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Mercedes reaches for the top

MALLORCA, Spain. If you have a couple of hundred grand to spend on a new car and you wander in to your Mercedes-Benz dealership, you can't even begin to make up your mind today.

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

MALLORCA, Spain—If you have a couple of hundred grand to spend on a new car and you wander in to your Mercedes-Benz dealership, you can’t even begin to make up your mind today.

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But choice is going to get even more intense.

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The company seems determined to leave no market niche unexplored, no matter how small, in its quest to remain the top luxury car brand in the world.

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To that end, it’s introducing no fewer than five new entries, all at the top end of the spectrum, over the next few months. Pricing for all will be released closer to their respective showroom intro dates.

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The CL Coupe, the entirely expected two-door version of the recently launched S-Class sedan, will be offered in both CL 550 (V8) and CL 600 (twin-turbo V12) versions.

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That same S-Class sedan will be offered with a new full-time four-wheel drive system, called the S 550 4Matic. Both short- and long-wheelbase bodies are built, but we’ll get only the long one in Canada.

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And AMG, Mercedes’ in-house hot-rod division, is introducing the CL 63 AMG, and adding an S 63 AMG S-Class to the existing S 65 AMG — that would be with the twin-turbo V12 again.

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Got that?

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Trying to make sense of Mercedes’ alphanumeric designations is more difficult because it is no longer consistent around the world.

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The AMG models are also a trifle optimistic on nomenclature. The engine really displaces 6.2 litres — 6208 cc, to be precise.

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Here are brief synopses of each debutante:

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CL-CLASS

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Mercedes has a 50-year history of using big luxury coupes to introduce their latest technology, and the new CL is no exception.

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The new Pre-Safe Brake feature adds an automatic braking function to the existing Pre-Safe system, which pre-tensions the seatbelts, adjusts the passenger seat, closes the sunroof and side windows if radar-based sensors detect that a collision is imminent.

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Now, if the driver ignores the audible and visual warnings, the Brake Assist Plus system delivers; it will automatically trigger partial braking of the car — up to 40 per cent of total available brake power.

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If the driver then gets into the act and jumps on the stop pedal, full braking force is automatically applied.

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Pre-Safe Brake works in conjunction with Distronic Plus, Mercedes’ radar-based intelligent cruise control (though for some, that phrase is a contradiction in terms).

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Once you figure out how to use it, you can set the system to follow another car at a predetermined distance; if you edge closer, the brakes are applied to slow you down. Once the gap is re-established, the car accelerates again.

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The parking guidance system I did experience. Drive slowly along a city street, and the car automatically scans the curb for a space that’s at least one metre longer than the car. If you stop and select reverse, a rearward view pops up on the Sat-Nav screen, along with guidelines indicating how much steering you should apply to begin the parking manoeuvre.

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Back up, and when the car is aligned properly, stop, allow the car to indicate how much reverse lock to apply to complete the move, and back in you go.

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Without electric steering as on the new Lexus LS 460, the CL cannot do the steering for you, so it isn’t quite as good a party trick. However, Mercedes says the Lexus system takes more time than most drivers are prepared to allow, and probably won’t be used that much.

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I guess we’ll have to get those two hombres side-by-each and have a Park-Out at the Green P Corral.

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The sleek styling of the CL coupe will remind you of the lovely CLS four-door, except that car is E-Class-based.

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It’s a true pillar-less hardtop, with no central roof support, and rear side windows that disappear entirely into the body for a clean uncluttered look.

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The only flaw in execution I could see is that the leading edges of the trunk lid don’t fit very closely to the body, just at the base of the rear windshield.

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Inside, it’s pretty much new S-Class, although upgraded materials are used in the CL 600. It really is the best Mercedes interior ever, and a huge step up from just a few years ago.

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The rear bucket seats are actually usable by real, if smallish, adults.

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Then there’s Comand — Cockpit Management and Data system, if you must know.

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Sorry, but it’s BMW’s iDrive by another name, a rotating and sliding knob on the centre console that allows you to step through a series of menus to control a wide variety of car, audio, climate and navigational functions with a single controller.

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It is slightly less confusing than the full BMW system because like most other imitators, including BMW’s own second-generation system on some of its less expensive cars, one entire level of menus has been replaced by a series of dedicated buttons.

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Want to mess with the radio? Hit the radio button.

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Mercedes claims Comand is more intuitive than iDrive, but after three days booting around in a variety of thus-equipped Mercs, I can’t say I was a whole lot more comfortable with Comand than I ever am with iDrive.

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Frankly, I have found Infiniti’s the easiest of these things to use, but it’s a slow field at best. A pox on all of them!

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With a further-developed Automatic Body Control semi-active air suspension system, the big CL displays amazing agility when flung along narrow twisty roads.

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The steering is a bit heavy and dull at low speeds, but picks up life as the car picks up speed.

