Our CLS test car was “only” a CLS550, but I’ve also driven the CLS63 AMG version, and they’re both impressive. What I remember most distinctly about the CLS63 was that I drove it on some very challenging roads above Napa Valley, in the rain, tailing a Mercedes-Benz USA executive who was driving an SLS AMG Gullwing quite briskly. As if that wasn’t enough to keep me busy, I was also deeply engrossed in conversation with my co-driver, but we just sailed over those wet, twisting roads in utter serenity. The CLS chassis was totally composed, and the steering was among the most accurate and communicative setups I’ve ever experienced in a Mercedes-Benz. Those dynamics are also evident in the lesser CLS550, which feels much smaller than it is, almost like a sport coupe. I don’t recall the E-class having steering nearly this good. The steering wheel itself is very handsome, with a big three-pointed star in the middle, little bump-outs at 10 and 2 o’clock that allow you to rest your hands at 9 and 3 comfortably, and a racing-inspired flat bottom. It’s all good.
Also good is the shallow dash, which adds to the feeling of compactness and sportiness. One low note, though, is that where the front doors meet the A-pillars, the triangle-shaped Harman Kardon speakers obstruct your forward vision.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
I realize that Joe DeMatio already commented on this, but the goodness of the CLS550’s sculpted, perforated-leather-trimmed steering wheel can’t be overstated. It’s perfectly formed, making for an excellent first impression of this big Mercedes. I think many automakers overlook how vital an attractive and comfortable steering wheel is to a person’s positive impression of a car, especially when that car aspires to be sporty or luxurious. (I’m talking to you, Chrysler. The new 300 sedan is really great in a number of ways, but the steering wheel’s lack of thumb indents or any other grips is disappointing and doesn’t inspire the type of spirited driving that this car is more than capable of. Chrysler could do worse than to pattern important details like this after those perfected by a luxury icon — and former partner — like Mercedes-Benz, in an effort to move its flagship sedan upmarket.)
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
If I hadn’t seen the CLS550 badge on the back of this car, I could have been easily convinced that this is the AMG edition. The exhaust note is aggressive, and acceleration is very quick. The handling also felt worthy of an AMG-tuned product, with great balance and excellent steering. It’s even got AMG wheels and summer tires.
I suppose the active lane-keeping assist system would be helpful on long highway slogs, but it’s quite the opposite on rural Michigan roads on a sunny Saturday afternoon because there’s so much bicycle traffic. The system will actually nudge you back into your lane, which could nudge you right into a bicyclist. Not good. Construction barrels that redirect lane usage expose another weakness of this system. (You can deactivate the system via the gauge-cluster menu, but apparently it’s not accessible via the Comand system. I would much prefer a hard button to turn this system off and on more easily and quickly.) By the way, when editor-in-chief Jean Jennings first drove the new CLS, she reported that some other journalists had some scary interactions with Benz’s lane-keeping technology. Seems like a feature best left deactivated, if you ask me.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
While I appreciate the updated styling of the new CLS more so than the original (which to me was a bit ungainly), Mercedes needs to be careful of the homogenization of its lineup. The cars are starting to look too much alike, especially in the front. Throwing the forthcoming CLC into the mix will only make things worse. We had three M-Bs in the office this week and when backed into a parking spot they easily could be mistaken for each other even though one was the SLK!
This new CLS somehow seemed small from outside, and I approached it in the garage, and drove it all the way home thinking, “Damn, the new C-class is REALLY nice inside!” Only when I got out and stepped back from the car did I realize it was the CLS. I’m not sure Mercedes or its customers are aiming for that degree of similarity.
Identity crisis aside, the CLS is really a gorgeous vehicle inside and out. The more time I spent looking at it and photographing it, the more it grew on me. It was a joy to drive, and I wished I had more time with it.
