Mercedes-Benz CLS 2011

Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG Review

Rating: 8.0
$119,900 Mrlp
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The new CLS bears some resemblance to the original, but it has more in common with the latest S Class and E Class.
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Model tested:
2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG

San Diego, CA—In this business, every once in awhile, a very pleasant surprise will land in your lap. Such was the case when I ventured to the west coast of America recently to drive the latest offering from the performance gurus at AMG, the CLS63.

Now, I’m reasonably familiar with the offerings that have emerged from the performance division of Mercedes-Benz over the past few years. The Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG holds a place on my current wish list. So, too, does the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, although it’s a longer-term dream, if such a thing exists. And three years ago, the factory tuners from Stuttgart convened with the global automotive media in the Austrian countryside to introduce and sample the previous generation CLS63 AMG.

To be fair, driving through the Austrian countryside in the car was no onerous task. The meeting point was a memorable spot right next to the Danube River, the day was pleasant enough and the car…well, how much hardship can there be when you’re behind the wheel of an ultra-sleek Mercedes saloon?

Still, the Mercedes-Benz CLS is a large Mercedes saloon and the drive route back then featured many narrow, tertiary roads—perfect for a Smart ForTwo, not so perfect for the Mercedes four-door. For the most part, the CLS63 AMG overpowered every piece of tarmac in sight, so forming a truly accurate impression of how good (or bad) the car might be was difficult. (Yeah, I know—tough luck.)

Fast forward three years and the plan for the launch of the latest-generation CLS63 AMG has the feeling of déjà-vu all over again. The scenery, language and form of currency would be different, but the San Diego area is even less a Mecca for test-driving fast cars than rural Austria: The traffic can be thick and the fine officers of the California Highway Patrol can be an unforgiving lot.

But there is one road in particular, a sunny strip not far from the Mexican border that winds through a small mountain range in a national park. This road, nicknamed the Sunrise Highway, was the same one used by Lotus for the American launch of the Lotus Evora in 2010, so it was familiar territory. Better still, the Evora represents a solid benchmark for handling and performance—if the CLS63 AMG was in any way a slouch, this would be the setting that revealed the truth.

But let’s shift into park for a moment and talk numbers.

The new edition of the CLS63 AMG is a very different animal from its immediate predecessor. Of course, the styling has gone in a radically different direction...again. The original CLS saw the creation of an entirely new category of modern car—the four-door coupe—and its lines were striking, feminine and decidedly different from anything else in the Mercedes fleet.

The new CLS bears some resemblance to the original, but it has more in common with the latest S Class and E Class. While the coupe-like shape remains, the car is now far more muscular with a much taller front grille and more prominent haunches—in fact, it looks like an E-Class Coupe with two additional doors.

Under the skin, there have been other changes. The outgoing CLS63 AMG featured a 6.3-litre V8 petrol engine that developed 378 kW and 630 Nm of torque; the new version has a smaller petrol engine—a 5.5-litre V8—but it benefits from twin-turbochargers to create 386 kW/630 Nm of torque (for the standard model) or 410 kW/799 Nm (for the AMG Performance Package model). The performance variation comes from different boost pressures for the turbochargers.

The new engine is not just about boost pressures, though; it boasts a number of trick features including spray-guided direct fuel injection, four-valve technology with camshaft adjustment, full aluminum crankcase, air/water cooling and an automated stop/start system. Mercedes claims a 10% increase in fuel efficiency over the car’s outgoing 6.3-litre V8, which is none too shabby.

Also new to the CLS63 AMG are the SpeedShift MCT 7-speed sports transmission and sports exhaust system with dual chrome tailpipes. While many observers (including me) have been extolling the virtues of the dual-clutch automatic, a number of manufacturers clearly believe that there are ways to make the “regular, old automatic” equally as quick.

The truth be told, the MCT is not “regular” or “old”; it replaces the standard torque converter with a wet start-up clutch pack. This 7-speed also features four different drive settings: comfort, sport, sport plus and manual. The stop/start function only works in the comfort setting; the manual mode is operated through paddle shifters and won’t shift automatically even when the 6200-rpm redline is reached. To add even more authenticity to the picture, the MCT has an automatic double declutching feature and a race start function.

(While the traditionalists out there will bemoan the fact that the CLS63 AMG is “yet another automatic,” the brass at Mercedes-Benz make a strong point by saying they want to give customers maximum choice in how to drive their cars.)

Enough with the commentary, you’re probably thinking—how does the thing actually perform?

The answer: very, very well. Prior to driving the CLS63 AMG, I was expecting the car to be cumbersome, over-powered and largely unsuited to twisty roads; essentially, I was expecting more of the same thing I experienced with the last-generation model in Austria. I was wrong.

To be sure, this CLS63 has ample power—so much so, that event the “base” version can sprint from 0-100 km/h in just 4.4 seconds, while the performance package model shaves a further tenth off that already impressive time. The automatic is also quick, to be sure: When left in manual mode, it’s not a question of how fast the transmission shifts, it’s a question of how fast the driver can shift before the V8 starts bouncing off the rev limiter.

Over the course of the day, we had the chance to test out the AMG Ride Control sports suspension and its three settings. The consensus was that the firmest of the three, Sport Plus, was not as adept at handling ripples in the pavement as the next most extreme level.

For a billiard-table like race track, Sport Plus is just the ticket; for anything less than that, the Sport setting represents a nice balance of ride comfort and sporty performance. And then there’s the Comfort mode, for those who prefer cruising to catapulting.

Despite a very racy engine and transmission combination, the most impressive aspect of the CLS63 is its handling: It carves turns with the alacrity of a small sports saloon. In fact, despite our best efforts to incur the wrath of the local constabulary with some Lewis Hamilton-style cornering, the Mercedes was having none of it.

Even with the traction control system disabled, the car clung to the road with genuine tenacity—no significant slippage, just acres of grip and tonnes of cornering force. The fact that this large saloon was within sight of the real-world cornering capability of the Evora was a major surprise.

Of course, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG also comes standard with the requisite cachet, plenty of hi-tech add-ons (lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, sleepy driver warning et al) and more than a few luxury features to boot. But the key feature of this super-saloon is that it’s a genuine bruiser for the open road.

The 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG will be launched in Australia in June this year and local prices will be announced at that time.