Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Mercedes calls it a four-door coupe. We call it a shapely sedan. Whatever you want to call it, this newest class of Mercedes-Benz is sure to turn heads, frighten competitors and make more than a few S-Class owners feel a little hesitant about their purchase.
Long, low and masculine, the lines of the new CLS500 leave you curious and a bit confused at the same time — a state of mind that Mercedes no doubt fully intended. For when it comes to shaking up the rarefied air of the luxury car world, no amount of power under the hood or computers in the cabin can top the draw of an intriguing design. More stunning in person than in even the most flattering pictures, the CLS has a visual presence that few of its peers can match.
But who are its peers? According to Mercedes, the competition for the CLS includes both coupes and sedans, as this crossover vehicle of sorts is capable of delivering a driving experience that's both dynamically entertaining and supremely comfortable. It's a promise that many a manufacturer has made over the years, but few have attempted to deliver with such a novel design. After experiencing its abilities firsthand, we found that the CLS does indeed possess a level of athleticism and luxury that up until this point has been hard to find in a single car. Whether you want coupelike style and agility or the ease of entry that only four doors can provide, the CLS offers both, and does so in a package so visually appealing that even if you found neither trait of paramount importance, you would be inclined to want it nonetheless.
A single model — the CLS500 — comprises the standard series in the U.S. (an AMG-tuned CLS55 will be offered as well). Although it makes use of numerous unique pieces throughout, the better part of its hardware is taken straight from the E500 sedan. The engine is a 5.0-liter V8 connected to Mercedes' new seven-speed automatic transmission with Sportronic manual-shift capability.
With so many gears at its disposal, the 306-horsepower V8 is never far from its sweet spot, a circumstance that makes the sizable sedan feel quicker than its horsepower number would suggest. Mercedes claims a 0-to-60-mph sprint of 6.1 seconds, a believable number. Responses from the advanced transmission are satisfyingly quick, especially when left in the sport shift mode that livens up the performance even more. Manually shifting through the gears hardly seems necessary, but for those who find it worthwhile, there are optional steering wheel-mounted shift buttons available.
The fact that the CLS feels much like its E500 and S500 siblings through the gas pedal is no surprise and certainly no disappointment. Where it deviates slightly from the two is in the way it handles itself through the turns. It uses much of the same suspension and steering hardware, but subtle differences in the tuning of these components yield a feel unique to the CLS.
Mercedes' Airmatic suspension system comes standard, giving the CLS a level of adjustability to suit every type of driver. Left in its default comfort mode, the CLS responds with typical luxury car motions, soft when it needs to be and stiff enough to maintain complete control at all times. Harshness is nonexistent and even the cobblestone roads we encountered on our test-drive didn't upset the chassis. It's in this mode that the CLS does its best to mimic the comfort of the S-Class, and most drivers would find little reason to change it.
But with its coupelike profile comes the promise of acting like one, so the CLS offers two additional settings designed for more aggressive driving. We dialed the stiffest setting up during a romp through twisty country back roads and were surprised by just how much it shrunk the perceived dimensions of the CLS. Although it's nearly nine inches longer than an E-Class, it weighs barely a few pounds more, and as we transitioned from one curve to the next it was obvious that despite its accommodating rear seats, this was no S-Class. Unlike the big flagship that reminds you of its size when pushed, the CLS invites you to go harder at every turn. Quicker steering, less body roll and plenty of grip thanks to standard 18-inch wheels and tires give the CLS a legitimate claim to coupelike performance.
With that claim to capability vetted to our satisfaction, the next logical question was how would the CLS fare when it came to offering sedanlike comfort for four? While its shape does wonders for its image, it also reduces its interior dimensions in several important areas. Up front, the effects are minimal as the CLS feels every bit as accommodating as an S-Class. But in back its dimensions are tighter in nearly every dimension when compared to the shorter E-Class.
Smaller door openings make getting in and out of the rear seats more difficult, but once situated, the aft quarters are surprisingly accommodating. Two bucket seats are carved out of the available space with a center storage console running down the middle. Six-footers brush their heads, but plenty of knee, toe and shoulder room kept it comfortable as we rode — and dozed — in back for well over an hour. The short windows do make it feel less airy than a typical sedan, but compared to a traditional coupe, the CLS is legitimately comfortable in back rather than merely passable.
Most of the interior's defining characteristics are shared with the current E-Class, so the climate control system, audio controls and optional DVD navigation system are all identical; a standard four-zone climate control system is one of the few notable feature upgrades. A dashboard-wide strip of wood trim differentiates the CLS from any of its current siblings along with smaller, but tastefully applied touches of wood and chrome trim on the doors and center console. The standard wood wears a new matte finish designed to look more natural than the usual high-gloss timber found in most luxury cars. But as well intentioned as its dull finish may be, it reminded us of the cheap imitation trim often seen in low-budget Korean sedans. Optional high-gloss trim is available for those who come to the same conclusion.
Debatable trim appearance aside, it's an upscale environment that's pleasing to the touch and pleasant to the eye. There are, however, still a few ergonomic quirks typical of Germans cars, like the flimsy, fold-out cupholder, lack of storage space and overly complicated audio and navigation controls. Nothing new here to be sure, but still the kind of things that leave you scratching your head when you consider the brilliant level of engineering interspersed throughout the rest of the car.
Brilliant wasn't exactly the word that came to our minds when Mercedes first introduced the idea of a four-door coupe. It was contradictory and needlessly confusing, but we couldn't help but like the form it took. Having had time behind the wheel, we still harbor our previous objections to its nomenclature, but a newfound appreciation for its shape and performance makes its classification a moot point. The CLS isn't a case of form over function; it's a rare combination of the two that makes them almost complementary — an impressive feat that needs no explanation.
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