Matt Tierney, Art Director
It’s not easy to redesign a styling sensation. The new CLS definitely looks elegant and up-to-date, but it doesn’t recapture the “what is that?” curb appeal that oozed from the original CLS when it first debuted. In fact, it appears rather ordinary compared with its newest competitor, the Audi A7.
In other words, the CLS now has to settle for being “just” a $70,000, 402-hp Mercedes sedan. Ho hum. As others note, it accelerates, handles, and sounds fantastic enough to make one wonder — and salivate over — how good the AMG version might be. I find myself particularly impressed with the steering of this and several other new Mercedes I’ve driven recently — it’s heavy enough to suit a sporty car but not so much that it’s ever difficult to maneuver. Except, that is, when you wander out of your lane. As Rusty notes, the insistent kickback in the steering wheel from the lane keep assist hardly makes anyone safer when you’re on a narrow road shared with cyclists.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
A Mercedes-Benz is always a refined joy to drive. And the CLS has been one of my favorite sedans in the Benz lineup because of its stark design departure from Mercedes’ other cars. This model has started to pull back in some of its styling, specifically the nose. In my opinion, this only adds to its appeal. My experience with this CLS550 was a quick one — late night leaving the office and early the next day. In the dark, the cabin is a pleasure to be in. The ambient lighting from the dash, the door panels, and the back center console is just right. Mind you, the cabin is only for four. The rear-seat center console prevents a fifth. On the way home I took the freeway, where I was able to play with the Distronic cruise control. It was very interesting to see how the system reacted to various distances and objects. I only threw it for a loop when I exited. While merging right, a box truck was no longer in front of me and the car started to resume my preselected speed. But immediately after the box truck was out of the way, there was a retaining wall separating the lanes, as well as two sport bikes in front of me. The car seamed a bit confused, and it slowed considerably, but then accelerated. With the varied speed of the bikes plus their different positioning in the lane, the car seemed to average all the objects and finally came to a consistent position behind them. I love this car overall. Like many experiences, it was an amazing quickie that I wished had been longer. Until we meet again…
Kelly Murphy, Creative Director
I see I’m not the only person fooled by this CLS. The impressive wall of torque and the supple, leather-lined cabin had me checking for emblems reading ‘AMG.’ A number of Mercedes-Benz’s high-end products (S-class, CL, SL) manage to blur the line between opulence and performance, but none quite so convincingly as the CLS. In terms of agility, acceleration, and luxury, this looks, feels, and drives as if it were hand-made by the AMG folks in Affalterbach.
Cost may be no object in this market segment, but I can’t help noticing that the CLS 550 costs some $23,000 less than the CLS 63, yet, as Joe DeMatio notes, drives almost as nicely. Maybe I’ll change my mind once I slide behind the wheel of the CLS63, but there’s very little in the CLS 550 that warrants a $23,000 upgrade.
I had the good fortune to spend the entire Fourth of July weekend in the CLS, to the tune of about 600 mostly highway miles. The holiday weekend started out at the airport, where I picked up my sister. She’s been looking for a car to replace her aging Volvo S60, and when she saw the CLS it instantly piqued her interest.
The CLS’s sleek, athletic-looking exterior also piqued the interest of several other drivers as we rolled west on I-96 on our way to the Lake Michigan shoreline. “That guy in the Corvette is going to get whiplash if he turns his head any farther,” cracked my sister as the Corvette’s pilot ogled the CLS while driving alongside us.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
The three-and-a-half-hour drive went quickly as we were comfortably ensconced in the CLS’s luxurious cabin. The ergonomics are excellent, with two cupholders in perfect arm’s reach for front-seat passengers, an easy-to-use climate control system with two round dials (one for the driver, one for the passenger) and buttons to control fan speed, the Comand dial located just rearward of the cupholders, and a center bin big enough to hold bulky items such as wallets, sunglass cases, and cell phones. We were happy to find that the seats were cooled as well as heated, since we were traveling at the hottest part of the day in 90-plus-degree temperatures. The ride was comfortable and the CLS was unflappable as we cruised at an average speed of 75-80 mph.
