First Drive: 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG

Born-Again Big Benz Impresses Despite Electronic Nannies

2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG - Click above for high-res image gallery

Each Fall, Mother Nature puts on a spectacular display in many parts of the country. As winter approaches and days become shorter, there isn't enough sunlight for trees to support photosynthesis. Starved of their source for energy, the leaves on many variants lose their green chlorophyll and expose bright reds, yellows and purples – hues from glucose trapped in the drying foliage.

Upstate New York is unquestionably a spectacular venue for a driving introduction to the 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG. Against a brilliantly painted backdrop, the facelifted full-size coupe, fitted with an all-new twin-turbocharged V8, is a near-perfect chariot for a tour of the Hudson Valley. The 536-horsepower rear-wheel-drive two-door, with its signature greenhouse sans B-pillars, offers an excellent view of the colorful canvas outside the glass. Whether gliding effortlessly down the turnpike, or rustling up a wake of fallen leaves on an autumn country road, the automaker's flagship in this rarified segment seems to have few peers.

What is it like to drive the blown CL63 AMG? Is the big coupe able to effectively balance performance with luxury and technology? Are there any other full-size two-door vehicles on the market for this low volume Mercedes-Benz to compete with? Keep reading to find out...

Photos copyright ©2010 Michael Harley / AOL

The current Mercedes-Benz CL-Class has been with us since the 2007 model year. While its styling wasn't particularly dated, the soft lines of the full-size coupe have always evoked more prestige than excitement. Forget about last year's figure, as the German automaker has put its four-seat "C216" platform under a cosmetic knife for the 2011 model year.

Healed and with the bandages removed, all CL-Class models have emerged with a polished new appearance. Front fascias receive the obligatory LED daytime running lamps (two horizontal bars with seven illuminating diodes apiece) and standard bi-Xenon headlamps with Adaptive Highbeam Assist for state-of-the-art illumination. All turn indicators and markers now utilize new LED technology, restyled on both the front and the rear, for excellent visibility and crisp signaling.

2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG side view2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG front view2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG rear view

Mercedes-Benz offers its 2011 CL-Class in four different flavors: CL550 4MATIC, CL63 AMG, CL600 and CL65 AMG – being performance-minded types, we're going to focus our eyes on the "volume" enthusiast-tuned model. The refreshed 2011 CL63 AMG is differentiated in the front by a single chrome bar across the grille and a high-gloss black lower fascia crossmember (from a distance, it appears hidden). Other distinguishing characteristics include a unique rear apron with a diffuser insert and quad "AMG" tailpipes, the most obvious part of the sport exhaust system. Lastly, the CL63 AMG wears standard AMG-spec 20-inch cast alloy wheels with 255/35ZR20 size tires in the front and 275/35ZR20 in the rear.

The interior of the Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG is more comfortable than your living room. Driver and front passenger are absorbed into standard 14-way electronically adjustable AMG sport seats with heat, ventilation and memory. Our test car was fitted with the optional "active multicontour seats" that include massage and drive dynamic functions (air bladders actively inflate to hold occupants in place during cornering). After our six-hour, two-leg flight from California, a warm heated seat combined with a "vigorous" massage was just what the spine ordered.

2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG interior2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG front seats

Cabin instrumentation mirrors that of the S-Class, the CL's very close cousin. There are analog gauges on each side of the primary digital display (projecting a virtual speedometer and doubling as the screen for the optional "Night View Assist PLUS" system). The secondary controls operate in a logical manner and are located much where they would be expected. The seat and window controls are on the door, while the infotainment center is controlled via the automaker's COMAND system with its "joystick" dial on the center console. Of special note is the optional "Splitview" screen on the dashboard. Centrally located, it has the ability to project two completely different images (e.g., navigation map and a DVD-based movie) simultaneously - one aimed at the driver, the other at the front passenger. It works flawlessly.

The CL63 is a two-door coupe, but its S-Class architecture allows plenty of room for all four passengers. The two rear seats are comfortable and relatively easy to access, as long as the driver chauffeuring the vehicle isn't over six-foot tall (the front seats were moved completely rearward in the photos found in our gallery). Passengers in the back will not complain, as they are also seated in the same cocoon of fine leather and Alcantara with burl walnut, black ash or carbon fiber accents.

2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG gauges2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG navigation system2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG media controls2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG rear seats

While cosmetic improvements and a cozy cabin are warmly welcomed, the new powerplant is the one item that significantly changes the game.

The outgoing 2010 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG featured a hand-built naturally-aspirated 6.2-liter rated at 518 horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque. Powerful and universally admired, the engine did nearly everything well except drive past fueling stations thanks to an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 11 miles per gallon in the city and 18 highway.

That was last year.

Embracing now-commonplace fuel-efficient engine technology, the naturally-aspirated eight-cylinder engine has been dropped. In its place is a direct-injected, four-valve, twin-turbocharged, eight-cylinder powerplant.

While direct injection is far from new (Mercedes-Benz used the technology in its 1954 300SL Gullwing), the automaker is using a unique dual fuel pump system with this new engine. A low-pressure (84 psi) pump in the gas tank supplies fuel to a second high-pressure (up to 2,556 psi) pump for the eight piezo injectors. The pressure is adjusted, on a demand basis, to lessen the electrical load on the vehicle and save fuel. The piezo-ceramic injectors are engineered to offer a blazingly fast opening time of 0.1 milliseconds - thus making it possible to program up to five separate injections with each piston stroke (Mercedes points out that its engines idle around 20 strokes per second and run at about 200 strokes every second at high speeds). As expected, the ignition system has also been upgraded. Combustion is initialized with the first spark, but the system has the capability to deliver up to four sparks within a single millisecond.

