The Big Lancia racing TOWARD US flashed its lights furiously as we hustled through Firenzuola, just north of the famed Futa Pass on the route of the Mille Miglia. Was there a cop ahead? Do they do that in Europe — flash their lights for cops? Then again, I was at the wheel of a 2012 CLS550, the second generation of the swoopiest four-door Mercedes-Benz ever built. That first CLS-which debuted at the 2003 Frankfurt motor show and went into production a year later-has sold more than 170,000 copies worldwide. Some 64 percent of its European buyers chose it, Mercedes says, because of its stunning good looks, and it spawned a number of luxury four-door-coupe competitors, including the radical Audi A7. It was just as likely that Mr. Lancia was flashing his recognition of the rare 2012 CLS sighting (it goes on sale in January in Europe, summer in the States). The three-pointed star adorning the CLS’s massive grille is the size of a gladiator’s belt buckle. It makes for an impressive face, one you can neither miss nor fail to recognize. Flash-flash, indeed.
Elegant simplicity has given way to a tougher aesthetic for round two. The long sides of the CLS are sharply sculpted and flow into tightly coiled haunches-the work of American-born, Art Center College-trained, Korean designer Hubert Lee, 37, the head of M-B’s California advanced design studio. Wraparound LED taillamps are a beautiful high-tech link from sleek side to broad rear. Obsessive aero work helped deliver a Cd of 0.26-a phenomenal improvement of 13 percent. Dimensionally, the new CLS is longer (plus 0.9 inch), lower (by 0.2 inch), and wider (plus 0.4 inch), with more elbow and shoulder room front and rear and a wheelbase that’s 0.8 inch longer.
The interior is exquisitely executed and trimmed in full leather and burl walnut or black ash. The rear seats are sculpted for two and now offer split/fold functionality. Pampering is on a very high level to save you time and money checking option boxes, so you can count on a killer hi-def sound system, navigation, and lots of electronic assistance. Of the five bundled option packages, Premium 1 (price TBD) has all the most popular luxuries, including a rearview camera, heated/ventilated seats, iPod/MP3 interface, and the lovely electronic trunk closer. The best option by far on that long list, though, are active LED headlamps, a world first. These are the slickest all-singing, all-dancing lamps you’ve ever seen, with every adaptive lighting function you can imagine being provided by LEDs: they bend in turns, swivel to look ahead when you turn onto side roads, automatically dip the high beams for oncoming traffic-but only on the left side so you can still see to your right. Even the infrared night view is powered by LEDs, which last five times longer than xenon lamps, are easier to design with, and provide visibility akin to daylight. Miraculous!
Active Park Assist is another new CLS feature, but we are more impressed by drivers who can parallel-park themselves in one smooth move.
European CLS buyers will choose from a menu of new engines to pair with the improved seven-speed automatic transmission, all with higher output and lower fuel consumption, including two V-6s (one gas and one diesel CLS350); the first four-cylinder diesel for this car (CLS250 CDI); and a third-generation, direct-injected 4.7-liter twin-turbo V-8 (CLS500). That engine, sans the start/stop function standard on all European models, is the only one coming to America (where the model will be called the CLS550) and will produce 402 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque. This means it can slam into its paltry 130-mph electronically limited top speed in a hurry. And if it should slam into something more substantial, the CLS550 is packing no fewer than twelve air bags.
This was less of a joke to a couple of Aussie journalists, who each encountered the dark side of the new optional Active Lane Keeping Assist (one of twelve “intelligent” driver-assist electronic aids on the CLS equipment list) on our Tuscan drive route. One of the Aussies tried to move right to avoid an oncoming car, and the CLS suddenly jerked back into the lane. He forced it back right and missed a collision. His buddy did the same thing when a motorcycle was pulling past him from behind. The CLS jerked hard left, forcing the bike to make a quick evasive move. One engineer explained that if you use your turn signal during these emergency moves, it will cancel the Lane Keeping action. Another said the best idea is to turn off that function when you are on two-lane roads. Not such a good thing when your smart system counts on the driver being smart, too. But it did give both Aussies an opportunity to admire the brand-new electromechanical power steering, which, incidentally, works even with the engine off. Still, you can save a few bucks skipping Lane Keeping Assist altogether. Save it for the 4Matic, which will be available shortly after launch.
On sale: Mid-2011
Price: $75,000 (est.)
ENGINE: 4.7L twin-turbo V-8, 402 hp, 443 lb-ft
DRIVE: Rear- or 4-wheel