2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS Review
Sleek styling icon packs a solid stance and new twin-turbo punch.
- Fabulous twin-turbo engines
- Improved fuel economy
- Sharp, stable handling
- Tight rear seating
- Jerky clutch engagement (CLS63 AMG)
- The odd squeak
Mercedes-Benz must feel flattered to see its game-changing CLS overtly imitated by numerous competitors since it was launched in 2006. Combining the smooth, sloping roofline of a coupe and the practicality of a 4-door sedan, this first-generation CLS was a smashing success and created a new breed henceforth referred to as the "4-door coupe."
In a market now rich with such imitators, from the accessible Volkswagen CC to the ritzy Aston Martin Rapide, Mercedes-Benz is launching the second generation of its landmark design as a 2012 model. Once again built on the same basic architecture as current E-Class offerings, both models of the newest CLS are markedly different from these siblings for their overall driving character as much as their unique shape. Not to mention the riveting performance and sound of their new, direct-injected, twin-turbocharged V8 engines.
The unique shape of the CLS is its most distinctive feature. The second generation had to stay true to the brand's heritage and the spirit of the original and yet be fresh, innovative and daring. The new design looks more extroverted and baroque than the original at first, but quickly grows on the beholder when seen in the metal. Strong design typically elicits a measure of initial shock, and the new CLS seems to be among these.
Three models will be offered. The CLS550 and CLS63 AMG are powered by two versions of a new family of double overhead cam direct-injection V8 engines. The latter gets the special treatment of the famed performance division, including a hand-built engine with dual-automated clutch gearbox and unique front suspension design, all aimed at delivering leading-edge handling and performance. Buyers can add an AMG Performance package that raises horsepower, torque, top speed and ultimate cornering ability to higher levels still.
But the CLS550 is no mushy luxury ride. Its 4.6-liter twin-turbo engine will purr along smoothly and contentedly, especially since it is mated to a 7-speed automatic gearbox with a conventional torque converter, but this gentle demeanor turns into a fabulous growl with a swift prod at the go pedal. Its displacement might be slightly smaller that its AMG sibling's, but the CLS550's V8 still belts out more than 400 horsepower and 400 lb-ft of torque, with matching handling prowess assured by an adjustable suspension with air springs at all corners.
The third model will bring all-wheel drive to the CLS-Class for the first time. Powered by the same V8 engine, the CLS550 4Matic will carry 110 extra pounds and take an additional tenth of a second to reach 60 mph, according to its maker. And its estimated city/highway fuel-economy ratings are a single mpg lower than its rear-drive counterpart. The CLS63 AMG should also be available with all-wheel drive within two years.
Under the Hood
Ready to lament the glorious, award-winning, naturally aspirated 6.2-liter V8 of the previous AMG version of the CLS, we were instead thoroughly impressed with the sheer muscle, performance and magnificent soundtrack of the new twin-turbo 5.5-liter V8 that powers the CLS63 AMG.
This engine develops 518 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque, numbers that rise to 550 horsepower and a hefty 590 lb-ft with the AMG Performance Package, which essentially raises maximum turbo boost from 14.5 to 18.8 pounds per square inch. This $7,300 option includes red brake calipers, a superb Alcantara-draped AMG steering wheel, adaptive sport suspension, forged aluminum wheels and a carbon-fiber engine cover.
Mercedes claims a zero-to-60 mph acceleration time of 4.4 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph for the CLS63 in regular trim. The numbers are 4.3 seconds and 186 mph with the performance package, which also benefits from an electronic launch-control mode for the CLS63's 7-speed, dual automated clutch gearbox that comes with impeccable steering-wheel-mounted paddles.
That said, there truly is nothing lame about the 4.6-liter V8 bolted under the hood of the CLS550. Built from the same base, the M157-type engine delivers 402 horsepower and 443 lb-ft of torque with 12.9 psi of turbo boost. The CLS500 is said to sprint to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds and the 4Matic in 5.2 seconds. Both models reputedly top out at 130 mph.
Fuel economy is significantly better for both engines, to the point where the CLS550 and CLS63 AMG are now exempt from the gas-guzzler tax. Projected EPA fuel-economy ratings are 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway for the CLS550, versus 14/21 mpg for the previous model, a 25 percent improvement. The gain is even greater for the CLS63, with estimated ratings of 15/23 mpg, a 27.8 percent improvement.
Very slight gains in exterior dimensions have made the cabin a touch roomier in the new CLS. Front-seat comfort, support and space are fine, but it's snug in the rear for even average-size adults, who need to dip their head while getting in with that low-cut roofline. Split-fold rear seatbacks expand a decent-size trunk. Leather is everywhere you can sit or touch.
Aluminum vent frames, buttons and trim details highlight the instrument panel. Classic wood trim brings an air of traditional luxury to the CLS550, while optional piano-black lacquer is classy and makes the CLS63 AMG cabin all business, with the sport wheel, aluminum footrest and large black-faced gauges. Ergonomics are in typical modern Mercedes style, with an abundance of buttons and the rather convoluted logic of the various control menus. Rotary knobs left of the console-mounted electronic gear selector let the driver easily adjust the various driving parameters on the CLS63.
On the Road
Full-throttle acceleration feels simply relentless in the CLS63 AMG. It's a very good thing the brakes on the new CLS have more than abundant clamping power to rein things in at speed — especially on the CLS63 model with Performance package we drove. If anything, its brakes are a little too eager and grabby in normal city driving. Brake modulation is more natural and progressive in the CLS550.
Handling is a strength on both models, with a predictable edge in ultimate poise and grip to the fully kitted CLS63 as tested on tight, twisty, undulating sections of legendary Highway 1 north of San Francisco. If anything, the AMG version is too highly strung and nervous, even for very spirited driving on such a road, with the gearbox and suspension in their Sport + modes. Those settings are best kept for track days.
Driven over the same road, the CLS550 was almost equally adept, showing impeccable damping and body control over the nasty undulations. The comparatively tamer model is also a smoother drive, thanks to the torque converter of its conventional 7-speed automatic. The CLS63's automated clutch has slightly jerkier action in stop-and-go conditions. The ride is smooth in Comfort mode with the AMG sport suspension. It firms up bearably in Sport, but the Sport Plus setting is too tight for normal roads.
Right for You?
Mercedes-Benz is aiming this new CLS pair at empty nesters and families with young children — two at the most — who don't yet need spacious rear seats. These buyers need to be reasonably affluent, of course, with base prices of $71,300 and $94,900 for the CLS550 and CLS63 AMG, respectively — lower than the outgoing models by $2,700 and $4,150. The asking price for the CLS550 4Matic will be $ 73,800.
You can get the same basic engines in high-end E-Class coupes and sedans, including the upcoming E63 AMG sedan, but the CLS pair have carved out their unique niche in terms of style, handling and performance. After the initial shock of their revamped shape, they seem more than well-armed to go blow-for-blow with ambitious rivals, including those with all-wheel drive. In fact, their ability to rumble is unparalleled, in all respects.
(As part of an automaker-sponsored press event, Mercedes-Benz provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)
A professional auto journalist for more than 25 years and the founding editor of Sympatico / MSN Autos, Marc Lachapelle is a two-time winner of the Canadian Journalist of the Year award from the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, an accomplished photographer and licensed racer.