This is the car that started the whole sedan-coupe craze. But, now deep into its second generation, is the Mercedes-Benz CLS still relevant beyond being really really good looking?
“… but it looks so good!”
Throughout my week with the 2016 Mercedes-Benz CLS400 I find I am constantly repeating this and reminding anyone who will listen, that despite the shortcomings of the big, swoopy sedan, it’s one fine looking piece of metal.
A very fine looking piece of metal to be honest.
Our car, in Obsidian Black and fitted with the optional AMG Line Plus kit ($3490 option) features 19-inch AMG wheels, AMG body kit which includes a subtle lip spoiler on the boot and privacy glass at the rear, looks the right mix of executive style and urban menace.
That single-vane grille with 249 diamond-style points and the cool LED Multibeam headlights give the CLS a modern nose, while the distinctive lower character line that defines the pumped rear arches and jewelled, rhomboidal LED tail lamps complete the look, the is as distinctive as when the first generation model landed back in 2004.
Here’s some fun Mercedes-Benz trivia for you too, the CLS is the only model in the Mercedes-Benz range where the second-generation model code (W218) precedes the earlier car (W219). Impress all at the pub with that little chestnut!
But as Paul Maric knows, you can’t trade on your good looks for ever, and while the lines of the CLS impress, that tapering turret and thick C-pillar make entry to the CLS’s twin rear seats (it’s a four- not a five-seater) a bit of a challenge.
So much so, this 6’4” lug bashed his head at least twice while getting in and out, the doors are so narrow.
There’s no reward for squeezing yourself in though, as the back seats just aren’t that comfortable. The sloping roofline really impedes on your headroom and the way the seat back and headrest are placed just doesn’t work with the way your body expects to be positioned.
There are amenities aplenty in the back though. The cool hideaway storage and pair of cupholders in the centre ‘hump’ are quite handy, plus there are vents and a 12-volt outlet. If that’s not enough, the armrest folds down and offers another storage area and more cupholders. There’s no excuse for thirsty passengers in a CLS.
But there isn’t a huge amount of leg room, mainly due to the car’s 2874mm wheelbase, as the W218 still uses the older W212 E-Class platform. That makes the CLS 65mm shorter between the wheels than the 2016 Mercedes-Benz E-Class and 161mm shorter than a standard wheelbase S-Class.
Sure, it’s a coupe and not a limousine, but bottom line, don’t buy this if rear passengers are important to you.
The front passenger gets a bit more room, but even here you feel as though you sit up a bit high, especially for a coupe, and there isn’t that much storage.
The cool net-pocket on the side of the transmission tunnel is handy, but the glovebox isn’t big enough to hold the owner’s manual, so it tends to sit in the door pocket.
It feels a bit nit-picky, but the CLS is a luxury grand-tourer, and while we can understand and forgive rear passenger space, the front seat should be a focus, and for taller occupants at least, it feels just that little bit compromised.
But, the rest of the cabin, despite being the ‘older’ Mercedes-Benz design, is very pleasant and usable, and you want for nothing in terms of features and gadgets.
The red-stitch leather throughout the car is part of the AMG Line Plus package which also includes the flat-bottom Nappa leather steering wheel, sports seats, and the cool, red seatbelts. The materials all feel high quality and there is an undeniable sense of style, despite the mixed-generational dashboard.
It’s something we’ve seen in many mid-cycle Mercedes-Benz models, the older numeric keypad and air conditioning controls paired with the large, eight-inch high resolution display on the dashboard. Very much a statement of how much faster technology is moving than the underlying car platform, but rest assured a new, third-generation CLS is coming in late 2017.
Ergonomics are still good, and very familiar to any Mercedes-Benz driver. The only real downside is the use of the smaller, COMAND control wheel, as opposed to the new touch-pad ‘hood’ we’ve seen in the GLE range.
