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...