No matter how much buzz its gullwing doors help create, the all-new Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG super-car is not the most expensive new Benz on the market. That title goes to the CL 65 AMG, the top-line performance version of Mercedes' largest two-door model. And unless M-B Canada is planning a 43 grand price chop for the revised CL 65, it will remain the most powerful and exclusive Benz-branded vehicle sold in this country for 2011.
However, considering that the CL 65 AMG starts at a heart-stopping 240 large, the "entry-level" CL 550 4Matic at about 130 grand looks like a deal (the exact prices of the 2011 CLs will be announced closer to their mid-October arrival). The CL 550 also has the advantage of coming standard with all-wheel-drive, the only CL to offer Benz's foul-weather-fighting AWD system instead of sports-car-proper rear-drive.
The CL has long been the slightly sportier two-door brother to the full-size S-Class luxury sedan, the large coupe aimed at folks who wanted an extra dash of style to go with their pampering amenities and high-tech safety gear.
A few years back, Benz's performance AMG division added more tire-punishing fireworks to both the V-8 (CL 63) and monster 12-cylinder (CL 65) versions to create civilized but super-powerful tuxedo-clad automotive bodybuilders, creating four distinct but similarly potent CL flavours. That continues for 2011, but with all-new, direct-injection engines for both V-8 models, as well as a few new electronic safety tricks and updated styling.
The new CLs all get fairly substantial revised looks for 2011. New headlamps with a horizontal strip of LED lights just over and another separate one under the bumper make its new face brighter, while the reverse lights are now integrated into the trunk lid. The sleek roof curvature remains most noticeable with the windows down, thanks to the lack of any B-pillar sprouting up from the doors.
Two days driving the various CLs in sunny southern France revealed that the CL 550 is now much closer in feel to its pricier brethren; all four of these cars are able to zoom from zero to 100 km/h within a half-second heartbeat of each other (between 4.9 and 4.4 seconds). Yet each version still offers a different variation on the comfort-is-king theme.
The CL 550 4Matic is by far the most sensible of this group, providing most of the style, the best fuel economy of the bunch by far (and much better than its more exotic rivals), plus the aforementioned price and AWD advantages. It features an all-new, smaller engine that now includes a twin turbo to help make up some power. But the real surprise comes in how much more low and mid-range oomph this CL boasts: an amazing increase of 125 lb-ft of torque, which is like having an extra Honda Civic engine strapped to what was already a formidably strong, if thirsty, V-8.
The smaller engine size and direct-injection system scales back on the fuel gulping. Of course, it's still thirsty overall. Benz is estimating a 10 per cent reduction in fuel use overall, which leaves it and BMW's 6-Series battling it out for the most efficient car in its luxury-laden class.
The CL 600, at 190 grand or so, is the comfort king, with a ride as creamy smooth as a King Edward billiard table, its 5.5-litre V-12 engine always maintaining a muted dignity, even with a ruthless flooring of the gas pedal. That move lurches this big beast forward with a turbine-like whoosh, but because it's so silent even at redline, it almost feels slower than it actually is, especially from rest.
New for the CL this year is an Active Lane Keeping Assist program that will vibrate the steering wheel when your tires touch lane markings at over 80 km/h, which happens way more than you think, but can thankfully the feature be turned off. If you don't respond, as I tested on an empty flat stretch of road when I took my hands off the steering wheel, the system will touch the opposite corner's brakes, nudging the car the opposite way to help keep you in your lane. But as soon as the lane curves, the system won't keep you in it. It actually feels much less intrusive than it sounds.
The CL AMGs have similar personalities, with the CL 63 being the loudest and most purposefully raucous. It also features an all-new engine, a 5.5-litre twin turbo (or bi-turbo in Mercedes-speak) V-8 that now makes 536 hp; a 10 per cent decrease in fuel use is also expected, thanks in part to the standard Stop/Start system that will help it in the city.
Then there's that pricey CL 65. Yes, it's hugely expensive, and doesn't feature the same high-tech engine upgrades. But if you're looking for power or refinement, it's nearly impossible to find more of either in any automobile, no matter the price. This 6.0-litre twin turbo V-12 puts out 621 hp, and more earth-moving torque than 10 Smart cars combined (738 ft-lb).
At the end of the day, though, many luxury coupe buyers make an emotional decision based on how the car speaks to them. And though the CL 550 makes a good case for itself, and the CL 65 AMG is just enchanting, one wonders whether the body is changed enough from an S-Class to make it worth the practicality sacrifices? Perhaps it would be an easier choice if the S-Class with an AMG package wasn't such a good-looking option.
How much does that new car cost?
2011 Mercedes-Benz CL 550 4Matic
Type: Full-size, four-seat luxury coupe
Base price: (estimated) $130,000
Engine: 4.7-litre, bi-Turbo, DOHC, V-8
Horsepower/torque: 429 hp/516 lb-ft
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic
Drive: All-wheel (all other CL models rear-drive)
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): (estimated) 13.5 city/8.6 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Aston Martin DB9, BMW 6-Series, Bentley Continental GT, Maserati GranTurismo S