The current generation Mercedes-Benz CL500 (CL550 in some markets) is absolutely glorious. It offers a lot of the exquisite comfort of an S-Class with a big injection of added indulgence. It's also almost preposterously quick, the 4.6 litre V8 thumping out 435 growly, thunderous horsepower, enough to hurl the vast machine to sixty in less than five seconds. To put this into perspective, that's only a second slower than the AMG CL65; and that has an extra 177 horses and costs a further fifty grand.
In all honesty, it was never really in doubt that the CL was a bit of a masterpiece. I mean, it would be absolutely criminal for the flagship Mercedes coupé to be anything less. But what really struck me about my time with the CL, for all its pleasure, for all that power, was how many systems it has to take your mind off driving it.
To say it has an infotainment system is pretty much redundant. The Mercedes-Benz COMAND system stands up as one of the more complete navigation-stroke-media systems on the market; recently made even more so with its online capabilities. Map detail is quite superb, with selected London landmarks rendered in full 3D and some views on the screen being eerily similar to what you can see through the windscreen.
But everybody has satellite navigation these days. A good many people have hard-drive music storage, MP3 compatibility, iPod connectivity and full interaction and DVD video playback. There are many excellent factory fitted hi-fi upgrade systems on the market, all with famous international brand-names dubbed to them. The Mercedes offering gives you the full Logic 7 Surround Sound system, by Harman Kardon, is excellent and comes with a terrific demonstration disc that scares the bejeezus out of unsuspecting passengers. On the optionally upgraded system you also have the splitview facility so that your front passenger can watch Flight Of The Navigator while you get busy with, er, navigating.
So that's that, then. But that's just the infotainment. From the drivers seat there are a great many other gewgaws that you can play with, there's buttonry for every conceivable seat adjustment, including the ferocity at which they massage you and the distribution of their heating or cooling. You can play with the ambient lighting which recreates the ambience of a Docklands vodka bar, you can dick about with the electric rear rollerblind. All of these things are splendid, but not even slightly necessary.
But there are at least another two features I can't really get my head around. The first one is Night Vision.
I understand the concept; it's obvious, after all, who wouldn't like better driving vision in the dark? Firstly I'd like to give a quick plaudit to Mercedes for at least placing the display screen somewhere more ergonomically sensitive than BMW do. On a BMW the night-vision screen appears at the top of the centre stack, on the screen used for navigation duties. On the Mercedes, thanks to the airliner-style “glass cockpit” (that more and more of the competition are starting to adopt) the night-vision appears in front of you where the digi-analogue speedometer had previously been; speed readings shifting to a horizontal bar graph at the bottom of the screen.
When activated the night-vision image is extremely sharp, extremely legible and very responsive. It's black and white only; a limitation of infra-red technology. There's little doubt of the usefulness of a night-vision system of some description; infra-red illumination can reach far further than conventional lighting but without causing blindness in oncoming traffic. On a country road with poor street-lighting and errant wildlife leaping out at you, there's an obvious case for it, and similarly in a darkened suburban environment.
I drove the car home at night, but on a well lit dual carriageway. Being fair to the system this is not a situation where you need night-vision at all, but it did highlight a few truths. Firstly, I found the action of looking at the bright display screen two feet away from my eyes, and then refocussing on the road ahead to be quite tiring on the eyes. I simply couldn't go between the two quickly enough for me to see anything via the night-vision that would help me out at all with the job of driving; it was better to simply concentrate on the road than to distract myself with looking at the display screen.
I did actually have half a go at driving the car using only the view ahead as seen on the information screen; it would be like playing Gran Turismo, I ventured. It wasn't. The very slight delay between the information entering the camera and then being displayed was enough to make the task impossible, and the view ahead gives next to no help with road positioning or spacial awareness. I know you're not actually supposed to drive solely using the night-vision, but now I know you can't even if you want to. So, er, what's the point?
You will all chorus the agreed fact (I even said it myself, just a few minutes ago) that night-vision can pick up obstacles ahead that conventional headlights can't. But unless you have a co-pilot warning you of hazards appearing on the night-vision screen, I fear that, by the time you've reacted to what you've seen you probably would have seen it with your headlights anyway. Perhaps, one day in the future the night-vision effect will be projected directly on your windscreen, with no refocussing required, no interpretation needed. But until then, fun toy though it may be, I don't think we need it.
