Kevin Smith, Editorial Director
Say this out loud: "I just got a new Mercedes." Rolls off the tongue pretty nicely, doesn't it? But here's a line that will taste even sweeter: "I just got a 2006 Mercedes-Benz CLS500." The fortunate buyers of this rakish new four-door Mercedes coupe are going to be paying $65,620 or more to feel special. To stand out from the herd. To puff their chests just a little more when they announce the acquisition. This car is all about self-indulgence, and let's just embrace that.
The CLS's coupelike roofline says what the car is about. Coupes are sporty. They look fast. They are personal, meant to flatter the driver even at the expense of the passengers' comfort if necessary. They imply a more lithe and responsive demeanor on the road. Coupes are cool. Exclusive. Sexy.
But the Mercedes CLS500 is not really a coupe. It has four doors, a decent backseat and all the comforts of, say, an E500 sedan. In fact, it has most of the hardware, underpinnings and equipment of an E500 as well, since it is built on a development of that midsize sedan platform.
So there's the strategy: To offer a luxury-performance automobile that identifies its owner as a racy, devil-may-care, coupe kind of person, without asking that he or she actually get along without all the comforts and convenience of a friendly four-door sedan. Clever. And perfectly targeted at baby boomers — the "me" generation that wants to have it all — now spending their way through those peak earning years.
Putting It Out There
How does this idea pan out in execution? Superbly, especially if you like how an E500 works, and how the CLS500 looks. As for the latter, opinion is never unanimous, but consensus around our office is that this new Mercedes is absolutely gorgeous. The long, arcing roofline and edgy details give it real personality, and accurately reflect its athleticism.
Some eyes find the CLS' sheet metal a little too busy, some see an unfortunate resemblance to the Toyota Camry Solara in its profile, and some don't quite know what to make of it. Yes, the chopped-top effect and tall beltline combine to squeeze the side windows down into mere slits. But forceful designs are always polarizing, especially at first. On balance, based on our own critical review and on the public's reaction to our test car, we score the CLS500 styling a solid hit.
Inevitably, the coupelike contours force tradeoffs inside, especially in back, but there are compensations. From the driver seat, you can see and feel the windshield's fast rake, and trim and detailing are a good notch and a half above normal E-Class fare. There are sweeping wood inlays (glossy or matte, to taste) and lovely chrome rings around gauges, controls, cupholders, everything. As a Mercedes official pointed out to us, using existing E-Class equipment let them spend money on the CLS' presentation and finish, like using real stitching on the dash covering.
The rear seat (actually two buckets flanking an extended center console) is well shaped and even full-size occupants have adequate space for knees. But 6-footers are a light press fit between the seat cushion and headliner. It's also pretty dark back there, since the side glass ends well forward of an occupant's vantage point. Still, that's not much of a giveback in order to get the lean, fast-looking shape of a sexy coupe.
Running Against the Clock
And the car is not only fast-looking. It really does run pretty well. Ed Hellwig describes its road manners well in our First Drive: 2006 Mercedes-Benz CLS500, and now that we've had a car for full testing, we can fill in some blanks.
Again, the E500 sedan supplies all the major componentry, including the 302-horsepower, 5.0-liter, three-valve-per-cylinder aluminum V8 and terribly slick seven-speed automatic transmission. The CLS weighs over 200 pounds more than the E500 we last tested (4,050 versus 3,815), which probably explains the couple extra tenths that crept into the 0-60 time.
We logged a 6.2-second run in the CLS compared to the E500's best of 5.8. Quarter-mile performance slipped a little as well: 14.7 seconds at 96.8 mph for the CLS, compared to the E's 14.24 at 99.55.
Not spectacular numbers, perhaps, but in truth, the new coupe leaves little to complain about when you call up maximum thrust on the road. It launches hard, shifts crisply and feels strong. (And you can spring for the 469-hp CLS55 AMG for about $90,000, if you simply must have more.) The engine is always smooth and serene, and it gave us decent fuel economy: about 15 mpg with no babying, against an EPA rating of 16/22.
