Reviewed: Mercedes-Benz CL600

Matthew Phenix
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Mike Dushane
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Courtney Cox drives a Mercedes-Benz CL600, for which she reportedly shelled out $130,000 in cash. We are not Courtney Cox. Nor are we Shaquille O'Neal, who also owns a CL600 and probably paid cash for his, too. The CL is one of those cars that, like the old Rolls-Royce Corniche or the Ferrari F50, is wholly inseparable from its glam appeal. Unlike the Porsche 911 or the Ferrari 360, cars that we drive and celebrate without feeling diminished by their Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous vibe, the CL-class Benz, despite its considerable athletic abilities, never fails to remind us of who we aren't. It's a car that makes those of us without sitcoms or Wheaties boxes feel conspicuous, ostentatious, politically incorrect, and maybe even somewhat anatomically underendowed-hardly an endearing personality for a car. The big CL may play well in 90210, but here in 48104, humping over frost heaves and slapping into potholes alongside F-150s and Durangos, it looks downright silly.

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The CL600 is big-oh, ain't it, though-but it's also fast, seriously so. How could it not be, with what's behind that big three-pointed star? Displacing 5.5 liters, the 600's all-aluminum, three-valve V-12 enlists a pair of intercooled turbochargers to send 493 horsepower and an astonishing 590 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheels through a five-speed manu-matic gearbox. Mercedes claims the car will rush to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds, which, needless to say, is mighty quick for 4500 pounds of anything, particularly for something without flight attendants. (Brace yourself for the forthcoming CL65 AMG, which employs a 6.0-liter version of the twin-turbo twelve to churn out 604 horses and 738 pound-feet of torque). Top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph-plenty fast, but allow us to suggest that owners avoid eye contact with drivers of the ungoverned (and therefore 200-mph-plus) Bentley Continental GT.

Much has been written about Mercedes-Benz's Active Body Control system-standard on the CL600-and its spooky ability to anticipate and negate body roll. Some on our staff are fond of the system, which does indeed appear to shrink big vehicles like the S- and CL-class Benzes on twisty roads. Others find the system woefully artificial-just another of many electronic nannies between driver and road. "Real time" damping isn't quite real, and despite the system's blink-of-an-eye reflexes, you still sense the computer's feverish thinking and reacting on truly demanding stretches of road. In the end, your brain spends more time concerned with what ABC is doing with the wheels than with what the wheels are doing with the road. What fun is that?

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All right, maybe we're just jealous-of Courtney and Shaq and anyone else can afford to put a CL in the driveway. It's a splendid machine and, even three years after its introduction, still holds its ground on the technological front. Moreover, it's still the prettiest shape in a Mercedes showroom, now that the SL roadster has gone all F1 on us. The CL's B-pillarless greenhouse is undeniably pretty and that long-as-I-wanna-be two-door body is the very essence of automotive decadence. But with so many good cars-very good cars-costing so much less than the CL600's $127,470* price of admission, the big Benz looks, well, a wee bit nouveau riche. It's the kind of car a formerly non-rich person would buy to tell the world (loudly) that they'd arrived. In olden days, true Old Money eschewed chrome-encrusted Cadillacs in favor of less ostentatious-but functionally similar-black Buicks. The CL, as good as it is (and it is), sits in a similar predicament: New Money still wants it, Smart Money knows better. The shape has seen just one too many rap videos and velvet-rope parking spots at the Viper Room. It's revered more often by fifteen-year-old iPod junkies than by captains of industry. Real enthusiasts (you know who you are) know that you can get just as much-or more-for a lot less.

*Our test car was laden with optional equipment, including Distronic intelligent cruise control ($3010), Keyless Go ($1040), Parktronic ($1060), a power trunk closer ($480), and a heated steering wheel ($410); as such, the bottom line crossed the $142,000 mark.

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