Coupes of grace
Marc K. Stengel, Sun, 28 Oct 2007 08:00:00 PDT
If you're inclined to begrudge your wealthier (or more fiscallyreckless) neighbors their expensive playthings, it might be betterfor you to turn back now. What follows is a brief glimpse at two veryfine, very costly vehicles whose raison d'tre is nothing moreprofound than sheer self-indulgence. And it is not this column'sintention to incite hypertension and apoplexy amongst its morePuritan readership.
If art can exist for art's sake, so too can the automobile. At acertain level"starting, say, at about $70,000"there had better besomething artful about a luxury automobile for it to dodge theinconvenient fact that solid, reliable transportation is plentifulwithin the $15,000-$20,000 bracket. Automobiles can inspire manyemotions, both aesthetic and visceral. When they are as lovingly,cleverly turned out as the following specimens from Porsche andMercedes-Benz, one has to believe that Praxiteles himself would havebeen designing them had the ancient Greeks ever mastered internalcombustion.
What has not already been said about the four-wheeled icon known asPorsche 911 would fill a very tiny book. This is one of thosehallowed industrial objects that give a maniacal obsession withautomobiles a very good name indeed.
It does, in fact, seem that Porsche's perennial challenge with the911 is simply not to mess it up. And for four decades, the companyhas risen to that challenge. The coupe's teardrop silhouette,despite many loving manipulations over the years, remains symbolic ofthat tear of joy escaping furtively from a proud owner's eye.
With its rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive configuration, the 911 alsopreserves Porche's "boot's-in-front, bonnet's-in-backquirkiness. But it's not the fact that the trunk is in front of thedriver that makes the 911 special. Instead, it's the uniquecombination of power and thrust behind the driver's seat of thepants that renders the 911 experience virtually indescribable. It'sthe mechanical equivalent of a rearing stallion only in thisPorsche's case, there are 325 such stallions.
In its most modern manifestation, the Porsche 911 is blessed by twoimportant developments. One is the refinement of subtle electronicsthat manage to rein-in the 911's 325 horsepower and 273 foot-poundsof torque. In former days, 911s in novice hands tended to swap endswith regularity, owing to what engineers like to call the "polarmoment"? of all that weight and power at the rear of the car. Today,traction and stability control systems can gently nudge a straying911 back into proper trajectory, leaving sheetmetal and drivers'egos intact.
The other important modern development concerning the 911 is itsinterior, or, to be more precise, its interior ergonomics. Beautiful,drum-taut (optional) leather swathes whatever surfaces aren'talready veneered with gleaming, brushed aluminum. Driver and frontpassenger are literally installed into seating positions optimizedfor rapid acceleration, deceleration and cornering. One may stillpity the short-straw-pullers relegated to the rear jump seats. But,come to think of it, the thought of a foursome in a 911 is asridiculous as playing golf in a Speedo. It's just not done. So begrateful that your briefcase has such a comfy spot to commute in.
For 2007, Porsche's so-called "entry-level"? 911 sports a $72,400base price. After wheels and leather, active suspension (PASM) andGPS navigation, Bose audio and heated seats, the as-tested stickerwinds up to $86,085 pronto. Wow! That's a lot of money for a car.But for a work of art...?
Suddenly, the price of Porsche's "entry-level"? 911 seems likechump change compared to that of Mercedes-Benz' "entry-level"?CL550. It's hard to know what marketing maven won the gold star forkeeping the CL's price under $100-large; but instead of a $99,900,base price, you'd think there'd be some cachet in rounding thingsoff to $100,000. Why bother, though. As tested, the CL550 evaluatedhere managed to reach $111,675 without even trying.
Whereas Porsche has a genuine icon with its 911, the Mercedes CL isan iconoclast in almost every way. Nothing else looks like it;nothing else feels like it; nothing else even approaches itsambience. Its roofline alone, arching from front windshield tobacklight in one graceful sweep without an intervening centralpillar, is an engineering masterpiece. And its compact, low-slungdimensions belie the fact that front and rear occupants havelimousine amplitudes of space and luxury to swaddle in.
Yes, the CL is a coupe, a two-door coupe. But it seems as ifMercedes' designers just wanted to see how far they could stretchthe limitations of that category. If wide doors are an Achilles'heel when parking in tight quarters, on the CL they're deftlycontrolled by gas struts opening and holding the doors at anyposition chosen. Robot-like front seats make way for rear seataccess. And once a foursome is nestled in, the sealed cockpit is apod of delight in a harried world.
The CL's road manners are so refined that one can easily overlookthe fact that its 5.5-liter V8 produces 382 horsepower and anastonishing 391 foot-pounds of torque. And it's all managed by asilky seven-speed automatic transmission. Considering such power andthe CL's 4,485-pound curb weight, it's actually a minor miraclethat its 2007 mileage rating is as good as 15 mpg/city, 22 mpg/highway (with premium).
Micromanaging the economics of a CL is a fool's errand, however.This automobile is to driving as Zen is to taking a nap. The CL'scomplex interplay of active suspension, burly power and automatedcontrols transform driving into a form of soaring. Dynamic seats infront inflate spontaneously to counteract centrifugal forces whilecornering. Headlights sweep their beams around curves at night;windshield wipers pace themselves to the severity of rain. Cockpittelematics manage climate, audio and navigation preferences by voicecommand.
Does anyone actually deserve such luxury? Who can say? But in thecase of the CL550, it's not a machine that's for sale but a mindset.