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WITH ELECTRONICS, computer control, advanced engineering, and a thorough understanding of chassis dynamics, Mercedes has reduced my function to that of platform server. Hmmmmm, maybe that's not all bad. For in reality, few can bring a high performance automobile to the borders of performance safely, successfully. Fewer can balance its dynamics in real-world traffic.

CL500 delivers performance that simply cannot be understood without firsthand experience. (Watching Gene Kelly dance or Oscar de La Hoya fight will not make you graceful or fierce.)

Do you remember the old, arrogant Mercedes? Remember it no more. The CL500 is aggressively priced, aggressively styled, aggressively optioned. At $85,500 U.S., it's $18,705 more than a Jaguar XK8, but $35,500 less than an Aston Martin DB7. Its equipment-adjusted price is 14.4 percent less than 1999 models, according to Mercedes. Standard features are too numerous to mention, but include ABC, traction and stability control, Mercedes' COMAND navigation system, "touch shift" automatic and 5.0 liter, 302 horsepower engine. Our test car included semi-exotic extras such as a digital hands-free phone and multi-contour seats that move to new positions, relaxing you as you drive.

Seating is for four, although I cannot vouch for the comfort of rear seat passengers. Front seaters can only wish for such comfort at home or office. The restrained use of wood and bright work makes the spacious interior seem larger and the coupe's pillarless design yields unobstructed views.

EXTERIOR STYLING demonstrates how far Mercedes has come in 20 years. Sleek, sophisticated, it is an aesthetic match for any of the great touring cars of today. Beyond the flow of curves - we dare not say sheet metal - lies lightweight alloy panels and composite decks. The boot lid is a composite and includes both radio and cell phone antennas in its layers, a feat impossible with metal.

Should we describe driving the CL500 other than "it is a pleasure?" We must. The CL500, powerful with 302 horsepower (225 kilowatts) and more importantly 339 lb./ft. of torque (4947 Newton meters,) accelerates effortlessly. Its torque curve is virtually flat from 2700 rpm, ensuring plenty of grunt out of any corner.

We began with the ABC control set normally and enjoyed an impressive drive through the hills near Santa Monica, California. The CL500 felt like a big, impressive sports coupe. Weight and balance were superb, with only a little tendency to lean in hard mountain cornering. Then we turned the ABC to its 95 percent mark. Amazing. In California terms, freaking amazing. Stunning even.

Cornering forces other than lateral acceleration simply disappeared. True, proper cornering techniques were assistive, but unskilled drivers performed far beyond unaided competence. We became Mears, Bell, Hill, some dreamed they were Fangio. But, of course, we are not.

Mercedes equips these cars with stability control. How fortunate. Because in a CL500, the laws of physics can be approached at breathtaking speeds. Then, if you have not transgressed egregiously, ESP kicks in and saves you from shame and worse. It's fun.


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