Taking stock of the Mercedes-Benz CL55 AMG.
Exclusivity is a tricky balancing-act in the automotive industry, particularly for manufacturers who are (or aspire to be) regarded as ‘premium’ players. On the one hand, manufacturers need a level of sales that will allow them to amortise the ever-growing upfront investment required to develop new models, so they can ultimately return a profit. On the other hand, if their bread-and-butter models become too commonplace, the thin veneer of exclusivity could be stripped away.
Mercedes-Benz was, at one time, pre-eminent in maintaining its composure on this particular high-wire. City streets throughout Europe were thronged with smoky W123 200D taxis in mainly unappealing flat colours, yet the same car, in a nicer colour and (modestly) higher specification, was still the vehicle of choice for aspirational upper middle-class professionals.
At one time, the coupé sat at the very top of the exclusivity tree. Coupés have long been regarded as a triumph of style over substance: pay more, yet get less. Objectively, they made little sense, but when has objectivity ever been a major determinant in choosing something as personal and emotive as a car? Much as we might try to deny it, we are all concerned, to a greater or lesser degree, as to what our choice of car says about us, and coupés said a great deal that was flattering.
They were relatively cheap to produce too: maintain the saloon’s expensively developed mechanicals, but slice a few inches out of the platform between the wheels and dress her up in a nice party frock. And, as technology began to make increasing inroads into our perception of luxury motoring, what better place to introduce acronym-infested vehicles with inflated prices?
Today we take a look at one such coupé, a highly regarded car when new some twenty years ago, when it cost the best part of £100,000, an eye-watering sum of money, even now. For that considerable outlay, on 5th June 2002(1), the first owner took delivery of a Mercedes-Benz C215-generation CL55 AMG with Tanzanite Blue (code 359) exterior paintwork and an Orion Grey (code 518) cow-hide interior, the extended leather also finding its way onto door panels, dashboard, gear selector and steering wheel.
Under that elongated bonnet lies a 5,439cc V8 engine, shoving out a not insubstantial 360bhp. Even this heady power output was said to have been curtailed so as not to tread on the toes of the even more exclusive 367bhp CL600 V12. Even so, the CL55 maintains bragging rights over its more patrician cousin in one respect at least: torque figures are identical at 530 lb ft, but the V8 reaches 60mph in six seconds flat, whereas the V12 takes a comparatively pedestrian 6.7 seconds to achieve the same velocity. Blame the additional weight and enjoy pondering what to do with the time saved.
A potted history: Peter Arcadipane, under the direction of Bruno Sacco, is credited with the CL’s design, using the 1996 F200 Imagination concept as a starting point(2). The production CL was revealed in 1998. In non-AMG CL500 and CL600 forms, the C215 sold well for such a supposedly exclusive car, amassing total sales of 40,827 over eight years.
The AMG versions were, by comparison, a rarefied breed. The CL55 was launched at the turn of the century and the first series found just 2,217 buyers during its two-year tenure. The revised second series car found 4,163 buyers over the three subsequent years. Even these modest numbers dwarf sales of the ultra-rare CL63 V12, of which just 26 were made, and its successor, the CL65, of which a slightly less exclusive 777 found buyers. Even so, you’d be hard pressed to happen across another AMG CL unless some form of reunion was involved.
Blood lines allowed the CL to share some cutting-edge technology with the then luminary Sonderklasse: Distronic, the radar-assisted autonomous cruise control, which can now be found on (almost) all and sundry, was at that time revolutionary, as were the Bi-Xenon low and high-beam High Intensity Discharge headlamps and ABC (Active Body Control). The latter allowed for three different ride height adjustments, notionally in order to allow the car to be driven over rough ground but, likely of much more relevance, to lower the car at speed to aid fuel economy. One feature that was cutting-edge when the car was new but now looks quaintly old-fashioned is the Mercedes-Benz branded Nokia phone that rests in the centre console.
Being gentle, one might well visit 32mpg, but then witness the fuel gauge plummet should one become leaden-footed or foolishly choose to drive around town, a hostile environment for such a car. That said, the CL is less weighty than one might at first think: both boot floor and lid, along with the front wings, are of a plastic composition. The bonnet and roof are aluminium.
This level of detail might have been lost on many CL drivers, but not Tim, the owner of the CL55 in my sights today, which is somewhat incongruously called Mollie. A car enthusiast for many years, Tim is a member of the UK Mercedes-Benz Club. This is where he first became acquainted with the CL, as its keys had previously been in the hands of two fellow club members, both of whom had lavished considerable care on the car. Tim snapped up the opportunity to acquire the pillarless coupé in March 2020, just as the world paused.
In his own words, “It’s a superb looking car that I’ve had my eye on. Having sunroof [open] and windows lowered is akin to a convertible.” And he should know, having previously piloted a R129 SL320 and a R171 SLK200 along with almost fifty other varieties of car. Previous stars include progenitors of the CL55 AMG, a C123-generation CE230 and later a C140-generation CL500. Allowing time and patience has clearly worked in his favour as regards this particular CL.
“The car rides very well on its optional 19-inch wheels and irons out bumps nicely. The ABC ride height certainly helps in cleaning the wheel arches, if nothing else. And I have ‘off-roaded’ her, along gravel and grass tracks at car shows!” Along with a DTW-style penchant for symmetry, Tim adores a full set of dash-mounted switches and “cannot abide a blanking plate.” Hence, other CLs that were less than fully equipped were rejected out of hand.
Tim also points out the extremely complex engineering of the door hinges, something which Renault copied for their Avantime and named ‘Double Kinematic Hinge’. These allow access in tight-fitting parking spaces, although one dreads to consider their cost. Then add the self-closing doors and boot lid and the double-glazed windows. The latter feature was carried over from the C140, but utilises thinner glass on the C215. Another party-piece is the tilting steering column to facilitate easier entry and egress.
Helpfully, the car fits snugly in Tim’s garage, being usefully smaller than its predecessor:
C140: Length: 5,056mm. Width: 1,895mm. Wheelbase 2,944mm.
C215: Length: 4,993mm. Width: 1,857mm. Wheelbase 2,885mm.
In his two-year tenure, Tim has driven Mollie over 9,000 miles and in all weathers. This car is no garage (or trailer) queen and is enjoyed for its effortless cruising, along with its practical boot size and shape. Tim takes care of cleaning Mollie personally but entrusts any mechanical work necessary to a local, valued independent garage who are sympathetic to such cars, mature in years yet wearing their modernity handsomely. Two MOTs have come and gone with no advisories. ‘Repairs’ have been limited to two new front tyres, a loose wiring loom within the driver’s door and a replacement bonnet spring, impressive for a car twenty years young.
However, Tim does not drive as Karl Wendlinger did his F1 safety car, which differed only in hue, light bars and safety paraphernalia, around the world’s racetracks. Mollie is far too dignified for such tarmac antics. But she ain’t built her world round a single man. At the age of twenty, she’s still a thoroughly modern girl.
(1) A late First Series model as the UK did not receive its first Second Series cars until August.
(2) The 1996 F200 Imagination is now an exhibit at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart. Thankfully, the concept’s colander-inspired wheels and grille never made it to production.