And I'm not entirely convinced that we need radar-activated cruise control, either. The Mercedes Distronic Plus system uses a radar emitter, concealed behind the vast three-pointed-star on the grille, to gauge the distance between you and the car in front. With the cruise control active the system “locks on” to the car in front, copying its road speed until either you overtake or it pulls in. You can adjust the distance; a sleeve on the control lever can be twisted to vary between near tailgating and stalking from a distance. The system will even work right down to absolute zero; if the car in front slows to a stop, so will you. And you'll accelerate away as he does, too. It's an excellent system.
But it's only excellent on single-carriageway roads. Why? Well, say you have the system set to 85mph (as illegally fast as you can legally drive, if you get what I mean) and the car you're shadowing is doing 65. You go to overtake, if you're anything like me you'll probably do this by twitching your big toe and wafting past with fluid elegance. Not so the Distronic system; it's habit is to unleash the fury of hell and accelerate to your pre-determined velocity as hastily as possible. Not good for any car-sick passengers you might be encumbered with.
So, then you sit at 85 mph, with a sensible distance set between you and the car in from you, probably a gap somewhere less than the legally stipulated stopping distance, but a gap nonetheless. On British roads a gap is there for the taking, especially for those driving white vans, and what do you do when somebody jumps into your safety gap, usually? You lift off the throttle, coasting to match their speed, possibly a dab of the middle pedal to scrub speed off more energetically. All safe, all smooth.
Not so the Distronic System. Should Dan in a Van pull out any distance between yourself and the car you're locked to, Distronic screams “Mein Gott!” and puts an entire legful of braking power into hauling off speed in an instant. Your carsick passengers are thrown forward in their chairs and the interior suddenly needs valeting again. Put simply, Distronic drives like an oaf.
Compound that with the fact that, on motorway bends of a certain radius, the Distronic system will brake for traffic that isn't even in your lane, in the manner of Hyacinth Bouquet, telling her long suffering husband to mind that pedestrian. “He's on the pavement!”
Blind Spot Assist is also a confounded pain in the arse and you should deactivate it immediately. It no doubt offers all the goodwill in the world, striving to warn you of things looming up behind in your blind spot that you might not see yourself, with the aim of preventing you from pulling out into their path. It warns you with a little red illuminated triangle that lights up in the outer edge of the rear-view mirror, combined with a prominent electronic beeping when there is clear and present danger.
Problem is, there's clear and present danger all the bloody time. On my journey along the A12 this morning, much of which I spent on the outside lane, passing lorries and inferior cars, the little red triangle of wisdom was helpfully suggesting that I don't drive into the Armco on the central reservation. Now, I know not to do this; I've been driving long enough to know that veering off the road into stationary objects is ill-advised.
Also, sometimes, if you find yourself stuck behind somebody ambling, with a procession of faster traffic passing you, sometimes you have to be a little assertive. You don't just pull out in front of people in a cavalier manner, but you do want to ensure you give yourself as much space as possible. So you start to pull out just before the overtaker has finished overtaking. When his rear wheel passes your rear view mirror, pull out. Beep Beep bloody Beep goes the car loudly; waking all your passengers and making you look stupid. It's like having a policeman on board tutting loudly whenever you breach the speed limit. To be completely honest you can deactivate the beeps by indicating every single time you make such a manoeuvre, but sometimes indicating seems to make things more complicated.
The problem I have is that, if you find yourself relying on electronics to tell you when it isn't safe to pull out, you shouldn't be allowed behind the wheel of a car. If you can't be trusted to keep a safe distance behind a car while holding a constant speed, you shouldn't be allowed behind the wheel of a car. These systems all actively make us less attentive, lazier drivers. Driver aids they are not; they're close to being driver replacements.
At the very least they make us less involved with the process of driving, and in a car like the CL500 that's something of a shame. Oh, yes, the car. A shame, I've spent most of this feature going off on one about all the interior gadgetry. Yet this kind of sums the car up; it's a fabulous machine, far greater than the sum of its parts, yet the complexity of these parts comes close to overshadowing the whole package. Somehow, the closest natural competitor to the CL, the Bentley Continental, manages to be clever and complex without the gadgets grabbing the headlines.
It's just as well that, to me, the more restrained, less obvious Mercedes is the more attractive car. It's essentially plain in shape but, the more exposed you are to it, you notice more the subtlety of its curves, the understated menace it exudes, and that sweeping, Riva Aquarama stern that makes for one of my favourite car design features of all time. If all the technology was re-assigned to making the car even more enjoyable to drive as, the CL would be nigh on unbeatable.