- New CLE Coupe replaces both C-Class and E-Class coupes.
- Our first taste of the CLE was in Spain where we tried both engines over the course of two days.
- Does it accomplish its mission or did Mercedes miss the mark?
2024 Mercedes-Benz CLE First Drive: Nails the Brief
Almost exactly what a 2+2 luxury coupe should be
Mercedes is taking one more crack at the tried-and-true 2+2 luxury coupe formula with the new-for-2024 Mercedes-Benz CLE. The all-new nameplate is designed to do a few things in one package. Its first job is to replace two cars, the C-Class and E-Class coupes (a convertible will come later). The second is to be a more interesting and better-to-drive alternative to the brand's less expensive sedans.
The CLE is a true tweener in that it's bigger than the C-Class coupe in every dimension but smaller than the E in most of them. (The CLE actually offers more shoulder room in the rear and more legroom up front than the E-Class coupe did.) Its exterior dimensions are far closer to the E than the C, but unlike the previous E-Class coupe, the CLE has a door pillar. In the past, Merc's more premium 2+2s featured two main side windows and two rear quarter windows that weren't interrupted by a middle roof pillar, but not so in the CLE. It's a small design choice, but one that makes the CLE feel less special from before you even get inside.
Once you do move to the interior, you'll be met with the same design Mercedes has stuck with since the reveal of the current S-Class. A digital instrument cluster sits in front of the driver and is flanked by a portrait-style center display that controls almost all of the car's major functions. Everything from maps to music and even Angry Birds (not kidding) is controlled by the center screen. Despite being relatively menu-heavy, the interface itself is darn simple to use and presents almost none of the learning curve of the old MBUX systems.
We've rarely leveraged a complaint at Mercedes' new interior template from a design perspective and we won't start now. In the CLE it remains a great-looking place to sit thanks to a decluttered dash, great sightlines and driver-oriented setup. It does fall down in terms of usability, however. Touch-sensitive controls are used for everything from the volume control to the rearview mirror adjusters and they're both too fiddly and less accurate than more typical physical controls would be. In addition to those concerns, some of the interior plastics, especially those on the doors and below your beltline, feel low-quality and rough to the touch.
But this is a luxury coupe, and all concerns about how it looks and feels on the inside should come second to the way it drives. We first drove the CLE 300, which is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that kicks out 225 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. It's paired to a nine-speed automatic transmission and standard all-wheel drive.
The mostly straight stretches of Spanish highway between Bilbao and San Sebastián gave us the chance to evaluate the CLE's ride, but first a caveat: the car we drove was equipped with an adaptive suspension and rear-wheel steering. While the adaptive dampers can adjust the firmness of the ride, and the rear-wheel steering aids low-speed maneuverability, Mercedes says both features won't be available on any CLE in the U.S. regardless of specification. But we're not overly concerned; our CLE test car rode well in any mode and the suspension controlled the car's mass well without feeling too stiff. Save for some undue tire noise (due to big wheels and tires with skinny sidewalls) the CLE made for a great middle-distance tourer.
Power from the smaller 2.0-liter didn't quite fit the CLE's mission statement, though, and for the second half of our day we swapped into the CLE 450. It features a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine with 375 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque. Right away it became clear the bigger engine was the one to have. The extra low-range torque and burlier top-end thrust of the inline-six felt perfectly matched to the CLE's sportier sheetmetal — it simply fits this car's brief more appropriately.
Twisty Spanish hillside roads revealed that the CLE wasn't exactly built with corner carving in mind. Both the brake pedal and the steering felt too remote and it was difficult to find faith in the front end, especially when it felt like the car's rear had a mind of its own due to the rear steer. A colleague of mine and I both agreed rear steer's omission from the U.S. market was no bad thing, and we'd have both liked to try the car without it. After day one, the CLE came off as a bit of a head-scratcher. A sporty-looking coupe that didn't feel all that, well, sporty.
But the next day it was back to Bilbao, and this time we were taking the coastal route. Though the long sweepers on the Basque seaside, the CLE came good. Even though it sits 0.6 inch lower to the ground than Benz's smaller sedans and looks more aggressive than the coupes it replaces, and the ones we drove featured plenty of go-faster tech, the CLE is at its best when cruising. With the optional (and excellent) Burmester stereo with Dolby Atmos thumping away in the background and stunning vistas in front of us, we weren't scratching our heads any longer.
Its skill set might be limited to one type of driving, but that is where the CLE 300 and CLE 450 excel. Plus, sportier AMG versions are already on their way, and they'll more than likely take care of the buyers who want something with sharper handling and even more thrust. The standard CLE, instead, faithfully carries out the Mercedes-Benz tradition of being elegant, comfortable and tech-forward personal 2+2 transportation. If you can forgive the lackadaisical brake pedal and disconnected steering and focus on just how well executed everything else is, the CLE might be the coupe for you. Plus it's a heck of a lot better-looking than the current BMW 4 Series too.
The CLE is missing a few intangibles that would make it truly great, but perhaps that's the job of the forthcoming AMG model.