Joining the Mercedes-Benz lineup for 2006, the new CLS-Class melds striking sheetmetal and a unique interior treatment with basic E-Class platform elements to create what is arguably the sexiest -- and definitely one of the most engaging -- four-door cars to ever wear the three-pointed star. Both the CLS500 and CLS55 AMG pack V-8 power and premium features galore, including individual seating for four and Airmatic II semi-active suspension.
Boldly contoured, the CLS integrates a coupe-like roofline with rising arc shoulder cues to make a singularly dramatic styling statement. Its rich family traditions come through just as strongly in the grille, taillamps, and subtle brightwork accents. The CLS500 has 18-inch staggered-width wheels with Z-rated 245/40 front and 275/35 rear tires that are upgraded to 255/40 and 285/40 spec in the AMG Sport Package. The CLS55 AMG goes plus-one, with unique 19-inch alloys wrapped in 255/35 and 285/30 rubber.
Distinctive variations on the classic Mercedes theme are found throughout the CLS interior. E-Class influence dominates the dash, easy-to-read instruments, and somewhat fussy control assemblage surrounding a central LCD display that provides a comprehensive array of readouts for the standard COMAND integrated control system and map displays for the optional navigation. The CLS boasts far more wood trim than the E-Class, in Matte Burl Walnut or optional Laurel. The largest single piece found in any Mercedes spans its dash, and lesser bits tastefully accent the car's full-length console.
Both the CLS500 and CLS55 boast 10-way power front seats with three-position memory. Hand-fitted leather upholstery is standard, with the AMG model upgrading to more-supple Nappa hides trimmed in Alcantara. The more highly bolstered AMG-spec buckets have heat and multicontour adjustability (both items optional on the CLS500), and our car also had M-B's primo Active Ventilated units. While the sloping roofline does impact rear headroom, each of the two individual seats will still accept, if somewhat grudgingly, a sub-six-footer.
The wide-ranging features list also includes a Mercedes-load of power assists, a multifunction display accessed via steering wheel controls, power tilt/telescoping steering column, four-zone digital climate control, SmartKey and TeleAid with Automatic Collision Notification and Stolen Vehicle Recovery. A nine-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system is standard, but the 12-speaker harman/kardon digital surround sound package from the CLS55 is optional. A locking glovebox, covered front and rear console, and door pockets provide storage for small items. There are two largely vestigial cupholders and a powerpoint in the forward console, a single larger holder and second 12V outlet in the aft section.
Each CLS model gets its own potent engine/automatic transmission combo. The CLS500 pairs a 5.0L/302-hp with an innovative seven-speed that offers Touch Shift control and snaps to 60 mph in 5.6 seconds. A 5.5L/469-hp supercharged variant is teamed with a five-speed unit that incorporates AMG's SpeedShift programming in the CLS55 AMG. That electrifying combo shaves nearly a full tick off of the 0-60 mph sprint.
The CLS500 matches its high-profile appearance with equally high-energy performance. Brisk acceleration is helped by an autoshifter that responds quickly but smoothly to both its internal adaptive programming and driver-directed changes. Like the CLS55, the CLS500 with AMG Sport Package adds F1-style shifter buttons on the upper steering wheel spokes. Powerful but somewhat difficult to modulate, the car's ultra-techy, Servotronic ABS brakes are masters of the short, straight stop.
Standard Airmatic II semi-active suspension enhances the already well-sorted multilink underpinnings with Comfort and Sport settings, four levels of adaptive damping, and self-leveling. Keener at countering unpleasant pitch and roll motions than at dramatically changing actual ride compliance, it keeps the CLS500 poised and confident regardless of setting, while maintaining M-B levels of isolation. Slightly elevated steering effort and tire noise at speed reflect the sporting character of the CLS. Even though its standard ESP and traction controls always remain in at least fail-safe mode, manually deactivating the setup does permit a certain degree of throttle-induced tail slip -- up to a preset limit.
Some may find the diminutive greenhouse and low roofline of the CLS-Class a trifle claustrophobic and detrimental to rear sightlines. Bright sunlight also tends to reflect annoyingly off of the numerous chrome interior accents, and frequently obliterates the climate control readouts. But those faults notwithstanding, this striking four-door "coupe" delivers an enthusiast-grade driving experience while maintaining true Mercedes-Benz character.
The CLS-Class enjoys the latest Mercedes safety technology including a strong unit body with engineered crumple zones, ESP stability control, enhanced ABS disc brakes with Electronic Brake force Distribution and Brake Assist, a rollover sensor, and "smart" front airbags plus standard side and side-curtain airbags.
Save for inveterate traditionalists or those who simply can't -- or won't -- live with its compromised rear seat space and the extra effort needed to access it, the CLS-Class should quicken the heartbeat of nearly everyone else who can ante up the price of entry. Something special happens when you inject a magnum load of pure sex appeal into any vehicle -- particularly one with this kind of distinguished family pedigree. Simply put, slipping behind the wheel of a CLS has that all-too-rare ability to make any kind of driving seem more enjoyable.
While clearly destined to impact sales of its more conservative E-Class platformmate, this sensational four-door promises to make its presence felt even more acutely in Audi, BMW, and most assuredly, Jaguar showrooms. Total ownership costs figure to be in line with E500, which should rank it better than average. While the Lexus LS430 claimed honors as IntelliChoice's 2005 Best Overall Value leader in the Luxury class, the CLS500 brings a level of visual and dynamic distinction that may well trump any mere dollar-denominated considerations.
Pricey but passionate, the new CLS-Class is a stunning concept with stunning execution.
Somewhat pricey Intimidating controls Rear access/egress
Sensual style Confident handling Impressive powertrains
With dynamic flair to match its dramatic lines, the CLS-Class is a scintillating four-door sedan that thinks--and acts--like a spacious, four-place sport coupe.
Major packages include the AMG Sport (AMG lower bodywork and wheels, performance tires, steering-wheel shift buttons), Lighting (Bi-Xenon corner-following headlamps with washers, corner-sensing fog lamps), Comfort (Active ventilated/heated front seats--auto-adjusting Drive Dynamic on CLS55--power rear window shade), Entertainment (12-speaker harman/kardon surround sound system, 6-disc CD changer, COMAND integrated controls), and Premium (Comfort plus Entertainment Packages and DVD-based navigation). Run-flat tires and unique designo paint/interior treatments also are available.