Coupes of grace

2007, Mercedes-Benz, CL550

If you're inclined to begrudge your wealthier (or more fiscally
reckless) neighbors their expensive playthings, it might be better
for you to turn back now. What follows is a brief glimpse at two very
fine, very costly vehicles whose raison d'tre is nothing more
profound than sheer self-indulgence. And it is not this column's
intention to incite hypertension and apoplexy amongst its more
Puritan readership.

If art can exist for art's sake, so too can the automobile. At a
certain level"starting, say, at about $70,000"there had better be
something artful about a luxury automobile for it to dodge the
inconvenient fact that solid, reliable transportation is plentiful
within the $15,000-$20,000 bracket. Automobiles can inspire many
emotions, both aesthetic and visceral. When they are as lovingly,
cleverly turned out as the following specimens from Porsche and
Mercedes-Benz, one has to believe that Praxiteles himself would have
been designing them had the ancient Greeks ever mastered internal
combustion.

Suddenly, the price of Porsche's "entry-level"? 911 seems like
chump change compared to that of Mercedes-Benz' "entry-level"?
CL550. It's hard to know what marketing maven won the gold star for
keeping 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 things
off to $100,000. Why bother, though. As tested, the CL550 evaluated
here managed to reach $111,675 without even trying.

Whereas Porsche has a genuine icon with its 911, the Mercedes CL is
an iconoclast in almost every way. Nothing else looks like it;
nothing else feels like it; nothing else even approaches its
ambience. Its roofline alone, arching from front windshield to
backlight in one graceful sweep without an intervening central
pillar, is an engineering masterpiece. And its compact, low-slung
dimensions belie the fact that front and rear occupants have
limousine amplitudes of space and luxury to swaddle in.

Yes, the CL is a coupe a two-door coupe. But it seems as if
Mercedes' designers just wanted to see how far they could stretch
the limitations of that category. If wide doors are an Achilles'
heel when parking in tight quarters, on the CL they're deftly
controlled by gas struts opening and holding the doors at any
position chosen. Robot-like front seats make way for rear seat
access. And once a foursome is nestled in, the sealed cockpit is a
pod of delight in a harried world.

The CL's road manners are so refined that one can easily overlook
the fact that its 5.5-liter V8 produces 382 horsepower and an
astonishing 391 foot-pounds of torque. And it's all managed by a
silky seven-speed automatic transmission. Considering such power and
the CL's 4,485-pound curb weight, it's actually a minor miracle
that 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's
complex interplay of active suspension, burly power and automated
controls transform driving into a form of soaring. Dynamic seats in
front inflate spontaneously to counteract centrifugal forces while
cornering. Headlights sweep their beams around curves at night;
windshield wipers pace themselves to the severity of rain. Cockpit
telematics manage climate, audio and navigation preferences by voice
command.

Does anyone actually deserve such luxury? Who can say? But in the
case of the CL550, it's not a machine that's for sale but a mindset.

What has not already been said about the four-wheeled icon known as
Porsche 911 would fill a very tiny book. This is one of those
hallowed industrial objects that give a maniacal obsession with
automobiles a very good name indeed.

It does, in fact, seem that Porsche's perennial challenge with the
911 is simply not to mess it up. And for four decades, the company
has risen to that challenge. The coupe's teardrop silhouette,
despite many loving manipulations over the years, remains symbolic of
that tear of joy escaping furtively from a proud owner's eye.

With its rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive configuration, the 911 also
preserves Porche's boot's-in-front, bonnet's-in-back
quirkiness. But it's not the fact that the trunk is in front of the
driver that makes the 911 special. Instead, it's the unique
combination of power and thrust behind the driver's seat of the
pants that renders the 911 experience virtually indescribable. It's
the mechanical equivalent of a rearing stallion only in this
Porsche's case, there are 325 such stallions.

In its most modern manifestation, the Porsche 911 is blessed by two
important developments. One is the refinement of subtle electronics
that manage to rein-in the 911's 325 horsepower and 273 foot-pounds
of torque. In former days, 911s in novice hands tended to swap ends
with regularity, owing to what engineers like to call the "polar
moment"? of all that weight and power at the rear of the car. Today,
traction and stability control systems can gently nudge a straying
911 back into proper trajectory, leaving sheetmetal and drivers'
egos intact.

The other important modern development concerning the 911 is its
interior, or, to be more precise, its interior ergonomics. Beautiful,
drum-taut (optional) leather swathes whatever surfaces aren't
already veneered with gleaming, brushed aluminum. Driver and front
passenger are literally installed into seating positions optimized
for rapid acceleration, deceleration and cornering. One may still
pity 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 as
ridiculous as playing golf in a Speedo. It's just not done. So be
grateful that your briefcase has such a comfy spot to commute in.

For 2007, Porsche's so-called "entry-level"? 911 sports a $72,400
base price. After wheels and leather, active suspension (PASM) and
GPS navigation, Bose audio and heated seats, the as-tested sticker
winds up to $86,085 pronto. Wow! That's a lot of money for a car.
But for a work of art...?

By Marc Stengel
28/10/2007 12:00 am

More Mercedes-Benz car reviews?

Images of the 2007, Mercedes-Benz CL550

2007 Mercedes-Benz CL550 front view
2007 Mercedes-Benz CL550 front view
2007 Mercedes-Benz CL550 interior
2007 Mercedes-Benz CL550 interior
2007 Mercedes-Benz CL550 rear view
2007 Mercedes-Benz CL550 rear view
2007 Porsche 911 Carrera front view
2007 Porsche 911 Carrera front view