A colleague once told me that he never writes about a car's styling, because appearance is so subjective -- who cares if one person hates a car's styling if someone else likes it? Or vice versa. But it's pretty much impossible to talk about the Mercedes-Benz CLS without broaching the subject of looks. After all, the unique exterior design is this car's entire reason for being.
The CLS debuted 6 years ago, as an alternative-bodied version of the E-class. Its swoopy lines had it maker calling it a "four-door coupe," but of course it's really a four-door sedan with more radical bodywork. At first, in pictures, I thought the CLS looked like an E-class that had melted in the sun. But seeing in person, I found it to be rather striking. But again, my opinion doesn't matter; what does matter is that 63,000 people liked the styling enough to buy a CLS, and they paid a hefty premium over a mechanically identical E-class. That mattered a lot to Mercedes' bottom line.
So the idea was a success. Now comes an all-new version. The formula is the same, but the look is entirely different.
Again, the CLS is longer and lower than an E-class. It stretches an additional 3 inches in length and is about 2 inches shorter, while riding on the same, 113-inch wheelbase. As before, the CLS borrows the E-class's two top engines, skipping the V-6 and the diesel. That means it gets the 4.7-liter twin-turbocharged V-8 making 402 hp, for the CLS550. The CLS63 uses AMG's 5.5-liter twin-turbocharged V-8, good for 518 hp, or 550 hp with the optional performance package. (That same engine is found under the hood of the 2012 E63, replacing the 2011 model's normally aspirated 6.2-liter.) Previously, the CLS was only available with rear-wheel drive, but the CLS550 now can be had with Mercedes' 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, which is standard on the E550.
Because the cars are mechanically identical, the CLS drives with the same creamy smoothness as the E-class. The V-8 has a subtle, deep-throated burble, but only when provoked. Roll into the throttle and it shoots this sedan forward (60 mph comes up in 5.1 seconds); but it's lively without being jumpy. The seven-speed automatic is a polished performer. The steering is very precise and nicely weighted, but there's a bit too much variation in the ratios -- it quickens too much at parking-lot speeds.
The CLS comes standard with Mercedes' Airmatic suspension (as does the E550), and it offers a choice between comfort and sport settings. Given that my CLS550 test car was riding on the optional 19-inch wheels (eighteens are standard) shod with ultra-low-profile 35- and 30-series tires, the air suspension was able to deliver pretty decent ride quality. The comfort setting, though, is the way to go with these tires, and even it couldn't mask the sharp impact of, say, a raised manhole cover.
While the CLS has the same running gear as an equivalent E-class, there are compromises that result from the rakish bodywork, and we're not talking about the extra $17,000 demanded by your smiling local dealer. The trade-off is apparent as soon as you swing open the small doors (with frameless side glass) and slip inside. The top of the windshield is much closer than in an E-class, creating a more intimate environment. In back, a full-length console bisects the rear seat, making the CLS strictly a four-person conveyance. The space in back is adequate for adults, but you can see why the E-class doesn't look like this. For one thing, this car could never be a taxi in Frankfurt.
In the end, the CLS design either speaks to you or it doesn't. In a day when many mainstream luxury sedans, the E-class included, seem to blend into traffic, paying a little extra for true head-turning style and greater exclusivity makes some sense. It's the same principle that in another day had luxury-car buyers commissioning custom-designed bodies for their Packards, Duesenbergs, Cadillacs, and, yes, Mercedes. Does this car's custom look justify its premium over an E-class? It's a question you have to ask yourself.
2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550
Base price (with destination): $71,175
Price as tested: $80,405
7-speed automatic transmission
Airmatic semi-active suspension
Dual-zone automatic climate control
Power windows, door locks, mirrors
Comand system w/40-GB hard-drive navigation, Bluetooth, voice control, and 7-inch display
Harman/kardon 14-speaker surround-sound audio system w/memory-card slot and aux input
Attention-assist driver drowsiness monitor
Leather interior w/ wood trim
14-way power adjustable front seats
Multi-color interior ambient lighting
Options on this vehicle:
P01 Package -- $4390
- iPod/MP3 interface
- Backup camera
- Heated and active ventilated front seats
- Power rear-window sunshade
- Adaptive highbeam assist
- Full-LED headlamps
- Power trunk closer
- Keyless ignition
Lane Tracking Package -- $850
- Blind spot assist
- Lane-keeping assist
Parktronic -- $970
Split-folding rear seats -- $440
Rear side airbags -- $420
Active multcontour driver seat -- $660
19-inch, 5-spoke wheels w/high-performance tires -- $500
Key options not on vehicle:
Night view assist plus
17 / 26 mpg
Horsepower: 402 hp @ 5000-5750 rpm
Torque: 443 lb-ft @ 1800-4750 rpm
Curb weight: 4158 lb
Wheels/tires: Pirelli P-Zero
255/35 R19 front
285/30 R19 rear
Competitors: Audi A7, BMW 5-series Gran Turismo, Jaguar XJ, Maserati Quattroporte