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.
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.
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.
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.