The Mercedes CL65 AMG Is A Forgotten 603 HP Super-Coupe That Could Live With A Lamborghini

Electric vehicles have completely changed the way performance cars look. In the old days it was fairly easy to tell the fastest production cars on the road, because, well, they looked like the fastest cars on the road. They were usually supercars or sports cars, low, wide and noisy, and maybe with a wild wing on the back. But these days you’ve got just a much chance of getting smoked from the lights by that bland, near-silent sedan in the next lane.

Which made the Mercedes CL65 AMG the perfect car for all kinds of mischief when it first appeared in late 2003. Sure, it was a big Benz coupe, so you’d expect it to be packing an engine of at least eight cylinders and be fairly fast. And the world had already had a year or two of AMG’s new supercharged “55” V8s motors and the twin-turbo 600 V12 engines that had launched a new era of power-crazed obsession for Merc’s performance division. But no one could have guessed how insanely rapid the handsome C215-code CL65 (or its even more discrete W215 S65 sedan brother) really was.

The two guys in the E39 BMW M5 I demolished on Britain’s M20 motorway leading back to London from the Channel Tunnel in November 2003 certainly weren’t prepared for how pathetic their car was about to look. I’d flown out to Stuttgart to pick up a German-registered CL65 press car and bring it back to the UK for an Autocar twin-test with the then-new Bentley Continental GT.

The M5 guys’ ride was the hottest thing available in a BMW showroom at the time and powered by a 394 hp (400 PS) 5.0-liter V8. An identical M5 had gone zero to 60 mph (96 km/h) in 5.0 seconds during Autocar’s road test, and could hit 100 mph (161 km/h) in 12 seconds. By the standards of the day it was a rapid car, one you’d need a Ferrari, Lamborghini or Porsche 911 Turbo to leave trailing.

Related: 2023 Mercedes-AMG SL 63 Has No Trouble Hitting 200 MPH

Or a CL65. The regular twin-turbo CL600 was already a weapon, its 5.5-liter twin-turbo V12 rated at the same 493 hp (500 PS) as the V8 CL55, but allegedly putting out closer to 550 hp (558 PS) in reality. The CL65, though, gained an extra 500 cc of capacity and pumped out a shocking 603 hp (612 PS) and a full 1,000 Nm (that’s 737 lb-ft) of torque. Those numbers might not be shocking today, but they were crazy 20 years ago. Almost no production cars made more than 600 hp (608 PS), and those that did, like the Ferrari Enzo (651 hp / 660 PS) or Porsche Carrera GT, were hypercars that cost in excess of $400,000.

The Porsche’s 5.5-liter V10 made the same 603 hp as the CL65 and only 435 lb-ft (590 Nm), though obviously it was lighter and quicker in a straight line. But maybe not by as much as you’d imagine. The CL’s predictable problem wasn’t its power-to-weight ratio, but traction. With no 4Matic all-wheel drive and most of the weight over the nose, rear axle stiction in the wet was a joke, and even in the dry it wasn’t easy to hook the tires up from a dead stop.

So the CL65 took around 2.2 seconds to reach 30 mph (48 km/h), more than half a second longer than a 444 hp (450 PS) Porsche 996 Turbo or 572 hp (560 PS) Lamborghini Murcielago. By 60 mph (97 km/h) though, which it hit in 4.5 seconds, the AMG was literally making up for lost time, and when it smashed through the 100 mph (161 km/h) barrier in 8.8 seconds, it was neck and neck with the Lambo and only a couple of tenths behind the Porsche. And it didn’t stop there. In the Autocar comparison with the Bentley Continental GT, the Merc got to 150 mph (240 km/h) a crazy 9 seconds sooner. Yet it still had room for four full-grown adults and was whisper quiet at a cruise. We’d never seen anything like it.

The M5 duo definitely hadn’t, either. I’ve no idea if they knew the significance of the “65” badges, or whether they just saw that it was an AMG and fancied a play anyway. But the look on their faces – a mixture of laughter, wild-eyed shock and resignation – when we exchanged nods, I let them nose ahead and then breezed past them like they’d wrong-slotted from third to sixth, was priceless.

Modern EV drivers know that look. And in a way, an EV’s power delivery, a huge wave of torque that’s accessible at any time and delivered without fuss or vibration, isn’t that far removed from the experience of piloting the twin-turbo, V12 CL65. Of course, anyone looking for a new EV today is unlikely to care that you can buy one of those W215 CL65s with 60,000 miles (96k km) for as little as $30k, like the gorgeous car in these pictures that sold on Bring-a Trailer this summer. These big coupes are really elegant, incredibly rare (AMG only built 777), and this one was in great condition. But they were hugely expensive cars when new ($180k before options) and they can cost a fortune to run today – check the images of repair bills in the B-a-T listing for proof.

So no, no-one is going to buy one over a new EV today, but maybe they should consider buying one over an E39 M5. BMW built over 20,000 E39 M5s, yet you’ll need to spend at least $40k for one of those with the same mileage as a $30k CL65. Which would you buy?

Images: Bring-a-Trailer

more photos…