Big spec, big fun, not-too-big bills
Radiator fan fried and took the control module with it. £500 of parts, but I was able to fit them myself.
Engine began stalling when up to temperature. CPS sensor at fault - a known weakness on this engine. £30 for the part and about 10 minutes to fit.
A few electrical gremlins in the car, with error messages flashing up on the dash and then resolving themselves. I was quite surprised to see a warning about the Brake Assist system, as even the car’s manual didn’t know that the car had this feature.
Misfire in cold weather. This was a problem with the LPG conversion and not the car’s fault. It says a lot that 13-year old Merc parts are still more reliable than brand new made-in-Taiwan LPG parts.
If you can’t pick up a £2,000 repair bill at the drop of a hat, then a CL is not for you.
I initially went shopping for an Audi A8, test drove one, didn’t like it (too clever for its own good?) and ended up buying this instead. The CL looked great, was a heck of a lot of car for the money (indeed, Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear nominated the CL 600 as his secondhand bargain of the decade) and I was grabbed from the first test drive.
The CL is an S-class coupe, which is where it inherits most of its luxurious character from. In fact, in Germany, it is actually called the S-class coupe. Confusingly, Merc also have a range of similar sounding CLKs and CLSs, which are based on the cheaper E-class.
The CL has a composure, poise and purpose on the roads that puts a grin on your face and turns every journey into an treat. The engine is truly a masterpiece, a 5.0 litre V8 with two spark plugs per cylinder just for that extra smoothness. At idle, it’s so smooth you can’t tell it’s running. It has torque right from the bottom of the rev range – indeed, this thing likes to slink around town at about 1,200 RPM and needs no more – and has an unfaultable smooth power delivery right up the redline. Be aware of this if you are more used to a Japanese or Italian style engine with nothing at the bottom and insane shrieking fury at the top. It does not sound like you would expect, not at all like the classic burbly American V8. It thrums, urgently but unhurriedly, more like a softly tuned V12. If you really want to announce your entrance, the AMG versions come with optional fatter exhaust pipes.
The CL comes with what Parkers’ called “a range of disdainfully powerful engines.” Mine was the baby of the range, a mere 5.0 V8. You can also go for a 6.0 V12, plus even larger AMG versions, which come in an array of turbocharged and supercharged varieties. Oddly, the V12 is selling second-hand for less than the V8 these days, probably due to its higher running costs. Whatever your choice of unit, the power and muscle are immense. 0 to 30 can be tricky as the traction control has to reign in the power. 30 to 60 is dealt with like it is nothing at all. You can surge past 100 with absurd ease, and the car only feels like it is feeling the pace when you are past 130. For the record, the CL is composed and sedate at this most licence-losing of speeds. I guess it had to satisfy the autobahn crowd.
The CL is not the last word in handling. It’s surprisingly nimble and is at its best when hustling rather than cruising, but the steering and general feedback all round is rather numb. My girlfriend’s Lexus GS300 (rival to the 5 series BMW) manages to be far more communicative. That said, the CL’s brakes are astounding, and give you much more confidence about using the speed, knowing you can take it off with as much ease as you put it on. It’s the stupendous brakes that allow the CL to claim to be a true grand tourer, like an Aston Martin or one of the bigger Ferraris.
Now, onto living with the thing. Primarily, it is an motorway monster, but is just about liveable with around town. Yes, it is a big beast at 16 feet long and over 6 feet wide, but it somehow manages to have much better visibility than my previous, much more compact Volvo S40. The parking sensors are a supremely useful feature. The soft close doors and boot help you get into and out of it quickly, and I imagine are a help to less burly drivers. The Airmatic suspension raising system is invaluable in getting over speed bumps and up ramps without scraping the chin.
Fuel economy is about as bad as you would expect. 28 MPG is achievable. 25 MPG is more likely. I had mine LPG-converted from the start, with a 50 litre tank taking the place of the spare tyre. With LPG currently 45% the price of petrol, it effectively doubles the MPG of the thing to 48 or so, at some cost to performance. No big worries though – the CL has performance to spare.
Mine has 17” alloys, which I think are just fine. I test drove one with 19” alloys, and for me, it spoiled the ride, making it feel rather nervous and skittish. If you’re thinking of going for the bigger alloys, be sure to test drive carefully and make sure it is for you.
The styling flows boldly and confidently from front to rear - only very occasionally does it look like the S-class on which it is based. Mine is metallic burgundy (or Almandine Black Metallic) a rare option which adds an extra dimension to the car’s exclusive appeal. In dim light, such as what we normally get in the UK, it looks like a fairly unremarkable dark burgundy, but in bright sunlight it reveals itself to be a million sparkling shades of deep, luxurious, crystallic violet and velvet. Only once in three years have I seen one just like it on the road.
