What does $85,500 look like? For the lucky 2,500 buyers in the U.S. next year it looks like the new Mercedes-Benz CL Coupe.

Mercedes would use words like dream car, pure seduction, technological trendsetter or "car for whom good just isn't good enough" to describe its top-of-the-line vehicle. These descriptions are accurate but, really, would you expect anything less from Mercedes' big coupe?

"The coupe is the top-notch product of the Mercedes brand," Juergen Hubbert, board member in charge of Mercedes-Benz passenger cars, says.

Mercedes hopes to sell 50,000 units worldwide of the CL in its seven-year lifetime. That's significantly more than the 25,800 its predecessor sold.

German buyers will nab the most - some 40%. The U.S follows with 25%, Western Europe with 20%, Japan with 5% and the rest of the world with 10%.

"We are striving to obtain ambitious goals," Mr. Hubbert says.

With the new coupe the automaker hopes to double its market share to 30% of the admittedly niche segment. Sales began last month in Europe and this month in Japan.

The CL500 will hit U.S. dealerships in December. Distronic intelligent cruise control debuts during the second quarter of next year and is followed by the introduction of the CL600, "Keyless Go," Designo and a sport package by the end of next year. An AMG version of the vehicle is expected to eventually follow.

When it goes on sale in the U.S., the vehicle will be equipped with Mercedes' 5L V-8 302-hp engine, which also is found in the S-Class. Come September 2000 and the CL gets Mercedes' new 367-hp V-12 engine. While no price has been set for the CL600, the vehicle will sell for about $106,000 in Germany.

Both the V-8 and V-12 engines have automatic cylinder cutout. But it's optional on the V-8. The system deactivates the valve gear and fuel injection of half the cylinders if only minimal power or torque is needed. Once the driver steps on the gas, the combustion chambers are switched back into action, allowing the engine to use its full torque.

The vehicle also is the first to get the automaker's Active Body Control (ABC) active suspension system. Mercedes has been working on the system for 20 years and has come up with a suspension that gives a good ride but also reacts to road disturbances or drastic forces like hard acceleration or braking (see WAW - June '99, p.44). ABC has two modes - sporty or comfort-oriented - that modify the operation of ABC.

One of only a few options on the vehicle is Mercedes' Parktronic. This technology uses strategically placed sensors to detect if the vehicle is too close to an object.

Two other options arrive later in the U.S. Distronic intelligent cruise control uses a radar sensor to ensure a safe distance from the vehicle in front, while Keyless Go gives a chip card the function of a key. The owner, with the card in a pocket, just touches the door handle. The card receives a signal from inside the vehicle and then transmits its own signal. When the codes match, the doors or trunk opens. Stepping on the brake and touching the starter button on the shift lever then starts the car.

Mercedes isn't shy about what it would like to do with the CL in the U.S. and abroad. "We have a highly ambitious objective for it: To double the number of units sold whilst seeing our direct competitors suffer substantial losses at the same time," Mr. Hubbert says.

In the U.S., the luxury coupe segment will total about 85,000 units this year. By 2001, it is expected to hit 91,000 units. Mercedes hopes to sell 2,500 units for 2.8% of the market next year and 3,000 units for 3.3% of the market in 2001. The coupe goes up against some heavy hitters, including the Jaguar XK8 and XKR, BMW 8-series, Porsche 911 and Aston Martin DB7. "We're setting our sights very high," Mr. Hubbert says.

In the U.S., the typical CL buyer will be, on average, 46 years old and with an income of $450,000.

"We consider them very loyal Mercedes-Benz advocates," says Bernhard Glaser, department manager for coupes and convertibles.

Those Mercedes-Benz advocates also will get a relatively good deal with the new CL. Mercedes says its new CL500 is less expensive - even at $85,500. The old CL had a suggested retail price of $91,900 and with equalized equipment it almost touched $100,000.

Says Mr. Glaser: "This is a price reduction of almost 15%."