Motoring: Smaller, cheaper, better than ever

And the technology in this new Mercedes moves it streets ahead of the coupe competition.

IN 2025, your 1999 Mercedes-Benz CL coupe might be worth about pounds 2,500. That's assuming there's still the petrol to run it on, of course. Trouble is, by then pounds 2,500 would barely buy its four suspension units, should they need replacing. You can only hope the cost tumbles in the meantime, so the continuing viability of your ageing but otherwise healthy CL will not be poised on a knife-edge.

So, what's so special about the suspension? Active Body Control, that's what. Car-makers have played with the idea for years, but Mercedes now makes it real in the world's most techno-dense car. It's yours for pounds 70,680 as a 5.0-litre V8 or, for the ultimate sybaritism fix, pounds 91,760 as a 5.0- litre V12. Don't even think about the depreciation potential.

Active Body Control - let's make it easy, and call it ABC - distorts the laws of physics. It enables this hefty machine to take corners with the sparkiness of a sports car, yet smother bumps with the totality expected of a car this grand. We can thank vast computer power for this cleverness, plus hydraulics that can alter a wheel's position up to five times a second.

First, look at the rest of this study in automotive sculpture. The previous CL was a bloated slab of a car, not imposing but an imposition. It was bought not to reflect good taste, but to extend personalities. This one is smaller, lighter, curvier, just as the related S-class saloon is more svelte than its own stolid predecessor. And it's gorgeous.

Remarkably, it's also cheaper, despite being so techno-dense. That weight reduction comes from the materials used to build this big Benz: aluminium for the roof, bonnet and rear wings, plastic for the bootlid and front wings, and - remarkably - cast magnesium for the inner door shells. These long doors have double-jointed hinges; the doors move forward as they open, so they don't need to open as far before allowing the occupants in or out.

The CL also gives you, either as standard or optional, many features also found in the S-class and entirely alien to the experience of most of us. Keyless Go is a good one, a credit-card-size transmitter which lives in your pocket. It causes your CL to unlock as you touch the door- handle, and to start as you touch the gear selector. The seats have fan cooling and built-in back massage. Its all there - cruise control that slows you if there's a slower car coming up in front, a voice-activated phone, headlights which can switch on automatically, automatic monitoring of tyre pressures.

And the engines. The V12 delivers 367bhp in a creamy torrent, but if you're driving gently it switches off six cylinders for more economical running. You can barely hear the difference, because a V12 sounds much like a straight-six anyway.

But I have to tell you the V12 CL600 is largely pointless, given the price difference, although the cost includes items optional on the V8- powered CL500.

The V8 sounds more exciting, a view shared by Hans Multhaupt, vice- president of Mercedes passenger car development. Nor, at 306bhp, is it strapped for power. Mr Multhaupt says the performance is similar up to 125mph or so, and it's spectacular enough for most tastes. The V8's transmission is less abrupt during a vigorous getaway or when downshifting. Actually, it isn't abrupt at all. The CL500 rides more smoothly on the less aggressive- looking tyres with their deeper, more absorbent sidewalls, setting the seal on that remarkable ABC.

Which works like this: the springs and dampers are very soft and supple, but the point at which the springs attach to the CL's structure can be moved by electro-hydraulics up or down as rapidly as required to keep the car's body on the smooth and level. So the springs aren't called on to absorb big bumps and body movements, leaving them to cope with the smaller, higher-frequency disturbances their suppleness is optimised to absorb.

Sensors detect the forces acting on the body, and dictate what adjustments should be made at each wheel.

The result is a car which stays flat in corners, doesn't nose-dive under braking, responds cleanly to the steering with no sense of stodge and unwanted momentum, and feels about two-thirds of the size it really is. To complete the illusion, the CL could do with a quicker steering response, and Mercedes is looking into the possibility. Even now, though, it's extraordinary.

"There is no other car company in the world whose customers allow it to use such technology," says a proud Mr Multhaupt. "They want the best, and they drive us to create it." They should be happy now.

Specifications

Model: Mercedes-Benz CL500

Price: pounds 70,680

Engine: 4,966cc, V8 cylinders, 24 valves, 306bhp at 5,600rpm

Transmission: five-speed auto-matic gearbox, rear-wheel drive

Performance: 155mph, 0-60 in 6.3sec, 16 to 21mpg

Rivals

Aston Martin DB7: pounds 83,260. Handbuilt and exclusive - and you pay dearly for it. CL is technologically miles ahead.

Bentley Continental R: pounds 199,750. The CL600 V12 looks cheap next to this, and is a vastly better car.

BMW 840Ci: pounds 57,470. Cramped but fun to drive. Benz is better.

Ferrari 456M GTA: pounds 173,588. CL600 is a closer rival to the V12-engined 456M. Ferrari is less sophisticated, but exciting.

Jaguar XKR: pounds 60,105. Searing pace from supercharged V8. Lacks CL's near- perfection.

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