When it comes to shameless self-hype, car companies make Deion Sanders, Las Vegas, and Donald Trump look like paragons of understatement. Number one on the list of overused automotive hyperboles is the claim that Product X is truly something new, a revolution in Y that is bound to redefine category Z. Mercedes-Benz is no different, proclaiming the new CLS-class a "unique four-door coupe concept." Forgetting for a moment the Mazda RX-8, that's still a strange claim, because the CLS is a sedan. Take a look: four front-hinged doors, back seats, trunk. If that's a coupe, then Mercedes should open a real estate arm specializing in two-bedroom studio apartments. This coupe posturing is based on the CLS's four-passenger seating and its roofline, which plunges from the blacked-out B-pillar down to the forward edge of the deck lid, where it goes only slightly more horizontal on its way to the taillights (a look that can result in a strange, droopy butt, like the Infiniti J30's, but seems taut and purposeful here). The back seats are set low to clear the sloping roofline, but deeply scooped-out front seatbacks leave sufficient leg-room for six-footers, and rear passengers can set their own temperatures via the four-zone climate control. A wood-trimmed center console separates the seats and continues the theme set by the Paul Bunyan-sized slab of burled walnut that adorns the leather-upholstered dashboard. Unless you're chauffeuring the type of back-seat passengers who regularly ask fellow motorists for Grey Poupon, they should be pleased with their accommodations.
Mercedes introduced the CLS in Rome, where mopeds, buses, and clapped-out Fiat Pandas routinely got close enough to send the CLS's ultrasonic proximity warning beepers into flatline mode. Doing 130 mph on the autostrada, with the Airmatic DC (dual control) semiactive air suspension hunkered down to its lowest ride height, was far less emotionally taxing than going 30 mph in the city, where one gets the idea that the decline of the Roman empire probably began with a catastrophic chariot pileup.
Besides Airmatic DC, which uses air instead of steel-coil springs and provides an amazingly cushy ride considering the low-profile 245/ 40ZR-18 Continentals, the CLS borrows a host of other hardware from both the E-class and the S-class.
While Europe gets a V-6 model, our CLS-unless you specify the AMG version (see sidebar on page 62)-will arrive in 500 trim, packing the 302-hp 24-valve 5.0-liter V-8 shared with just about everything in the Mercedes lineup. It's a fine, sonorous engine that feels as if it has more than 302 horses, probably because of its flat torque curve, which peaks with 339 lb-ft at 2700 rpm.
The V-8 is hooked to the new Mercedes seven-speed automatic transmission, dubbed 7G-Tronic. The company claims this ratio-endowed box provides better acceleration (the CLS500 is said to dispatch 62 mph in about six seconds) and better fuel economy than a five-speed automatic.
When you accelerate from a stop, it's not immediately apparent that you've got so many gears at your disposal. While a Jaguar with a six-speed automatic rips through first and second quicker than a soccer hooligan funneling a pint of Carlsberg, the CLS takes a longer pull off each cog, and unless you deign to do the work yourself via the shift lever or the steering-wheel-mounted buttons, you wouldn't notice all the shifting on the way to top gear. But the bounty of ratios makes itself known when a downshift is summoned from highway speeds: Press the accelerator three-quarters of the way down, and the 7G-Tronic quickly grabs a lower gear and lets the V-8's torque go to work. With most autoboxes, that would be all she wrote, even with additional throttle. Mash the CLS's pedal the rest of the way, however, and the transmission reveals that it has one more gear in its back pocket, sending the tach racing toward the 6300-rpm redline and you racing toward license revocation.
Most of the time, this routine works flawlessly, but there was one instance when we popped out to pass a truck and discovered that the oncoming lane was inconveniently occupied. Full throttle and a take-no-prisoners downshift arrived a split second after we'd got on the brakes, sending a horrific clunk through the driveline. We didn't spoil any idyllic Italian countryside with fragments of 7G-Tronic, but perhaps the transmission and the electronic throttle software could benefit from an "ill-advised pass hastily reconsidered" algorithm.
The CLS's techno-toys, like the powertrain, also may sound familiar to Benz heads. On rainy days, Sensotronic Brake Control automatically pulses the pads gently against the rotors to keep them dry. Active headlights move with the steering wheel to help peer around corners. You've got Parktronic parking assist, Linguatronic voice recognition, and Distronic radar-based cruise control to maintain a safe distance from the car ahead. Trick front seats that inflate the lateral bolsters as corners are attacked don't have a registered name, so perhaps those wily Spaniards at Seat already have trademarked "Seatronic." Those chairs are also heated and ventilated and offer a massage function that, according to the CLS press kit, "improves the metabolism of the vertebrae." The CLS also has lots of safety features that are as innovative as they are boring to read about.
But you won't be making like a journalist and crashing into things; tearing around like a maniac doesn't seem to be the point of the CLS. Sure, you can dial up the stiffest suspension setting, put the tranny in manual mode, and revel in the almost American-sounding roar of the V-8 as you carve up some corners.
And Bang & Olufsen stereo systems probably sound great at full volume, but everyone buys them for their looks. After all, how are you going to profile properly if you're driving like a Schumacher? Better to slow it down, set the navigation system for Ocean Drive, and give the plebes on the sidewalk time to get good and envious.
Which brings us to the original question provoked by the CLS: If Mercedes has the CL and CLK coupes and the E- and S-class sedans, what's the point of the CLS? The beautiful thing is that there is no point, except to create a slobber-inducing car. Sure, you could get most of the CLS's running gear in an E500 for less money, but compared with the CLS, the E500 is like Ashlee Simpson next to Jessica Simpson. It's a fine-looking car, but it doesn't cause passersby to swallow their gum doing a double-take. Since the Jaguar XJ went all upright, the Maserati Quattroporte is arguably the only four-door that approaches the CLS's level of sensuality. The CLS might not be a coupe itself, but that's what it's gunning for.
And that's why the underlying message rings true: the CLS is something new. It's sedan as sex object, a sculpted, sultry redefinition of the premise that sedans, no matter how fast, are restrained by the dictates of four-door practicality, and that's an idea original enough to stand on its own.