The car of no return

Want to take a Mercedes CL63 out for a test spin? Be careful: Once you experience its brains and its brawn, there's no going back to your plebian ride.

By John Tayman, Business 2.0 Magazine columnist

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- My final leson for you all? Never, ever, drive a nice car. There's no upside to it. Luxury rides are evil: insidious, stealthy things, burrowing into the human subconscious with terrifying ease, whereupon they trip a dopamine depth charge that explodes both your brain and your budget.

I'm serious. Even a few hours of casual contact with a luxury vehicle - let's say a $145,000 2008 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG - is exposure enough to muck up your sense of what is important in life.

Spotlight: All-aluminum V-8 engine.

To wit: A month ago, I had only the slightest awareness of something known as adaptive cruise control; now the fact that my own car lacks a system such as the CL63's Distronic Plus leaves a bitter, chalky taste in my mouth. Unlike the CL63, my car cannot use a multitude of radar sensors to precisely calibrate the distance between itself and the plebian vehicle in front, smoothly accelerating or braking as need be given the stop-and-go conditions, thus freeing me from feathering the brake or tickling the gas. Intoxicating, that.

Stuck among Looky Lous during a Napa Valley harvest weekend, I broke not a sweat, allowing the CL63 to merrily glide along while I merely steered, casually plotting the next vineyard visit and reveling in the blues blasting from the 600-watt Harman Kardon sound system. Always beware luxury.

You think I'm joking, don't you? Alas, I'm not. Do you know how much you'll miss Pre-Safe braking when it's gone? Or iPod integration? Or Night View Assist, in which two infrared projectors tucked within the headlamps beam a pair of invisible rays 500 feet into the distance, sucking in reflected data and assembling a high-resolution image to be displayed in the instrument panel, warning you of wayward raccoons and interloping deer and crippled Pintos?

Lately I've lain awake nights, lamenting that my sorry auto lacks Drive-Dynamic multicontour seats, which employ more than a dozen pneumatic chambers to adjust the leather bucket seat even as you drive, safely tucking your torso during the corners, then slackening the bolsters on the straights. (How can I go on?)

The speed with which such options pass from wish to want to need is alarming. You never know just how badly you need Park Assist- a system that scans for parking spots and alerts you when it has found one - until it's gone. No headrest DVD screens on which to view the latest movies? No Real Time traffic display to reroute you around trouble spots? No 20-inch high-performance light-alloy wheels, or seven-speed Steptronic transmission, or 518 horsepower? Egad.

And, please, let's not even speak of the perils of actually piloting a high-end luxo-coupe. It's ruining. Here's an example: You know how your car tilts during speedy turns, rolling its weight to the outside edge and dangerously loosening the grip on the inside?

Well, the CL63 doesn't do that. Toss its 4,581 pounds into a slippery set of curves and Mercedes's Active Body Control takes all that chassis motion and uses gas-filled shocks and computer-controlled suspension to utterly level it, which means that carving a turn or jumping a lane at 90 mph - a move that would send less dignified vehicles cartwheeling into a ditch - feels insanely secure and commonplace. Do this a few times and you begin to feel, well, entitled to such handling. Which could prove a problem, unless you're cool with $3,000-a-month car payments. (I warned you this was a slippery slope.)

By far the greatest danger, however, lurks beneath the hood of the CL63. AMG began life as a boutique tuner shop and proved so adept at making good Mercedeses even better (and faster) that Daimler-Benz (Charts) acquired the company. Mercedes now offers 17 AMG models, all of which command a pretty premium.

Basically, the extra bucks buy you a ripsnorter engine and testosterone bragging rights. (AMG buyers are on average five years younger than typical Mercedes buyers.) Thus the CL63 boasts the most powerful production V-8 in the world, a large displacement beast that allows for extraordinarily high power reserves. This combo means that at any moment, in a mere second, you can turn your luxury cruiser into a luxury racer. Mash your foot on the brushed stainless-steel gas pedal (you're already getting only 11 miles to the gallon, so don't sweat it), and the CL63 lets loose a muscle-car yowl, relocates your spleen to the trunk, and teleports into the next time zone. Do this once and it scares the stuffing out of you, twice and it gives you palpitations. And the third time? Here's my advice: Don't risk it. Just hand back the keys and walk away.

You'll thank me in the long run.

John Tayman, a contributing writer for Business 2.0, is the author of "The Colony" ( Top of page

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