Just an ordinary car. Nothing more and nothing less. It goes.
And stops. And turns. It's just a car, subject to the same traffic, confined
to the same roads as the most humdrum econobox. This is the mantra of the first-time
Mercedes-Benz CL600 driver.
If it were that special, you keep saying to yourself, why would it still need
a human behind the wheel? So step up to the driver's door and touch the
handle... it simply unlocks, without a key. No need to slam it as you ease
into the seat - motors whisper it shut. W-e-l-l, maybe it is a little different.
But otherwise, it's perfectly ordinary, albeit opulent. Although there
are, of course, those 50-odd switches on the centre console. And the masses
of unseen other gadgets you may never even experience until the car decides
you need them.
Apart from that, it would probably be fairly ordinary.
Idly rest a fingertip on the gearlever, and from several suburbs away comes
the discreet murmur of 12 cylinders obediently springing to attention. OK, so
the pre-trip ritual may be a little quirky. But driving it can't be that
much out of the ordinary, surely?
Let's see... start it up - whoops, was it really on? Click
the lever back, rest your Gucci loafer on the right pedal, and why yes, the
engine note now seems to be only a few blocks away. It's quite urgent-sounding,
too, like a thoroughbred Italian aiming for a high note.
But for goodness' sake, this car has got a steering wheel, windows,
and instruments... all the ordinary things, even if they look a bit smarter.
Except that there seems to be something wrong with the dials. The pointers are
moving impossibly quickly. There is no way it could have swatted aside the 100
km/h barrier that quickly. At this point, should you look up, you will be just
in time to see the horizon about to smack you in the face. The CL600 is seriously
quick. Seriously big. In fact, just plain serious. It really is more than just
a means of getting from A to B. Actually, in the CL600 you don't go anywhere
at all. You have already arrived.
Attempting to place a value on this kind of a product is meaningless. The "entry
level" CL500 costs about three-quarters of a million, and its features
list and performance are enough to satisfy all but... well, all but those
for whom only the ultimate CL will do. For a whisker short of the R1 million
mark, your 600 will give you a few cylinders and some extra technology, plus
more of the luxury trim than in the cheaper car.
As with its predecessors, dating back to the early 1960s, the current model
is based on the (considerably cheaper) S-Class flagship. The Mercedes-Benz coupés
have differed enough from the models they are based on to command a hefty price
premium, but they have retained enough of the base models' essence to
ensure a cosy familiarity for those to whom the Stuttgart marque is the most
important single factor. Although undeniably big, it somehow manages to look
both elegant and sporty. The typical omission of B-pillars under the smoothly
arcing roofline lightens the car's bulk in profile.
If the car has a bit of the SS Tirpitz about it on the outside, the interior
has a flashy Starship Enterprise look. The list of standard equipment matches
the car's bulk. Not only is there hot and cold running everything, the
taps are gold-plated: that V12, a killer stereo system, masses of classy wood
and leather, stability control, "thinking" airbags, advanced anti-lock
brakes, adaptive damping, adjustable ride height, navigation system, video display,
telephone, climate control... If there is a need, the CL600 has seemingly
anticipated it. The power-adjustable front seats have three memory positions
(the settings include the steering wheel and rear view mirrors), lumbar support,
heating and internal ventilation for cooling.
Parktronic sonar sensors help you berth your CL600 safely. And while we are
talking sensors, there is also a rain detector that switches on and regulates
the windscreen wipers.
It is often said of luxurious, powerful cars with a sporting pedigree that
they tend to shrink around you, grow smaller and more compact and wieldy as
the challenge of the road increases in intensity. Thankfully, that never happens
with the CL600.
This car never feels anything but big. No, make that massive. Our bet is that
owners wouldn't have it any other way. When you are spending effectively
a million on what, quite frankly, is just a means of transport, you surely don't
want it to cast a smaller shadow on the road than other, lesser, cars.
But you might think that with an engine as powerful as this in a body as big
as this there is a need for some assistance to keep it on the tar. So, sophisticated
Active Body Control adaptive damping and the ESP anti-skid system supplement
the front double wishbones and rear multi-link system by intervening almost
before the driver has had time to think about overcooking it.
We found that, with ABC in sport mode, the CL600 blitzes bends with overwhelming
authority and an impressively flat ride, with only the really tight twisties
providing something of a challenge to attempts to tame understeer. To the senses,
there is less happening in overall body movement, but of course there is much
more happening unseen as hydraulics, sensors and microprocessors buzz away adapting
suspension settings many times a second. And don't forget that this happens
constantly, in situations as varied as cornering, braking and starting off.
In this mode, feedback through the seat of the pants predictably results in
mixed signals, to an extent, as the system makes minute corrections. It takes
a little getting used to if you are expecting the chassis to signal that you
need to wind on a little opposite lock or tap off. Instead, you can (within
reason and the laws of physics) saw away at the wheel or step on the brakes
- in fact, the kinds of things inexpert drivers would do - without the
penalty of going backwards into the bushes. The variable ratio steering is relatively
numb around centrepoint to provide the usual autobahn anti-sneeze factor, and
its rather large size may not suit all tastes.
With the ABC in comfort mode, the ride softens and the handling becomes positively
lively, perhaps too lively. Responses are not necessarily sharp, more like slushy.
Although cowboy-style drivers might enjoy hanging out the tail, the untidy body
movement definitely does not encourage precision driving.
Around town there were initially some comments about firm ride, with road roar
and coarseness intruding on certain surfaces, but this was found to be based
on the sport suspension setting. Sound levels are exemplary, with the minor
exception of some whistle from where the side windows meet.
To say that its performance is deceptively quick is to understate things. When
the new six-litre V12 - the same unit as that used in the saloon S600 -
is lashed into action, its 270 kW at 5 500 r/min and 530 N.m at 4 250 r/min
haul two and a half tons off the starting line without raising a sweat. And
thanks to an array of driving aids, there is none of that uncivilised muscle-car
wheelspin, either. Streaking to 100 km/h in just 6,56 seconds on the way to
pulverising the kilometre marker in 25,54 seconds seems like a mere formality.
Uphills are a mild irritant, slow traffic a non-event: blast from 80 to 120
km/h in under four seconds. Top speed is limited to a true 247 km/h at 4 608
r/min, with the speedo reading 252.
The five-speed adaptive automatic 'box switches almost seamlessly between
ratios. No surprises in the braking, either, with consistent stops in three
seconds from 100 km/h.
We dare say economy does not top the CL600's list of priorities, but
for the record it chugs an excellent 8,96 litres/100 km at 100 km/h, giving
a fuel index of 12,54 litres/100 km overall. A cutoff system that deactivates
certain of the cylinders in part-throttle running (read relaxed freeway cruising)
helps create the impression of the best of both worlds...