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The V8 engine surely provides all the urge you could ever want — unless you want even more, in which case the twin-turbo V12 is a veritable torque generator. Maybe a touch slower to react to throttle inputs, but once it gathers up its skirts, it just hurtles toward the horizon.

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The V8 gets Mercedes’s new seven-speed automatic transmission, and it’s quite lovely. The V12 has only the older five-speed auto — with this much torque you barely need any gears at all.

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Either way, the CL is a stylish and imposing way to make your mark.

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The CL-Class cars arrive in November. Prices won’t be available for a while, but “will be less than they are now,” says JoAnne Caza of Mercedes-Benz Canada. (That would be $139,950 for the current CL 500, and $194,200 for the CL 600.)

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S 550 4MATIC

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Without mentioning names (Audi), Mercedes points out that it has more models with full-time four-wheel drive than anybody.

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The latest is the S 550 4Matic, with a completely revised drivetrain.

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Chief among the changes is a reworking of the centre differential, which splits the driving force 45 per cent front, 55 per cent rear.

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This unit is considerably smaller than before, saving weight — at 66 kg, it is 39 kg lighter than before — and eliminating the need for a different floor pan, which robbed passenger footwell space to accommodate all the gubbins under the floor.

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The driveshaft to the front wheels is now slightly angled rather than the ideal dead-straight, but the angularity is small enough that vibration and friction losses are minimal.

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Revised gear design improves efficiency — there is now a fuel consumption penalty of only half a litre per 100 km, 50 per cent better than before.

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Another goal was to deliver the same ride and handling in the 4Matic as in the rear-drive S-Class.

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Completely dry and well-paved Mallorcan roads weren’t much of a test of the tractive prowess of the new system; suffice it to say that under no circumstances did it feel like a four-wheel drive car, so at least I can testify that the ride and handling goals seem to have been achieved.

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The S550 4Matic arrives in Mercedes stores in a few weeks, starting at $122,000.

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S 63 AMG, CL 63 AMG

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The two new AMG models, which we drove in Kitzbuhel, Austria, use an all-new 6.2 litre V8 engine, developed from the ground up in-house by AMG. It’s the first such engine in AMG’s history — all others have been derivatives of the parent company’s power plants.

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If they needed more power, why didn’t they just further bore out the new 5.5 litre V8?

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”There would be no engine left!” said Tobias Moers, director of vehicle development for AMG, elaborating that the 5.5 was already at the limit of its displacement.

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The new 6.2 engine also uses a new technology to distribute a thin coating on the cylinder walls for reduced friction, a process developed in Mercedes-Benz’s own research labs.

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It is indeed a sporting engine, with immediate response to even minute changes in throttle position, an eagerness to rev right up to its lofty-for-its-displacement 7000 r.p.m. red line, and a terrific exhaust note when being driven in a spirited manner.

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Yet when you’re just cruising along on the autobahn at, say, 150 km/h — hey, it could happen — it is nearly silent.

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The 6.2 (engine) is mated to Mercedes’ new seven-speed automatic transmission, which shifts well in most situations. But if you back out of the throttle in a hurry while accelerating hard — you spot a “polizei” on the horizon, for example — it can result in a harsh thump as it settles into its new gear.

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(The twin-turbo V12 develops more torque than this transmission can safely handle, so it is saddled with the older-style five-speed automatic.)

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Each new AMG model also gets various fairly subtle cosmetic upgrades, a sportier interior and uprated suspension, although different settings are used depending on whether you choose the 6.2 V8 or the 6.0 litre V12 twin-turbo (currently offered in the S-Class, but not the CL).

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”The 6.2 is considered the sportier engine,” said Herr Moers, “so the suspension is a little firmer. The V12 customer is looking for more comfort — you’d probably never find him on a race circuit for a track day — so the suspension is set more for long-distance cruising.”

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The S 63 AMG and CL 63 AMG arrive next spring. Prices are undetermined but Mercedes-Benz Canada assures us the S 63 AMG will be under $160,000.

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A CL 6.3 AMG was my ride for an early morning sprint from the ski resort town of Kitzbuhel to the Munich airport.

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The Sat-Nav guided me well, but when I started to hunt for the instrumentation dimmer switch, I touched one rocker switch — and the speedometer disappeared entirely.

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It was instantly replaced with a video screen showing the road ahead, only in much more detail than I could see with the naked eye.

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Turns out the instrument cluster is entirely electronic — it had been replaced with images from Mercedes’ night-vision system. It wasn’t that useful under these clear dark conditions, but in fog it’d be a lifesaver.

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Once on the autobahn, I well and truly nailed it; I was approaching the car’s electronically limited top end of 250 km/h before traffic and construction spoiled my fun.

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But the car is dead solid at those speeds, still remarkably quiet and composed — although those trucks are backing up toward you at what seems like a great rate.

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Needless to say, I got to my flight in plenty of time.

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Jim Kenzie, a freelance writer (jim@jimkenzie.com), prepared this report based on travel provided by the auto maker.

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