Miami's a giant concrete brothel; a municipal madame hosting sweaty assignations that pair every income with its choice of cruise, cuisine, club, narcotic or panorama. We were there on a quest for a quest, anxious Lancelots after a late night run in a Series II E-Type over the A1A – yes, the Vanilla Ice road – had turned into a late, late evening with two Spaniards and three Ecuadorians discussing the merits of Top Gear and flying to Bogota to learn Spanish.
That's when Destiny called. Not fate itself, but a ferociously alluring lass with a voice of such fine tenor we had to fight the urge to put the phone down and bow to it whenever she spoke. She requested our presence in Tampa, 271 miles away, and we could only credit fortune for the delivery of a 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG for the purpose. It's the ultimate in modest-yet-graceful savagery (modest compared to the Bentley Continental GT), two tons of animatronic shark – a modern, mechanical Jaws – that would get us safely through the gators, hawks and sawgrass of the Everglades.
It turns out the predators were the least of it. First, we had to get out of the humid human swamp that is Miami. Continue reading...
The CL63 owns a spot of real estate as if its name should begin with "Great Pyramid of," substituting "CL" for "Khafre" or "Djoser." Brand considerations and its own sibling (the CL65 AMG) aside, only two other big, sporting coupes share the CL63's galaxy: the Bentley Continental GT and the Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe. The CL63 slots between them in girth, being 11 inches longer and an inch taller than the GT, but 20 inches shorter and about six inches lower than the Rolls-Royce.
The styling revisions have rectified the long, timorous curves of the previous edition, and left the beautiful cut-line of the rear window that flows into the trunk unmolested. The AMG, though, was always of a finer cut. That hasn't changed here, the restyled face with a much-improved front bumper and headlight design, daytime LEDs and AMG's new quad-pipe fashionings and revised taillights giving away this year's contestant. Otherwise it's everything it was last year: nigh on 17 feet and 4,600 pounds of "Get the *%&@ out of my way. Now."
We settled in the cabin, on the other side of a hinged hatch the size of Greenland, thankful that the hinges now bore indentations. When this generation of the CL was introduced in 2007, it was noted that it hinges had no detents, allowing the door to be opened to any angle. That worked well if you were opening the door on flat earth. If the CL was parked on ground that tilted it along the horizontal, then depending on the slope you couldn't keep the door in a position other than closed or wide open. Not the look you expect to be sporting at the top of the food chain.
The theatrical start-up sequence is akin to Nostromo rousing to life at the beginning of Alien. Aglow in the dash cluster are symbols and pictographs for the Lane Keep Assist, Distronic cruise control, Attention Assist, engine temperature, fuel level, speedometer, tachometer, gear indicator and ECO mode, plus lights for the three different driving modes – Controlled Efficiency, Sport and Manual. Underlining all of that is the horizontal menu for the of Trip, Audio, Navi, AMG, Telephone and Options. We were grateful that we didn't need to constantly monitor all of this. Keep a bead on the steering wheel, accelerator and brake and you'll be fine.
The interior is appointed like the den of a modest magnate. There's nothing ostentatious in it – beyond its capacity and its very existence – an ample space with large fixtures minimally detailed in aluminum and chrome, otherwise slathered in cow. And yes, we mean 'cow;' leather is so thickly abundant that it probably makes living bovines nervous. Another luxury maker once told us "Our motto is 'Herds, not hides.'" In this car, Mercedes agrees.
Ample cabins often mean ample, cushy seats, which is another reason we appreciate the AMG over the standard car. Although the Dynamic Seating's inflatable bladders can help mold the thrones to your figure, we don't like them, and don't find them necessary in the CL63's already well-bolstered chairs.
There's a portable volcano at the front of the CL63, a Kilauea-with-a-driveshaft called the M571. It's a 5.5-liter "biturbo" V8 with 536 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque. Down in capacity from the erstwhile 6.2-liter naturally-aspirated engine, it's up on both power and torque by 19 hp and 125 lb-ft. It also hates the Earth slightly less than it did before, with fuel economy rising by 27 percent and CO2 emissions declining by 29 percent. With this engine, the big coupe joins the avant part of the garde that is the "AMG Performance 2015 strategy," the aim of which is to reconcile driving thrills with respect to Mother Nature.
