Success can be awkward. When Mercedes-Benz unveiled the Vision CLS "concept" at the 2003 Frankfurt Auto Show, the response was overwhelmingly positive. An E-Class sedan never looked so good.
They called it a coupe. It wasn't. Nobody cared. It and the virtually identical-looking production CLS transcended any contrived monikers the marketing department could dream up.
The 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 is the company's sophomore follow-up to the stylistic smash hit of the original. For an automaker, that's a tough spot in which to find itself.
Balancing Familiar With Fresh
Here's the reason. Mercedes-Benz reckons that nearly two-thirds of European buyers of the first-gen CLS cite styling as the deciding factor in their purchase. This created something of a pickle for the designers of the second-generation car. Surely the company would have loved to capitalize on a strong family resemblance to the successful outgoing CLS, yet that car won hearts precisely for representing a dramatic departure from the norm. What to do?
Styled in Mercedes-Benz's U.S. design studio in Carlsbad, California, the new CLS nods at the old car and then goes its own way. It shares a similar crescent-shaped greenhouse profile and tapered, high-bustle rear with the outgoing car, but much of that car's feminine elegance is gone, particularly at the front.
A chunky, upright grille à la SLS AMG dominates the nose, lending the 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 a much blockier and massive-looking presence. The rear haunches have swollen, and the outgoing car's gracefully arching character line that stretched from the front wheel arch to the taillight is now interrupted by a second crease that echoes the fenders of the 500K of the 1930s.
It's a look that will divide opinions. Maybe that's the idea.
U.S.-bound CLSs will offer one powertrain at launch as opposed to the cornucopia of offerings overseas. A new — largely new, anyway — 4.6-liter V8 boasts twin Honeywell GT2260 turbochargers and direct injection that join forces to create 402 horsepower, an increase of 20 compared to the outgoing normally aspirated 5.5-liter mill upon which it's based. The familiar seven-speed autobox is, predictably, the only transmission available.
Torque is what's for dinner in cars like the CLS, and that's a particular specialty of the force-fed bent-eight, as there are 443 pound-feet on tap from 1,600-4,750 rpm.
Fret not, fans of the non-boosted M273 lump. Lag in the new engine (engine code M278) is a nonissue so there's an immediate response when you flex your ankle. The plentiful torque is delivered seamlessly even from low revs, and yet the 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 is said to be some 22 percent more efficient on the European drive cycle. EPA fuel-economy testing is yet to be completed.
Some of the efficiency improvement is due to a stop/start engine function that won't initially be available in stateside CLSs, as compliance of the system with U.S. emissions isn't finalized. Still, this engine is a win-win situation on all fronts. It even sounds terrific as it maintains an exhaust note that suggests ample meat lurks underhood.
A Smidge Larger, Slipperier, Stiffer. And Heavier
The new CLS is incrementally larger in every dimension than the outgoing CLS — about an inch longer, a half-inch higher and less than a half-inch wider. Wheelbase grows by 0.8 inch to 113.2 inches. There's fractionally more shoulder room inside, though the dramatically curved roof line still compromises rear headroom, kind of like a, um, coupe.
Despite the larger frontal area, drag has been reduced by 10 percent thanks to an improvement in the drag coefficient to a slippery 0.26. Static bending and torsional stiffness are up 28 and 6 percent, respectively. The beefier body shell adds weight — so although the new CLS boasts new all-aluminum doors, hood, deck lid and parcel shelf, it checks in about 140 pounds heavier than the old CLS.
You'd never guess the 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 grew heavier by the way it takes to the road. We sampled the CLS in the hills and dales of central Italy and, simply put, it drives beautifully. There's tidy handling and an absorbent ride from the air suspension and variable dampers, and the new electrically assisted steering is pretty transparent, if a bit too light at low speeds. It loads up naturally, however, and the mechanically variable ratio that quickens as you add lock is a real boon in helping the CLS drive smaller than it is.
Whereas the exterior styling is divisive, the cabin is gorgeous. It's a thoroughly modern, well-trimmed and attractive place that feels airy despite the apparently chopped roof line. Call it a sneaky styling trick. And in addition to every imaginable creature comfort short of a Mediterranean spa (though we hear they're working on that), there are new optional nannies aboard in the form of lane-departure and blind-spot correction systems.
New active all-LED headlights are said to be a world's first, too. Designed to last the life of the car, they automatically dip the cutoff and modulate the high beams in response to oncoming traffic and driving conditions. Very clever indeed. In action each headlight's central nodule eerily pivots around like some kind of sentient being.
Expect the 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 to stick close to a base price of $74,000 when it arrives in U.S. showrooms in May 2011. For that sum you get one highly accomplished sedan, possibly one of the best on the road.
In a twist of irony, the main attraction of the CLS is no longer its heart-stopping sheet metal but rather the substance beneath the skin.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report.
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