2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG engine

There is one Garrett turbocharger for each bank of four cylinders, each welded directly to the exhaust manifold to save space and allow more room to closely mount the catalytic converters. Boost pressure is limited by a computer-controlled vacuum-operated wastegate valve (which allows the turbochargers to freewheel during deceleration to increase efficiency). The hot pressurized air from the turbochargers flows through an air-water intercooler, nestled in the "V" of the engine, which operates with its own dedicated nose-mounted radiator and coolant circuit.

The new engine puts out some seriously impressive numbers. Thanks to 14.2 psi of forced induction, the hand-assembled "M157" twin-turbo 5.5-liter (5,461 cubic centimeters) eight-cylinder is rated at 536 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque. Power is sent through a seven-speed multi-clutch transmission to the rear wheels. Unlike the automaker's smooth seven-speed automatic with a traditional torque converter (found under the hood of the 2011 CL550 4MATIC), the sportier gearbox in the CL63 AMG uses a compact wet startup clutch in an oil bath.

According to Mercedes, the CL63 AMG completes the 0-60 mph dash in just 4.4 seconds while top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph. If that isn't quick enough, Mercedes-Benz offers an optional "AMG Performance Package" that increases turbo boost to 15.6 psi pushing the powerplant to 563 horsepower and 664 pound-feet of torque (with the performance package, acceleration to 60 mph drops to 4.3 seconds, and top speed is raised to 186 mph).

2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG front 3/4 view2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG rear 3/4 view

The brawny new AMG engine, a powerplant that also finds its way under the hood of the 2011 S-Class (S63 AMG) and all-new 2012 CLS-Class (CLS63 AMG), features the automaker's Controlled Efficiency "start/stop" engine technology as standard equipment. When the driver comes to a stop for more than a short moment, the engine is automatically shut off. When the brake pedal is released, the V8 immediately kicks back to life (a crankshaft sensor ensures the engine management system knows precisely which cylinder to fire first to enable the fastest possible start). Thanks to start/stop, and several other less obvious technologies at work under the hood, Mercedes says the new engine is able to earn 15 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway. Those are huge jumps in both power and efficiency.

The 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG is a natural touring car. On the open road, the view from the driver's seat is commanding. The absence of a B-pillar (a design feature also shared with the E-Class Coupe) removes annoying peripheral obstructions, making lane-change maneuvers easy and visibility beautiful. In all seriousness, moving at 65 mph, the 4,806-pound two-door gives occupants a sense of...well, peace of mind.

The warm and fuzzy feeling percolating throughout the cabin is likely attributed to many things. First, layers of well-placed sound insulation and laminated safety glass on all four sides result in a near-absence of engine, tire and wind noise. Second, the electronic suspension damping, with Active Body Control, is extremely competent – there is a feeling that a high-speed impact with a concrete parking curb would barely be felt. Lastly, there is a thick cushion of safety associated with innovative technology such as Xenon Active Headlamps, Attention Assist, Active Lane Keeping Assist, Active Blind Spot Assist and Night View Assist. The various radars and infrared emitters seem to generate a virtual electronic force field around vehicle. With the brain at ease, highway miles don't just disappear under the CL63 AMG – they are completely forgotten.

2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG windows

But what about the much-touted AMG performance on a back country road?

This is where we get a bit irritable. For some reason, Mercedes-Benz doesn't let CL63 owners romp on it. While the C63 AMG and E63 AMG have traction/stability control systems that may be defeated, this big luxury coupe is paralyzed by permanent electronic intervention – it cannot be completely disabled. With 590 pound-feet of torque, full throttle from a standstill should liquidate the rear Continental SportContact tires. Instead, there is slight chirp followed by reduced power. With the transmission in "S" (Sport) or "M" (Manual) mode, thresholds are raised, but only just. There will be no burnouts or powerslides in a CL63 AMG.

It's not like the CL63 AMG isn't capable. Once speeds exceed about 30 mph and traction and power are restored, the exhaust roars and the two-door accelerates at a dizzying rate (the 621-horsepower CL65 AMG is only a tenth of a second quicker to 60 mph). Use the paddle shifters on the steering wheel and the transmission shifts solidly between gears as it responds with a firm kick in the back. And when it comes to stopping, the massive drilled disc brakes don't break a sweat. This big guy is an athlete.

The 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG wears a base price of $151,125 (up $5,050 from the 2010 model). Add a few select options (including the AMG Performance Package), and the price jumps to over $160,000. Don't let that dollar amount bother you, as few will in this segment. Instead, spend a moment considering the CL63's direct competition – or lack thereof.

2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG rear 3/4 view

Traditional Mercedes-Benz competitors, such as BMW and Audi, don't offer a full-size coupe. Looking beyond the German borders, there is the Maserati GranTurismo (smaller, slower and less expensive) and the Aston Martin coupes (still smaller and slower). Coming up short after asking the team at Mercedes-Benz (who also couldn't finger a focused adversary), we settled on the Bentley Continental GT. Its 2011 base price of $189,900 is a bit higher, but that isn't a barrier for those with the income to shop in these brackets. Apples to apples, the CL63 AMG and Continental GT are both very capable automobiles with nearly identical performance. Each delivers its own brand of prestige and cachet, and both will have the valets tripping over their rubber-soled shoes. We're split on our favorite.

We really like the 2011 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG. However, we are left mildly confused by that small mixed signal. CL-Class models are regarded as some of the most luxurious and technically advanced vehicles on the road today. The addition of the well-respected "AMG" badge, and its associated enthusiast-oriented hardware, raises the performance envelope significantly – yet it has been frustratingly restricted on this particular model. While one small blemish would never prevent us from putting the CL63 AMG in our garage, we're begging Mercedes-Benz to allow this big flagship coupe to run uncorked.

Photos copyright ©2010 Michael Harley / AOL

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