Accelerating from a standstill, or in stop-and-go city traffic, you may notice a slight throttle imprecision, common to many German electronic throttle systems. You don't get a reaction right away, so you feed in more pedal, then finally get a bigger lunge than you wanted.
We can pick a similar nit with the brake pedal, whose faintly wooden, not-quite-linear feel again suggests electronics that aren't completely natural in their feedback. But neither of these impressions affects the way the CLS works (the big 13-inch front discs helped pull our test car to a halt from 60 mph in just 116 feet), and an owner driving the car every day will adjust to the quirks.
Doing It Right
One example of advanced electronics we have no qualms about at all is Mercedes' Airmatic Dual Control air suspension with Adaptive Damping System. This design incorporates semiactive, electronically controlled pneumatic spring struts to assist the conventional coil springs and variable-rate dampers. The system continually adjusts spring and damping rates to reduce pitch, dive and roll, while affording a comfortable, compliant ride. The driver can firm things up with two selectable Sport modes.
It all works beautifully, giving the CLS a serene and polished feel on the road as well as surprising agility for its size and weight. Probably thanks to the grippy short-sidewall 275/35 tires on 18-inch alloys, the CLS wiggled through our 600-foot slalom at an average speed of 62.1 mph, topping the E500's 59.9.
As a new CLS500 owner is enjoying his or her car's power to perform, to impress and to flatter, Mercedes must be hoping the car will also prove capable of something else: helping to turn around a suddenly shaky reputation for quality and reliability. Owners' ratings and reports have dinged Mercedes products for not living up to expectations, and that is obviously a trend the company has to reverse immediately. If the racy CLS four-door coupe can manage to start that turnaround, the manufacturer should be at least as pleased as the buyers are with this indulgent new car.
System Score: 9.0
Components: The premium Harman Kardon audio system available in the CLS500 ($980 as a stand-alone option, included in the $3,650 Premium Package) is almost exactly the same one offered in the E500 sedan. We raved about it when we last tested an E and it's just as good in the CLS. The key pieces are an in-dash head unit with an LCD display and six-disc capability, a multichannel amplifier, 12 speakers strategically arrayed around the intimate cockpit, and a total system output of 480 watts. The setup employs seven-channel surround-sound technology and control buttons conveniently located on the steering wheel.
Performance: Audio quality doesn't get much better than this, in a car or in a home. Strong but defined lows, brilliant highs and natural vocals: it's all here. The surround-sound impression is surprisingly good, from all seating positions.
We have griped before about the buttons that control this system, and we haven't changed our minds. Many of them are labeled by adjacent text in the display panel, and that can require more eyes-down concentration than we like in a moving vehicle. Mercedes has eased the ergos to an extent by putting some functions on steering wheel controls and some readouts in another display in front of the driver. But it still seems fussier than necessary.
Best Feature: Power with clarity.
Worst Feature: Awkward controls.
Conclusion: Once it's set and playing your favorite selections, this is true audio bliss. — Kevin Smith
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
My first experience with the new CLS came when driving in the mountains along California's southern coast. As expected, it looked good, handled well, offered a comfortable ride and provided plenty of go-power. I remember thinking, "OK, so it's a Mercedes-Benz sedan with a creative roofline." That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's not really earth-shattering, either. I liked the car, but I like the S-Class and E-Class, too, and compared to those models this one does (to a small degree) compromise headroom and visibility for the sake of style.
Then I drove it at our test facility, where the car's sporty look was backed up by a 6.2-second 0-to-60 time and repeated braking distances from 60 mph of less than 120 feet — despite a 4,000-pound-plus curb weight. Mercedes has a history of hiding its luxury sedans' heft when it comes to acceleration and braking, but the CLS seemed a cut above its brethren in this department. And setting its adjustable suspension to "Sport 2" mode allowed the CLS to weave through the slalom with absolute confidence.
Of course, having a comfortable, luxurious, confidently sporty luxury sedan with a creative roofline still isn't earth-shattering, but it is a claim Mercedes' biggest rival can't make anymore, and that alone gives the Benz guys an upper hand in this segment.