A tiny comma of land called Watson Island Park is where we fired it up. Curling back onto Vanilla Ice Road and leaving a cruise ship in our rear-view to get across town, we quickly escaped the shuffleboarders and all the conceits of Puffy and Scarface and MTV and CSI and jesters who've taken their talents to South Beach. Miami proper is endless aisles of concrete and Florida palm decorated with abandoned lots, elevated highway, and a low line of lightly grimed buildings in a goulash of architectural styles.
And legions of jaywalkers.
Miami's population is said to be about 300,000. It seems half of them spend their time in the middle of the street – panhandlers, tourists, vendors, troglodytes, jaywalkers, carnies – the other half in their cars driving at speeds that have nothing to do with the posted limits. On top of that, right lanes become mandatory turn lanes without warning, and left turn lanes are so short that traffic often backs up into the main drag. Point being, you need good reflexes, and the CL is graced with them. Ample travel in the throttle pedal lets you control the V8 judiciously, and graciously modulated eight-pot calipers on 15.35-inch discs up front (14.4 inches in back) control the mass just as well.
About the only uncivil urban manners we discovered were when driving in Controlled Efficiency mode, the official title of the Eco setting that stresses better MPGs with early shifts and softer accelerator response. One of its features is a stop/start system, never before seen on an AMG, and we were ignorant of it. At the first stop light the engine cut out and our immediate thought took less than a millisecond to conjure and digest: "I'm about to be the biggest clown in South Beach, stuck at a light in a $180,000 car." Then we took our foot off the brake, and presto, the twin-turbo fired right up. That meant we were only the biggest clown inside the car. The bigger issue, though, is that it's hard to rouse 536 horses without a commotion – every time the engine comes to life, the whole car shakes. If nothing else, it lets you know the beast is alive. Oh, and when it shuts off it can take the edge off the air conditioning, the kind of sacrifice you don't always want to make in a place like Florida. Leave it in Sport or Manual and stop/start is deactivated.
The Tamiami Trail begins in a nondescript section of town full of concrete lots, sign companies and the kinds of hotels where you go to get chained up in a bathtub and have your legs amputated by cokeheads with chainsaws. However, this inauspicious plot of Americana is home to the original Uncle Tom's Barbecue and its "Big-Chickenpork." Time would not allow us to sample that most Floridian of feasts, but it's clear that duty will force us to return.
When the Trail gets its suburbia on and opens up, the M571 will come out to play. Looking in the direction of Bentley, at idle and under non-emergency throttle there's simply a constant, low grumble, as if there's an earthquake happening in the next state or someone's running a Harley in the trunk. Switch over to Sport and step on the long pedal – even with tauter reflexes, you really are required to step on it – and 5,499 pounds of The Occident Express will run to sixty in 4.5 seconds, tires skipping and chirping the entire way.
If you're already on the go and make a call to the engine room, the coupe doesn't betray any turbocharged buck or kick; it drops down followed by a vociferous bellowing out back – imagine The Incredible Hulk as a butler. The rush unfolds and then you're singing Snap's, "I've got the power!" With 5,500 pounds moving at a sub-five-second charge, it's urgent enough for you to feel every contour of the seat.
It was in that twin-turbo mood that we reached the Everglades, a great gray whale breaching SW 187th Avenue and sploshing into the murk; red-tailed hawks overhead, cypress, sawgrass and mangroves on either side, gators below.
Few are aware, but the Everglades is not a swamp. It's a river. Headwaters are at Lake Okeechobee, all of fifteen feet above sea level, but high enough to get the water to move a foot-and-a-half a day into Shark Valley, where freshwater meets the sea. Slow, yes, but still fast enough to be a river.
Traffic through the Everglades is sedate as well, two lanes and on this day appreciably light. Even though we had obligations elsewhere, we did stop to take in several sights. After all, this chunk of green on America's fingernail is where ancient Spaniards thought they would find the waters to cure mortality, instead finding death-dealing shenanigans of every stripe. All trace of the Spaniards had been effaced, leaving just airboat rides at Buffalo Tigers' and Osceola Panthers', catfish filet, gator tail, frog legs, the Miccosukee Reservation advertising "Alligator Demonstrations," and most wonderful of all, The Skunk Ape Research Center. Go there. It's incredible.
At one point we turned left down a dirt singletrack. The CL's Active Body Control (ABC) ate up this bit of roughage, sequestering us from the sharp, high-frequency peaks even though we were probably traveling a little faster than one ought. Nevertheless, this same ABC would, in another scenario, cause us to shake our heads to the tune of 'Oh la la.' In a different CL63 AMG in California, testing the Manual setting on canyon roads (we doubt there are two sharp, connected curves in all of Florida), the ABC is so good at keeping the car composed that it can dull your visceral sense of danger until you plunge into a corner at an unforgivable speed.
