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In its final edition before a replacement hits the streets, the luxurious, swift Mercedes-Benz CL Class returns for the 2013 model year with few changes to its two-door silhouette or to its quartet of powertrains.
The CL is the companion piece to the S-Class four-door, sharing major drivetrain and suspension pieces, though it's considerably shorter in overall length. It's a subtle piece to see, a bawdy performer on the road, and a totem of rich and ultra-rich drivers everywhere. At a base price of more than $110,000 in years past (final pricing is still to come for 2013), rising to more than $200,000 for AMG editions, the CL competes with the likes of the Aston Martin Virage, the Bentley Continental GT, and the Maserati GranTurismo.
The subtle styling cues of the CL have been injected with some drama, mostly at the front end, over the years. Still, it's a more anodyne piece of sculpture than the other two-doors in its gunsights. The softly rounded silhouette echoes styling cues from around the automotive world, throughout a few eras--not all of them in its rarified price class, since they've been reinterpreted everywhere, from Acura to Ford, and vice versa. It's restrained, which stands out less than an Italian semi-exotic, but it's also worn well over its half-dozen years. The interior's more confident, and more impressive. The minimalist look centers on a monolithic stack of controls, adorned with strips of shiny switches and buttons, swathed in burled walnut. It's as uncluttered as a home office straight off the pages of the German edition of Architectural Digest.
Over the years, Mercedes has upgraded the CL's powertrains, introducing fuel-saving technology while boosting horsepower. In the 2011 model year, the base version became the CL 550 4MATIC; it's the same for the 2013 model year, with a 429-horsepower, twin-turbo 4.6-liter V-8 engine providing 10 to 15 percent better gas mileage than the previous 6.3-liter naturally aspirated V-8 engine. Despite the economy boost and standard all-wheel drive, the CL 550's performance is still muscular: 0-to-60 mph times are estimated at 4.9 seconds, with a top speed capped at 155 mph.
The luxuriant performance gets downright scorching as you climb the price and horsepower ladder on the remaining rear-drive models. There's a prestige edition, the CL600, which features a 510-hp twin-turbo 5.5-liter V-12 engine that produces 612 pound-feet of torque, and issues bursts of effortless acceleration on its way to a 4.5-second 0-to-60 mph time.
Beyond that ether, the AMG coupes stun with their sticker prices and performance: the CL 63 AMG has a 536-hp, 5.5-liter twin-turbo V-8 with a seven-speed automatic, stop/start technology, and a host of suspension, braking and other performance enhancements. A performance package boosts output to 563 hp. The CL 65 AMG--at nearly twice the price of the base coupe--gets a high-output 6.0-liter V-12 making 621 hp and 738 pound-feet, for a 0-60 mph time of 4.3 seconds and a top speed of 186 mph. The V-8 cars have a seven-speed automatic; V-12s use a five-speed automatic capable of handling their torque.
We've driven the CL 550 4MATIC and CL 63 AMG, and have been taken with the buzz saws of capability engineered into the adaptive suspensions, steering, transmissions and drivetrains of those two representatives. The base car's an extraordinary grand tourer, with refined engine responses, a smooth ride, and remarkably precise handling despite its undeniable heft. The steering's just a tad slow and detached to be truly sporty, but the CL's responses are pretty balletic for its 4,500-pound-plus mass. That's thanks to the sophisticated Active Body Control (ABC) system, which controls ride height and suspension firmness and can adjust almost instantaneously for quick maneuvers. All CL coupes get a mechanical Direct Steer system that improves feel.
As for the CL 63 AMG, it's as electric as any four-seat coupe that knocks around the luxury stratosphere. It twists every sensory and performance dial to the luxury extreme, from engine sound to available grip. The credit goes to more aggressive tuning of the active suspension and steering, stouter brakes, and in the case of the CL 63 AMG, a seven-speed, manual-mode automatic. The CL 63 AMG is edgier and more raucous-sounding in every way, from its ride to its sharper handling response, than the CL 550. Though brief, we've also experienced a CL 65 AMG and know it too can hustle and keep a visual lock on some exotic sports cars without sacrificing the ride comfort and quietness built into its body.
As well as they mask their size and weight in extraordinary power and handling, the CL coupes make up for iffy rear-seat access with swank front-seat accommodations. The front seats are marvelous with or without the optional multicontour feature, and comfortable for even the longest drives. The back seats are very roomy for a coupe, but it's a tussle to get into them. Despite its long wheelbase, seatbelt attendants that pull the safety devices out of the way, and power-forward seats that slide toward the wheel for easier entry and exit, the CL Class just isn't much suited for carrying four adults. although a center console and lots of wood will leave the humidor set happy once they're nestled in back there. Underway, it is exceptionally quiet and vibration-free, and finishes are rich and substantial, not bright and gaudy.
Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has crash-tested the Mercedes-Benz CL-Class. Its high safety ratings are based on its heritage for crash safety, and a plethora of safety technology, including a trio of systems that use radar to detect imminent collisions. Brake Assist Plus will increase the level of pressure you apply to the brake pedal if it determines you're closing in on the car ahead too quickly. Pre-Safe will take other steps, such as tightening seatbelts and preparing the airbags, if it senses a collision is unavoidable. And like other active cruise control systems, Distronic Plus will maintain the speed of traffic ahead-and hold a safe distance from the car immediately in front. But it can also bring the CL to a complete stop in traffic, then start up again when the car ahead begins to move. This system also includes Blind Spot Assist, which monitors both blind spots and warns the driver whenever a turn signal is activated. The CL-Class also has standard ultrasonic parking sensors and a backup camera. More recently, the CL has added Attention Assist, which senses when drivers may be drowsy and signals them to take a break; night vision; adaptive headlamps; and a feature that helps the CL-Class stay in its intended lane by using gentle braking.
Standard equipment on the CL 550 includes leather upholstery; power front seats; an AM/FM/CD changer with Sirius Satellite Radio; a DVD navigation system; and walnut trim. It also features ambient lighting; Bluetooth; a USB port, HD Radio, and a 4GB music hard drive for the audio system; streaming Zagat data for the navigation system. The CL 600 has 18-inch wheels and a choice of interior trim. AMG editions have distinct cosmetic trim to go with upgraded performance hardware, as well as 20-inch wheels, a sport steering wheel, shift paddles, an AMG instrument cluster and performance telemetry embedded in the navigation system, and in the CL 65 AMG, heated and ventilated power rear seats.
All CL coupes use a screen-driven COMAND operating system and a hand-operated controller for a variety of functions-from adjusting seat bolstering to setting radio stations. The technology alone would keep Steve Wozniak debugging away for weeks; the interface could use some love from Steve Jobs. By avoiding the potential clutter of buttons and switches, and instead integrating the controls into one system, Mercedes has buried some features and controls under layers of "logic." It can be easier to navigate than BMW's iDrive, and the technology's a marvel, but the learning curve is steep, and accessing all those features through buttons and wheel controls can grow tiring, quickly.