The Enormous Engine That Could
With 604 horsepower, when you're driving the Mercedes-Benz CL65 AMG, you don't think you can--you know it.
By John Tayman

(Business 2.0) – People who enjoy cars tend to engage in a numeric reductionism that is both charming and slightly off-putting. I have a friend--let's call him Jay--for whom automobiles function as bookmarks in the narrative of his life. He can and gladly will tell you how many cars he has owned (80-something and counting), their vital statistics (torque, horsepower, gross weight, etc.), the waiting time to acquire one (Jay purchases only next year's models), and their cost--though, to his credit, this figure is unfurled discreetly, and not in the manner of a boast. What becomes obvious to anyone who meets Jay is that he harbors a deep unconditional love for automobiles as a concept, tempered by an exacting and precisely conditional love for certain vehicles. The Mercedes-Benz CL65 AMG is Jay's kind of car. In this he is not alone: The CL65 AMG is, in fact, everyone's kind of car. There is not a single aspect to the vehicle that a reasonable person could find fault with. It's a nice ride.

To properly describe the CL65, it's necessary to employ the language of Jay's realm, inhabited as it is by auto builders, brokers, and buyers, all of whom speak a statistics-thick patois recognizable only to themselves, or perhaps a person with Asperger syndrome. I will proceed slowly, for you novices. Thus, the graspable number first: This is a $190,000 car. More important--at least to those who can swing that $190K--is that the CL65 is, along with its convertible sibling, one of the three most powerful cars sold in the United States. Here's another number: 604 horsepower. (That's nearly twice the horsepower of a Porsche 911.) Every CL65 sold this year will ease onto its owner's cobbled drive boasting an aluminum V-12 bi-turbo engine, signed on its carbon-fiber face by the exacting craftsman who assembled it by hand. And though horsepower is the most common yardstick of performance, and 604 is a jaw-dropping number in this context, the more critical figure to connoisseurs is torque, which when roughly translated gives you an idea of the car's thrust. That Porsche I just cited has a fine 273 pound-feet of torque; the CL65 offers an unbelievable 738. Had Mercedes engineers not electronically limited the output, the engine would crank out 885 pound-feet of torque, thereby ensuring that every lead-footed owner would shred the tires. As it is, the CL65 can leap to 60 miles per hour in the time it takes to say the car's name. Say it thrice and you'll be at 120. An engine governor stops you at 155 mph, but were it removed, the car would flirt with 200.

All of which might explain how, for the better part of a week, my afternoons were lost in an obsessive-compulsive fugue as I endlessly looped through the eucalyptus forests of San Francisco's Presidio, like an outsize slot car stuck on high. In the arcane argot of Mercedes-Benz, the AMG badge signals that the car has been tweaked by the company's in-house tuners, a firm founded by two gentlemen whose last names began with, respectively, A and M and who once ran a shop in a German town with a name that started with G. (I warned you about vernacular.) Anyway, the AMG crew reworks the standard Benzes, juicing their engines, adding agility, and outfitting the vehicles with Formula One-style shifting; wisely, they also tack on massive front rotors and brake calipers to bring the cars back to earth. The tuners focus mainly on the CL65's performance and a few other related areas, like a revised instrument panel that includes gauges to accommodate 200-mph speeds. Overlook the few exterior AMG flourishes, like a flouncy skirt and air dams that yawn a bit wider, and it's pretty tough to tell the AMG model from the base CL500, its $100K cousin. Both are technologically loaded and have hand-fitted leather, infrared-reflective glass that drops the UV level in the cabin to 1 percent, 14-way seats, a trunk that whispers open and shut with a button, power-assist doors, and a climate control setup that senses passengers' locations and tailors temps to them in a sequence dictated by when their seat belts click. The ventilation system also wipes the air of foul outside odors, a feature I found handy in the skunk-haunted Presidio.

Of course, many such wonders are standard in the rarefied air of the automotive gourmand. The singularity of the CL65 AMG resides in the packed space beneath the hood, and in the car's astounding performance. For a crude approximation of the experience of driving the CL65, imagine the most comfortable car you've ever driven--now make it the fastest too. At legal highway speeds, you can mash the accelerator and be driven deep into the seat as the vehicle rockets toward obscene illegality. I'm ashamed to admit that I took the CL65 from zero to 100 and back to zero in the length of a (deserted) city block, and marveled at the adrenalized sensation and my own stupidity. It's a dangerous car.

And the truth is, the vehicle would be lost on most of us, even if it were affordable. It takes a certain committed mind-set to appreciate the numerical beauty of the CL65 AMG, a value beyond aesthetics. After the courier delivered my test car and I had spun it around, I e-mailed Jay in a shameful attempt to stir up some envy. "You would not believe what I'm driving," I wrote. "What is it?" he replied. "Mercedes-Benz CL65 AMG," I answered. A second later he announced: "Already bought one."

I should have known.