The cabin is a beautiful and opulent place to be, with full leather dash and subdued yet stylish vents and veneers. The view out the front is panoramic, with virtually no interference from any pillars. The controls feel solid and manly. I have never been in a car that has felt so well screwed together - there is not a millimetre of play or rattle in anything. The Audi A6 that I test drove was a joke in comparison.
Much of what gives this car its on-road character is the near-miraculous ABC (Active Body Control) system. Hydraulic pistons on each corner of the car generate up to 3,000 PSI to press down and resist body roll and lean. The CL corners as flat as a Ferrari, and yet won’t shake your spine apart on a bumpy road, and is supremely comfortable on long journeys. The price you pay for such as system is … well, £87,500 was the sticker price for this car when it was new, or £120,000 in today’s hyperinflated money. Make no mistake about what you are buying here – this isn’t just an E-class with nicer seats. This is a technological tour-de-force that was packed with the finest technology that the period had to offer, with Mercedes themselves inventing a fair bit of it. It is well worth mentioning that I have rented brand new B-class, C-class and E-class Mercs on business trips recently, and none of them felt even remotely as good to drive as my near 13-year old CL. Admittedly, you can’t really compare a £30k C-class with a £120k CL, but I thought the E-class should have put up a better fight than it did.
The spec is too long and detailed for me to even begin to list, so I’ll just pick out my three favourite features: automatic windscreen wipers that are faultless when it comes to judging the amount of rain on the windscreen, seats that will blow air conditioning through thousands of tiny holes to stop you getting that hot sweaty leather feel on long journeys, and integrated steering wheel telematics – quite a feature in 1999. It’ll even display text messages for you. What I really admire about the CL’s design is the unobtrusive nature of all the technology – i.e. you can ignore all these features if you want, and just drive it like a normal car.
I also have the Bose stereo option, which is superb. Never have I had to even consider upgrading it. I did add an aftermarket Dension Gateway (£300), which gives iPod and USB connectivity.
The CD-ROM based sat nav is rather dated by modern standards, and tends to lock up fairly often. However, I do like the full integration - it flashes the next turn up to the steering wheel display, and it will dim the stereo in and out when issuing commands. It might just save your butt if you’ve left your TomTom at home, so give it a chance.
The one feature of this car I don’t like is the adaptive driving system. The car will ‘learn’ your driving style based on your last 20 minutes or so, and will make the gear changes softer and use higher gears for calm, relaxed types, and the opposite for Larry Leadfoots. Therefore, when you put your foot down to overtake, you’re never entirely sure what’s going to happen. It might leap forward like a bee has stung its giant behind, or it might just sit there in a confused fashion. Sure, you can select what gear you want with the Tiptronic box and I think the Sport button will also put it instantly into its most aggressive settings, but I would still like the option to turn this feature off and just have it stick with one setup for all seasons.
These cars were enormously problematic when released. The fancy ABC system tended to tear itself apart in a few thousand miles. Problems with the paint mix and steel – aluminium bonding on the body resulted in big patches of rust appearing after just a few months in some cases. Mercedes were diligent in putting these right, and the fixed ABC system is now fairly reliable - but don’t buy one that has even the slightest hint of an ABC problem (£3,000 to fix one corner.) Look at the error warning console when starting the car, and scroll through all the errors using the up/down buttons on the steering wheel.
Servicing and parts are not too bad, as they are largely shared across the Merc model range. I use an independent Merc specialist. A minor service was £250, not bad compared to the £330 I was paying for a Volvo S40 service. A major service was £1100, but that did include two new rear tyres. A catalytic converter needed replacing, an official Merc one would have been £900, but I was able to find a clone part for £120. A new key was £150, and the official Merc dealership needed 5 attempts to program it correctly. As a general rule, it takes three attempts to get anything fixed with this vehicle, as so few people know how to work on it. After the driver’s window was smashed by vandals (jealousy is a problem with this car) it required 3 different “experts” to fit it correctly and even then they managed to screw up the window control panels. I ended up refitting the panels myself.
It chews through tyres at quite a rate. The front ones last about 25k miles, but the rear ones are doing well if they last 15k. One set were eaten in 10k, but in fairness that did included a one-off, 130mph, 1 hour sprint to catch a ferry.
In conclusion, I would heartily recommend this car to anyone whose love of driving and admiration of fine engineering will justify the odd £2k repair bill. It is reassuring to know that second-hand values are now so low (I saw one for £3500 with FSH) that if anything serious goes wrong, you could just scrap it and buy another one. I know I probably will one day.
Would you buy another car from this manufacturer? Yes
Review Date: 24th May, 2013