When I taught at the Art Center College of Design (Switzerland) nearly 30 years ago, there were some intriguing international students with very strong ideas about what they intended to accomplish in car design. A Danish lad, Henrik Fisker, only wanted to design sports cars. Check. Switzerland native Stephane Schwarz had similar but less fervent ideas. His first job, at Pininfarina, was the Ethos roadster. Schwarz drifted into the big volume industry for a while, but today he’s chief designer at sports-oriented Carrozzeria Zagato. American Mike Fink had a single burning desire. He wanted to work at Mercedes-Benz for Bruno Sacco, the Stuttgart firm’s distinguished and much respected design leader. He did that for his first job. I’ve long since lost track of Fink, who moved on to Asian car makers, but he told me long ago that he’d accomplished two things close to his heart while at Mercedes: He had proposed the melted two-circle, one-glass-cover headlamp design used across multiple lines, and he got his notion of a “Jaguar fighter,” a slippery fastback four-door coupe, accepted.
A slight digression concerning that label. Many people can’t accept the term coupe for a car with four seats, let alone four doors. That’s because they don’t really know what it means, as they would were manufacturers to use the equally applicable and probably more appropriate American hot rod descriptor “chopped.” The elegant French word coupé—pronounced koo-pay—just means “cut” and for cars is actually pronounced in the French way in most countries, including England. I can remember as a kid thinking that Bill Mitchell was outrageously pretentious when he said “coupe” that way in the ’50s, but the gloriously vulgar then-No. 2 at GM styling was actually correct, and we others with our [chicken?] “coops” were—and still are—wrong.
From its introduction to the world at the New York auto show in 2004, Benz’s (and Mike Fink’s) slinky CLS has been an inspiration for many firms, very specifically Aston Martin and BMW but also for a wide range of less-than-premium manufacturers (Kia Stinger, anyone?). The idea is coming back full circle to Mercedes with the 2018 Geneva auto show introduction of two such models, the third-generation CLS and its performance-oriented spiritual twin, the AMG GT 4-Door. Normal Mercedes sedans are always a bit staid and respectable, ideal for stolid burghers, police, and taxi drivers. That some adventurous citizens would like the reliability, reputation, and value of a Mercedes in sleeker form is natural and admirable. That a small subset of that group would want something truly exceptional, a high-performing near-racer four-door, seems both normal and natural. Basing this car on the style of the 911-rivaling AMG GT two-seater is equally normal and natural. The 4-Door has true presence. Its purpose and mission are absolutely—and convincingly—clear. It has a precise role to play, and it’s perfectly equipped to do its designated job. Good design. And a good idea, Mike Fink.
1. The side glass profile is very long, in three panes, ending in this sharp point a bit above the beltline, suggesting speed.
2. This Panamericana grille, as it is called internally by Mercedes designers, recalls the amazing preproduction racing 300 SLs that won the two toughest races of 1952, Le Mans and the Carrera Panamericana in Mexico.
3. The double hood bumps are suggestive of the 1955 300 SL or of earlier British Schneider Trophy racing seaplanes, wherein they provided clearance for engine elements. Here they are purely evocative and nonfunctional.
4. The slim bright accent on the bottom front corners rises diagonally to frame the lower air intake …
5. … which is closed off with this horizontal bar, carrying the baseline accent across the entire front end.
6. The purpose of this slot between the body corner and the framing piece for the corner air intakes is not evident. It seems like extra complexity for no good reason.
7. The newest status signifier is color-coded brake calipers, bronze for the fanciest and most powerful models.
8. Like the frontal trim, the brightwork does not quite reach the wheel openings, but the effect is to establish a bright baseline for the front and sides of the body.
9. This hard line has no link to anything else on the body surface, but it does draw the eye upward toward the rear as the roofline profile draws it downward, making the car slimmer and faster looking.
1. It feels all right, but the multiple straight sections of the rim are a little jarring to the eye.
2. Lots of controls on the wheel spokes, convenient perhaps but seriously unattractive.
3. It’s amusing that electronic images of nonexistent mechanical round dials are still the preferred way to present data. It would be good if someone would seriously study how to present vital information … and no more than that.
4. Graphics in the center are good, but they’re not really self-explanatory.
5. This curved line across the entire panel, sweeping into the door inner panels, is extremely graceful and agreeable to the eye and to the touch.
6. The flow of wood grain across the panel is interesting and speaks highly of the way in which the interiors are executed. Every example we’ve seen, in reality or in photos, is quite beautiful and quite individual.
7. The central console is very wide, nicely padded, and fairly boring visually, neither elegant, technical, nor in any way inspiring.
8. The soft-finished metal panel on the controls section of the console looks too much like an economy car component. Disappointing.
9. The extended-length lozenges eliminate the Chairman Mao’s Jacket feel of Bentleys but are not what one would hope for in a car like this. I get no sense of superior capability, as I do in the far better exterior design. It’s OK but definitely notgreat. Too bad.
10. Typical German lighting control: too low, too hard to read. Best memorize the functions, owner’s manualin hand.
1. One has the impression of corner knots in this view, but in fact the cut line between lamp cover and wheel opening is quite fluid.
2. Apparently the 8-millimeter dip from cant rail down to roof surface is exactly—but exactly—what is needed to keep the side glasses clear in rain. An engineering requirement to which stylists must adhere. Who knew?
3. The bumps are subtle here. Their execution varies with each application at Mercedes, sometimes sharp or with a crease or soft like this.
4. The horizontal bars behind the main grille are replicated at the same pitch in the corner inlets. They are unobtrusive here but a bit too present above in the real car.
1. The trunklid cut line links the inner points of the taillights and establishes a discouraging liftover height for luggage. The price of raciness, finally.
2. The simple backlight is set into the overall form, as is the central part of the roof panel.
3. It’s not quite picket fences, but to allow rear windows to descend, there have to be demarcations between fixed rear quarter windows and fixed and movable door glasses.
4. The beltline has van extreme amount of crown, peaking in the rear door itself.
5. There’s no particular need for a trim piece here, but it’s currently de rigueur on almost everything, so why not here?
6. The front end falls away sharply and is chamfered in plan view, but you do get a glimpse of the headlamp lens from behind for safety.
7. This rear corner outlet is apparently a style mark for all AMG cars, sometimes fake, sometimes functional. On this GT 63 S there’s a black grille inside.
8. The rear body is quite thick. To disguise this, much of the bottom is blacked out.
9. Very big exhaust outlets bespeak very big power. Brightwork is nice, but it might have been more convincing if everything had been black. They seem to hang well below the painted body section.
10. There’s a lot going on in the diffuser section of the tail, but it’s difficult to discern, even up close on the show stand.