The seats are comfortable and supportive, and in our car include the dynamic ‘cuddle’ function as well as massage, heating and ventilation ($1800 comfort package).
Equipment levels are high in the ’400. There’s DAB digital radio, automatic parking, a surround-view camera, ambient lighting and the full suite of Mercedes safety and driver assistance technology (for this generation of car).
The standard Harmon/Kardon stereo felt a little light on though, with the sound through the Logic7 surround program not quite meaty enough for a high-end executive tourer. Deeper bass would cause light rattles in some speakers and higher notes didn’t quite sound as bright as you would want. There is no upgrade stereo option for the CLS400 either.
We had a few niggles with the keyless entry as well, where it mostly works but occasionally insists on being unlocked with the key.
All said and done though, living with the CLS isn’t entirely impractical.
The boot is powered, both up and down, and there’s good space (520 litres) to fit bags or cases. There’s a netted pocket on the side as well as some underfloor storage, plus the rear seats fold in a 60:40 split if you need to pop something longer in there.
It’s not the primary go-to place of a big sedan-coupe, and the angular lip isn’t the most practical for loading in big, square suitcases… so I don’t think it’s a breaking point on your CLS purchase journey. It's a shame they wont be building the cool, but rare shooting brake version any more though.
Where the CLS400 really does shine, is out on the open road where that 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 can unwind its 245kW and 480Nm as an effortless cruiser.
There’s even a strong, rhythmic beat to the engine. Not quite a wailing six, nor a thumping eight, just a percussive, regular purr that lets you know power is there should you need it.
Peak torque is available from 1200 to 4000rpm, so all you need do is squeeze the throttle for a velvety smooth response. It makes hills seem flat and long trucks seem like toys when overtaking.
Mercedes-Benz claims a combined fuel consumption cycle of 8L/100km and an urban-only thirst of 10.9L/100km. We found that enjoying the smooth ’six pushed that up into the low teens, but would easily relax as low 6L/100km range (in-line with the claim) for highway touring.
We tended to run the CLS in the Sport driving mode, as the standard Comfort setting was almost too soft for the somewhat sporty nature of the CLS. Tipping into tighter corners, it feels a bit soft and wallowy, where as tightening everything to the Sport settings gave the car a more confident feel, without compromising the ride quality.
Sharper and larger bumps respond with more of a solid thump than a jarring thud, meaning you can keep it in this setting and still enjoy the luxury nature of the grand tourer.
It’s not a sports performer by any measure, the CLS feels just a little more sprightly and dare I say, younger in this setting.
The nine-speed G-Tronic transmission also responds well to more ‘enthused’ driving, as well as being a very competent gearbox when left to its own devices.
You can shift with the steering-wheel mounted paddles, which adds an element of engagement to the drive, but deep down you know the car is doing it all anyway.
It’s a very easy car to get used to, and despite the age of some components, it's a car that still makes you feel good when driving.
Catch a glimpse of the CLS reflected in a building or glass shop frontage, and you know you look good.
But beauty aside, does the CLS still fit in?
It isn’t as modern and technologically advanced as the new E-Class, nor is it as beautifully crafted and luxurious as the S-Class. In a way it is just like it seems, a big CLA. Style before everything else, trapped in a mid-generation universe.
But there is substance to the CLS. That 400 engine is a pearler, and it remains a lovely car to drive, both in town and out. And it is unique, even in a world where it competes with the fastback Audi A7 and the BMW 6-Series GranCoupe for four-door GT dollars.
In reality, it comes down to the buyer.
Both the CLS400 and E400 models cost about the same ($140,400 vs $139,900), so it’s not a money thing.
If being new and practical is important to you, then go straight for the E-Class. But if being a bit special, and having substantially more road presence is your key driver? Then the 2016 Mercedes-Benz CLS400 is still a grand touring sedan-coupe worthy of a look in, and while we can't guarantee a better can than the new ’E, we can guarantee more looks. And to some buyers, that is more important.
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