When it comes to shaking up the luxury car world, no amount of power, technological sophistication or supple leather in the cabin can top an alluring design. More stunning in person than even the most flattering photography might suggest, the coupelike Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class has a visual presence that few other luxury sedans can match. And that is something that's not likely to change for some time to come.
Yet whether you're looking at the current CLS or its predecessor, both share much of their underlying structure, engines and hardware with the well-regarded E-Class. In a way, you're essentially buying a more visually interesting version of Mercedes' popular midsize sedan. However, in doing so you will be trading in some practicality. Though the front seats are every bit as accommodating as Mercedes' S-Class full-size luxury flagship, the CLS' dimensions in back are tighter in nearly every direction when compared to more mainstream sedans. Additionally, the high beltline and small rear windows can make occupants feel closed in. Overall, though, for the luxury car buyer who desires distinctive styling, strong performance and a sumptuous interior, the CLS is easy to recommend.
Current Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class
The Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class is a four-door sedan with coupelike styling. Based on the E-Class, it shares that model's V8 engines and rigid structure that helps promote a composed ride along with confident handling characteristics.
The CLS-Class lineup starts with the CLS550. It's equipped with a 4.7-liter twin-turbo V8 that produces 402 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque. Rear-wheel drive and a seven-speed automatic are standard, but you can get "4Matic" all-wheel drive as an option.
The CLS63 AMG goes a few steps further with a 5.5-liter twin-turbo V8 good for 550 hp and 531 lb-ft of torque in its standard form, and 577 hp and 590 lb-ft with the optional S-Model package. As 4Matic is standard, power is sent to all four wheels through a seven-speed automated manual transmission. Besides its powertrain, the 63 gets AMG-specific wheels, suspension, steering and styling details. A limited-slip differential, forged alloy wheels and carbon-ceramic brakes are options.
As with the exterior, the CLS' cabin takes on an organic and curvaceous theme. Materials are beyond reproach. The control layout is similar to the E-Class, though it swaps in an analog clock and the older knob-style climate controls in lieu of the newer toggle buttons. Stepping up to the CLS63 adds a chunky AMG steering wheel and fills the center console with AMG vehicle controls and the MCT transmission selector (complete with an embossed AMG crest) instead of the 550's electronic column shifter.
With its low, racy roof line and two-person backseat, the CLS isn't what we'd call the ideal people carrier. If you frequently ferry people around or have particularly tall friends, opting for an E-Class is probably a wiser idea. Indeed, this is the price you pay for that slinky styling. Well, besides the literal higher price attached to it compared to the E. At least you get a spacious trunk.
On the road, the "base" CLS550 essentially matches the acceleration of the previous-generation AMG model, while the CLS63 matches the get-up of many exotic sports cars. Both also handle brilliantly, tricking the laws of physics by going around corners with talent that belies their size. Nevertheless, ride quality is excellent in the CLS550 and acceptably firm in the CLS63. In total, this is a truly special luxury sedan for those who want a little flair from their four-door daily driver.
Used Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class Models
The current-generation Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class debuted in 2012. Compared to the first-generation CLS, this one rides and handles better, boasts better build quality and has superior ergonomics with more user-friendly controls. The following year brought an updated mbrace telematics system and a new Bang & Olufsen audio option. These early second-gen CLS models differ from today's version in a handful of minor ways. All lack an automatic engine stop-start feature (which helps to reduce fuel consumption), while the CLS63 AMG was rear-wheel drive and had less power. Still, with outputs of 518 hp and 516 lb-ft for the standard CLS63 and 550 hp and 590 lb-ft with the available AMG Performance Pack, that doesn't strike us as much of a disadvantage.
The first-generation Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class was produced from 2006-'11. Like the current car, it was based on the E-Class sedan of its time period and featured sleek, coupelike styling and the practicality trade-offs that came with it. Used shoppers will note that the key differences between this model and the one that replaced it are less user-friendly interior controls, less backseat room, hydraulic versus electric steering and less exuberant acceleration (although this is more a testament to the current car rather than an indictment of this one).
For 2006 only, the CLS-Class was available in CLS500 and CLS55 AMG guises. The former came with a 5.0-liter V8 rated at 306 hp, while the CLS55 AMG had a 469-hp supercharged 5.5-liter V8. From '07 until the end of this generation's run in 2011, the CLS550 featured a naturally aspirated 5.5-liter V8 that produced 382 hp. The 2007-and-up CLS63 AMG had a 6.2-liter V8 that made 507 hp. A seven-speed automatic with manual-shift capability was standard for both trims. Acceleration was obviously very strong for both.
Inside the cockpit, sweeping wood panels, chrome trim surrounds, premium materials and beautiful detailing made the CLS more visually interesting than other Mercedes-Benz sedans of the time. However, the car's coupelike roof line and tighter door openings made getting in and out of the rear seats more difficult. Once in place, the aft quarters were surprisingly accommodating, but headroom bordered on unacceptable for 6-footers. The short windows also made it feel less airy than a typical sedan, but compared to a traditional two-door coupe, this Mercedes-Benz CLS was legitimately comfortable in back rather than merely tolerable.
In reviews, we've noted that this first-generation CLS-Class offered plenty of entertainment value to go along with its gorgeous styling. Transitioning from one curve to the next made it obvious that the CLS was something more than the average midsize Mercedes. The CLS550 even invited spirited driving thanks to its quicker steering and reduced body roll compared with its E-Class contemporary, while the CLS63 AMG pushed the envelope even further thanks to its sport-tuned suspension, more powerful brakes, and bigger wheels and tires.
Besides the '07 engine swap, changes were light during this generation. For 2009, the Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class received a mild exterior styling refresh, including an updated twin-bar grille, restyled wheels, trapezoidal exhaust tips and reshaped LED taillights. The COMAND interface was also revised, but it was always plagued by usability issues. Instead of the touchscreen interfaces of some competitors or the screen-and-knob system that replaced it, this generation of COMAND featured an LCD screen and multidirectional buttons akin to a video game controller.