Trunk space in the CLS is quite good for a longish trip (15.3 cubic feet). We managed to fit two golf bags, a roller bag, a soft-sided bag, and a couple of other assorted odds and ends (shoes, grocery bag). Later in the weekend, we were able to fit 3 golf bags in there. We also discovered that the rear seats fold down, which further increases carrying capacity.
When I got into the car it had a little more than a half tank of gas. I filled it with gas in Coopersville, about 175 miles into my 600 miles, and didn’t fill it again until I was back in Ann Arbor (425 miles later) with a quarter of a tank still showing. According to the trip computer, I averaged 28 mpg, which is a full 4 mpg above the EPA estimates.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
In my opinion, the CLS very well could be the archetype of Mercedes-Benz styling. But while its low-slung roof and sharp lines are appealing, the car’s sculpting is only half of the equation. Its powertrain makes up the rest.
The 4.6-liter V-8, with a pair of turbos strapped on for good measure, that’s mated to a 7-speed automatic transmission turns this rolling piece of art into any number of cliches. Beauty and the Beast. Jessica and Roger Rabbit. Natalie Portman and that guy who played Thor. Stunning beauty cuddled up with greasy grunt. Get on the throttle, the engine starts to burble, the turbos begin to spool, the seatbelt snugs to your chest, and the front end lifts up as the rear hunkers down. It may not be a supercar, but it’s no slouch.
Drive slowly and you feel like you’re in Jay-Z’s entourage. It’s easy to sound like you are too, thanks to a Harman/kardon surround-sound system that comes standard at a base price of $72,175.
I think Evan put it perfectly when he said that shelling out 23 stacks go from the CLS550 to the CLS 63 probably isn’t the best idea. How could this car get much better? Guess we’ll just have to wait until Mercedes sends over a CLS 63 to see if it can prove its worth.
Chris Nelson, Road Test Editor
2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550
Base price (with destination): $72,175
Price as tested: $84,545
● 4.6L Bi-turbo V-8
● 7-sp automatic transmission
● AIRMATIC semi-active suspension
● 18-inch 5-spoke alloy wheels
● COMAND system w/ 40GB hard-drive GPS navigation & Bluetooth
● 14-speaker Harman/kardon surround-sound system w/ Dolby Digital 5.1, HD radio, 6-disc DVD/CD changer, AUX jack, & satellite radio
● Power tilt/sliding moonroof with one-touch open/close
● 14-way leather-wrapped, power front seats w/ 4-way lumbar & 3-position memory
● Tilt/telescope steering column
● Dual-zone automatic climate control
● Power windows/locks/mirrors
● Rain sensor
● Multi-color interior ambient lighting
● Mercedes mbrace in-vehicle services
● Attention assist drive drowsiness monitor
● Tire pressure monitoring system
Options on this vehicle:
● Premium 1 Package — $4390
o iPod/MP3 interface
o Rearview camera
o Heated & active ventilated front seats
o Power rear-window sunshade
o Adaptive highbeam assist
o Full-LED headlamps
o Electronic trunk closer
● Driver Assistance Package — $2950
o Distronic Plus w/ Pre-Safe Brake
o Active blind spot assist
o Active lane keeping assist
● Wheel Package — $760
o AMG sport steering wheel
o AMG 18-inch 5-spoke alloy wheels
o Manual mode for transmission
o High performance tires
● Parktronic — $970
● Split-folding rear seats — $440
● Rear side airbags — $420
● Active multicontour driver seat — $660
● Night view assist plus — $1780
Key options not on vehicle:
— None —
16 / 24 / 20 mpg
4.6L Bi-turbo V-8
Horsepower: 402 hp @ 5000-5750 rpm
Torque: 443 lb-ft @ 1800-4750 rpm
Curb weight: 4158 lb
Wheels/tires: 18-inch aluminum wheels
255/40R18 front & 285/35R18 rear summer tires