For once, I am flummoxed. I cannot fathom whether my experience of Mercedes-Benz's new CLS55 AMG has been an automotive one or an aesthetic one. Is it a car, or is it art? For more than a century, artists and critics, snobs and dilettantes have been struggling to devise a satisfactory definition for "modern art." It's a concept notoriously difficult to pin down. Now, there's yet another moving target - literally - to elude one's comprehension.
Yeah, sure, a car as "fine art." What kind of brain-dead motorhead would come up with an idea like that?
If the reader could please suspend disbelief for a moment, perhaps I can shore up the proposition. For one thing, the CLS55 manages to disturb the status quo, as modern art has been wont to do since well before the Cubists. To a world that equates a "coupe" with two doors and a "sedan" with four, Mercedes' CLS-Class represents a "four-door coupe" design that is simultaneously compelling and vaguely unsettling. As a coupe, it is longer, more attenuated than expected; as a sedan, it is sleeker, more fierce. One is forced to look the car over, to ponder it, to stretch one's conception of "the automobile" in order to make room for an entirely new interpretation. Just as modern art has been forcing one to do since well before the Cubists.
For another thing, the CLS55 AMG blurs the distinction between what is static and what is dynamic. "The 'figure' is so expanded, interrupted, or broken in plane and contour that it disappears, as it were, behind the blur of its movement; only the blur remains." Instead of describing Umberto Boccioni's famous 1913 sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, the fine arts textbook Gardner's Art Through the Ages might well be painting the word portrait of this new 2006 Mercedes-Benz.
You are not yet convinced. I can sense that, even if this car's $92,000 price tag is fully "art-world compatible." Keep in mind, however, that the foregoing description concerns an artifact (i.e., Boccioni's sculpture) that is entirely at rest. Mercedes' stunning CLS may also convey an expression of speed while standing still, but it enjoys the added dimension of making speed - abundant, thrilling, daunting speed - in its own right. As Aldous Huxley would have it in his tantalizing essay Wanted, a New Pleasure, "speed, it seems to me, is the one genuinely modern pleasure." Perhaps speed, as accomplished by this Mercedes, is also a genuinely modern art.
Meanwhile, back off campus
After all, underhood the CLS55 lies a supercharged 5.4-liter V8 capable of producing 469 horsepower and 516 foot-pounds in the blink of an eye. The car blurs from zero to 60 in a mere 4.5 seconds. The car is theoretically capable of more than 155 mph. And yet, even at lofty, unfamiliar speed, the CLS55 exudes an essence of calm. It is as unruffled, as quiet, as placid as an unfurled flag on a windless day.
As befits a masterpiece, everything seems so simple at face value when in fact complexity lies behind the act of creation. In the case of the CLS55, Mercedes' proprietary team of super-tuners at AMG is responsible not only for boosting engine power over the standard CLS500 (via supercharging and increased displacement) but also for re-calibrating the five-speed SpeedShift automatic transmission and dialing-in the suspension.
The " Airmatic DC " suspension, in fact, uses computer-controlled air springs and adaptive dampeners to read road conditions and to adapt wheel travel and roll control accordingly. Giant 19-inch wheels, spanning 8.5 inches wide up front and 9.5 inches at the rear, plant the car to the road while "ESP" stability control shepherds wayward wheel slip invisibly back into line. As a result of all these mechanical ministrations, an otherwise heavy two-ton sedan behaves like a spry touring coupe of half the heft.
Four discreet sport buckets enfold driver and passengers in swaths of Nappa leather. Four different climate control zones fine-tune heating and cooling to different preferences. Optional front seats incorporate not only heating but also cooling and massaging functions, while optional digital surround sound fills the cockpit with music from CD as well as broadcast and Sirius satellite sources.
Individual "Smart Keys" remember encoded seating, climate, and audio preference for different drivers; and yet the gentle tap of a button atop the gear shifter is all that's required to start the car. Rain-sensing wipers react automatically to weather conditions. An optional "Active Curve" lighting system deploys the high-intensity bi-Xenon headlamps into gentle arcs when the steering wheel is turned. Moreover, under 25 mph, the fog lamps illuminate automatically if the headlights are on, then aim to either right or left when a turn signal is indicated or the steering wheel is spun.
For all of its patent ingenuity, the CLS55 defies any demands upon utility. If it can be said to be as thought provoking as a work of art, it is every bit as useful as one, too. Four cozy seats preclude family shuttle service. Refined leather, wood, and brushed metal interior finishes forestall the possibility of hauling injurious cargo. A well-proportioned trunk does consume almost 16 cubic feet of cargo, on the other hand. And mysterious, tiny flaps in the roof do conceal threaded lugs for affixing an optional cargo rack.
But the thought of a rack atop this rolling sculpture is as absurd as a peasant smock draped over Venus de Milo. The fittings, perhaps, are but a snide joke being played by Mercedes' designers as a concession to the Rule of Pygmalion: It takes a birthmark or a small, inconspicuous "beauty spot" to bring an otherwise perfect sculpture to life. Or to transform a complex automobile into a piece of modern art.