The CL isn't the only car so equipped; it's usually done on the kinds of battleships that will never really be driven in that manner, and there are so many electro-aids included here that you really would deserve a plunging, fiery death if you did push it too far. But nota bene, this is a big car with excellent reflexes. It will follow the well-charted line with the eye-opening alacrity and agility of a rhino, but a rhino is not a cheetah, and the CL, even with its Direct Steer (which is a mechanical, utterly simple and excellent setup) and torque-vectoring brakes, is not a sports car.
Back to that singletrack. We know a Floridian who has a pond in back of his house that's regularly visited by gators. He told us that if you try to get close to them they'll run away. That's probably true. However, we got out for a photo op of the CL and after the third snap we heard the sound of reptilian armor guided by a peanut brain making an enormous splash into the canal beside us. When that happens, your urbanite instinct is not to think, "That's a twelve-foot dragon with six million teeth trying to get away from me." Your first reaction is to jump thirty feet in the air, land on the car, climb in through the sunroof, and wonder how good the CL is as a battering ram.
Exiting the Everglades and running up the west coast's I-75, we found highway driving to be the perfect environment for gizmotronic assistance, as well as a noticeable bit of tire and wind noise. Stray across dotted white lines and the Lane Keep Assist will gently vibrate the steering wheel. Stray across the solid yellow line separating the shoulder and the system will apply the inside brakes in an effort to pull the car back into the lane. It was the same with Blind Spot Assist – try to pull into another lane when a car was there, and the CL would work its brakes to restrain your barging intentions. Unnoticed was the crosswind stabilization, part of the ABC that alters wheel load distribution and kept us from having to saw at the tiller during some unusually windy sections.
The Attention Assist keeps track of 70 parameters, and we must have violated a fair percentage of them. Florida has no law against using a phone handset while driving, but on the two occasions we used the phone – while wearing sunglasses – Attention Assist would chime and the coffee cup icon would appear in the dash.
It was an easy run into Tampa made even easier by the CL's supertanker fuel capacity: the tank holds 23.8 gallons, so 400 miles at highway speeds isn't an issue. Filling up at $4.75 per, well, if that's where your mind goes then this isn't the car for you. If you must know, the CL63 returns 15 mpg in the city, 21 on the highway and 17 combined according to government figures, a healthy overshadowing of the 11/18/14 of the 2010 model.
We hadn't slept yet and thought we might grab a refreshing forty winks by the side of the road along with other weary, parked travelers. It was here we found that the CL passes The Authorities' Big Baller test: We awoke to a sheriff tapping on the window, requesting our identification and wanting "to make sure you're all right." Then, while his partner ran the particulars, he asked repeatedly, "Damn. How do I get me one of these?"
Lesson learned, we got on the move and it was with a little time to spare that we pulled into St. Petersburg. We knew we wanted to be by the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, but aware we wouldn't be there long we settled on an evil looking hotel with a kindly proprietor; the kind of musty dead end found in some deleted scene of No Country for Old Men, and where you're as likely to get stabbed in the face as you are to get a day's rest. Ringing the bell in the fortified cell of a lobby, we were greeted by a gent in a soiled tank top – wifeus beaterus – who looked at our suit and our $180,000 car and asked, "What do you want?" We said "A room." He said "$35." We paid cash, then pulled into the courtyard.
Backing into a space, we proffered the CL's Bismarckian-wide ass to the gentleman watching a B-movie in the adjacent room. How do we know it was a gentleman? Because he got up from his film to stand at the window, stone-faced, and watch us unload the trunk while we tried to imagine what he'd look like as he stabbed us in the face.
We'll credit God's grace, and sleeping with one eye open, for not letting that happen. The upshot was that we awoke to enjoy the CL's continued company, and a date with Destiny (you knew that was coming eventually). The CL63 AMG is everything you'd expect of a car costing $177,000 before options, except for perhaps the badge. To those who know, the CL63 delivers on the promise of a big coupe better than anything else short of that Continental GT or two-door Phantom, but does so without 'baller' and MTV associations in the former case, and without the "I eat gold bullion for breakfast" connotations of the latter. Having been bigger fans of the previous generation – which we still find more beautiful – it is a pleasure to report that we were not disappointed.
Even better: Neither was Destiny.