Me? I'm anxiously awaiting seat time in the AMG version.
Senior Editor Scott Oldham says:
I was halfway home last night when a child of five convinced me the CLS is so completely cool it will become a bona fide E-Classic.
I was in the Benz, waiting out a red light at the intersection of Venice and Centinela. He was on the crosswalk coming from my left and holding his mother's hand. When I noticed him, he was already staring at the CLS. He looked like kids do when they find their father's Playboy in the garage.
I saw his eyes dance along the car's sculpted flank. I watched them follow the artful crease that spans its length, and linger at each fat five-spoke wheel. I saw the CLS' radical roofline and muscular stance take hold of him much like the lines of a Ferrari Daytona did to me 30 years ago.
By the time he was passing between the car's headlights, his pace had slowed, his mouth hung slightly open and his eyes had glued themselves to the large chrome three-pointed star in its grille.
That's when his mom gave his arm a yank, pulling him up on the curb and freeing him of the trance. He looked at me for the first time. Our eyes met and we smiled.
The entire encounter lasted only 5 or 6 seconds, but that boy will remember that moment and lust after a CLS forever.
When a car has that kind of impact, who cares if the controls of its navigation system could be more intuitive?
Senior Content Editor Erin Riches says:
Park an E-Class sedan in an American driveway and right away your neighbors know you've got style, prestige and money. But travel around Europe and it's not uncommon to see this car in taxi lines. That's a lot of emotional ground for any car to cover. So it's not surprising that Mercedes has created a second midsize four-door with body lines too decadent to qualify it for livery duty.
The CLS500's sweeping curves hint at the personality of the car underneath — the CLS handles with more grace and dresses with more sophistication than the E.
Out on some back roads, our CLS500 spoke to me with a warmth I've never gotten from an E500. Even on its sportiest damper setting, it kept the ride comfortable, yet as soon as its sensors detected cornering forces, it tightened up and tracked through turns with superb composure. The weighting and quickness of the steering were perfect for the task, even though the driver-to-pavement synapse of BMW steering feel eludes Mercedes. And this has to be the best set of electrohydraulic brakes in a Benz to date — our test car's pedal had a near natural feel to it.
Inside, the dash suggestively wraps around the front occupants, while chrome details are everywhere you look. At the same time, it's actually a more practical layout with better designed storage areas and cupholders than any E- or S-Class. Yet, I was a little disappointed by the materials. The stitched leather on top of the dash is quite nice, but in a car whose lavish furnishings are supposed to compensate for a small backseat, I would have expected suede rather than polyester on the pillars and headliner.
Aside from this letdown, the CLS is, like too many Benzes, an expensive car that's easy to love. I think I'd take a BMW 645Ci first, but if you need the extra pair of doors, don't bother trying to resist.
"I remember several times that a client has been torn between the S- or E-Class they need, and the CLK- or CL-Class they keep walking back to. The CLS is a beautiful hybrid of those two types of car, along with a higher-than-normal (for Mercedes) amount of 'look at me' factor. I think we'll take more 6 Series business away from BMW than we'll lose in sedan sales of our own." — Stroudman, March 7, 2005
"Finally got to see one of these on the road today. WOW! The only Mercedes that makes more of a statement is the SLR. This thing is outta here gorgeous. I mean, the car turned out of a gas station onto the road and shot forward — an exotic-looking Benz four-door. Who would have ever thought?" — Merc1, March 23, 2005
"I brought my 2000 E320 in for service today, and strolled over to the showroom to see a CLS500 (and 55) in person, and sat in one. The car was more impressive-looking than I thought. It definitely has the look and feel of a sports car, albeit with four doors and 195 inches of length. Getting in was somewhat of a chore, but not quite as bad as I had envisioned. Sitting in it, again, feels like sitting in a sports car, a beautiful sports car. To me the CLS is a kind of hybrid, and it's the perfect timing for me. I kind of want a sports car, a thought which my wife nixed rather severely. But she likes Mercedes in general and the CLS specifically, so it's my chance to get a sports car and not wind up divorced." — Wbreaux1, March 23, 2005
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