The third generation and tech-loaded Mercedes CLS range returns to the sleek design language of the mould-breaking original. If the E-Class sedan bores you, then this might be your perfect car.
The Mercedes-Benz CLS is rightly billed as one of the company’s style icons, conceived as a sort of halfway point between coupe and sedan. The third-generation model launching now returns to the sleek design ethos of the 2004 original and away from its direct predecessor’s rebellious muscularity.
At five metres long, the new CLS has exaggerated proportions personified: a low roof, slim windows and wide haunches. A passion project for any car designer. The new model once again borrows its architecture from the more austere E-Class, but it also contains a significant chunk of technology trickled down from the latest S-Class.
Moreover, it has a couple of things all its own (for now), principally a new family of inline-six engines with a 48V electrical on-board power unit. There are no more V8s at all.
We’ll get the new CLS 450 version in Australia during the third quarter of this year, and the Mercedes-AMG 53 and ‘base’ CLS 350 a few months later. But we’ve already driven it…
Kicking off the range is the $136,900 CLS 350, then next there’s the $155,900 CLS 450, and $179,900 Mercedes-AMG CLS 53.
By comparison, the old entry point was the CLD 250d diesel at $115,355, meaning the new model kicks off $20K higher, climbing to about $140K for the CLS 400, $170K for the CLS 500 and $250K for the CLS 63 AMG.
There’s no lack of equipment, though.
There are two 12.3-inch screens running atop the dashboard, housed within one single thin piece of plastic. The left contains the digital driver’s instruments – complemented by a luminous head-up display – and on the right, the infotainment.
As well as 3D mapping with live traffic updates and 360-degree cameras, there are six ‘energising comfort modes’ in a sub-menu that calibrate the cabin’s 64 LED lighting colours, perfume distribution, seat massage vitality, seat temperature, and music choices.
For instance, if you choose the ‘joyful’ mode, the on-board computer scans the music on your paired device and on the car’s internal hard drive and finds tunes with an appropriate beat-per-minute rate.
There’s also a Training Mode, which gives you audible courses in muscle repair and mindfulness on long trips, prompting you to adjust your breathing and movements. It sounds passé perhaps, but it’s also true motoring luxury.
You get various trim patterns to choose from, with the fascia and door inlays trimmed in either tacky black plastic, or far nicer carbon-fibre-look or light wood bits. Perhaps the coolest elements are the turbine-like air vents that change colour as you adjust the temp.
The car's wireless smartphone charging pad is also particularly fast at restoring your battery.
In short, the interior design with its plethora of upstream features is every bit as glamour-packed and novel as the car’s concept-like exterior might suggest. Modern Mercedes-Benz eschews austerity, and no model represents this like the CLS.
As that low body suggests, there are also packaging compromises not found on the E-Class. Rear-seat leg room is fine, but even with roof sculpting there’s limited rear head room for anyone north of 180cm, and it’s not the easiest back seat to drop in to.
This is also the first five-seat CLS, but this middle pew is high and narrow, and straddles a big transmission tunnel hump. The boot is shallow but very long, and stores more than 500L.
For those after more practicality – not, we’d venture, a typical CLS prerequisite – we should note that Mercedes-Benz has axed the old Shooting Brake wagon, focusing instead on the more sensible E-Class All-Terrain crossover.
One area where the new CLS outpoints any Mercedes this side of the S-Class is with its suite of ‘Intelligent Drive’ active safety features. In its pilot mode the car will steer itself through corners on motorways, change lanes by itself in safety if you tap the indicator, and uses map data to calculate speed and steering input, albeit the latter bit won’t be in Australia.
By law the car prompts you to return your hands to the wheel every 10 seconds or so, but on a freeway or highway it feels capable of driving itself and matching traffic speed for far longer periods than that.
The car’s triangular headlights can also be left in high beam in traffic, with the car’s digital brain capable of switching off individual LEDs to avoid blinding other road users. The optional Ultra Range high beam produces the maximum intensity allowed by law, which is something we cannot wait to try on local roads come nightfall.
Powering the CLS range is a completely new family of engines. The CLS 450’s 3.0-litre inline petrol six makes 270kW of power and 500Nm of torque. Then it gets a little tricky. Deep breath.
There’s also an electrified starter/alternator that Mercedes-Benz calls EQ Boost, which delivers an extra 16kW and 250Nm briefly, and a 48V on-board electrical system instead of belt drives.
The engine is longitudinally mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission (called 9G-TRONIC) with torque converter, and the electric starter/alternator mounted between.
There are five driving modes including Eco that lets you ‘glide’ with the 48V unit running ancillaries instead of the engine, plus Comfort, Sport, Sport + and fully manual via the shifter paddles.
This version also comes matched with a 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system sending 69 per cent of torque to the rear axle, with adjustable ESC and traction-control responses at each wheel negating the need for any kind of regular diff lock.
Fuel economy on the new WLTP test method (Euro 6d emissions) that will potentially replace the NEDC is 23 per cent lower than the old CLS 500 V8, at 7.8L/100km, helped by the slippery Cd rating of 0.26. The claimed 0–100km/h time is 4.8 seconds. Quick.
Not as quick as the Mercedes-AMG CLS 53 version though (not 43, not 63).
The twin-turbocharged unit of the same 3.0-litre displacement makes 320kW/520Nm from 1800rpm, here with an electric auxiliary compressor/turbo (in tandem with the enlarged exhaust gas turbo), 250Nm EQ Boost starter/alternator and 48V power unit.
Turbo lag? Not here. That specific electric and gas turbo set-up sees to that.
This engine in the AMG model is mated with a 9G nine-speed gearbox with shorter shift times and the ability to double-declutch, and a more advanced fully variable 4MATIC+ AWD system using an electro-mechanically controlled clutch to connect the front axle.
The claimed 0–100km/h time is 4.5sec, and fuel use is 8.7L/100km. Which is pretty quick for a 1980kg porker.
Thing is, despite all this trickery, it’s not an AMG 63 series V8, and while its induction noise and exhaust crackles on overrun are characterful (albeit augmented by artificial noise inside the cabin), it’s more subdued than the previous CLS range topper.
Still, the imminent Mercedes-AMG GT 4-Door will rectify this, with its 3.2sec 0–100km/h sprint time.
As a driving experience, the CLS 53’s powertrain struck us as more convincing, with a gearbox calibrated to offer greater smoothness in comfort settings and more aggression at the other end of the spectrum.
We also briefly drove the CLS 350, with its 220kW/400Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder with smaller 10kW/150Nm EQ Boost/48V system, which actually felt very brisk and a little lighter over the front wheels.
Australia will not get either potent inline-six diesel option (outputs 210kW/600Nm and 250kW/700Nm), instead getting two inline-six petrol units and one four-cylinder petrol entry model.
All CLS models sold in Australia feature adjustable air suspension, and all have significant sound-deadening that makes them exceptionally quiet, even over coarse chip surfaces. It’s also relatively competent through corners for such a large and heavy car, though Mercedes’s focus on cruising comfort and dynamic competence over outright aggression is obvious.
Here’s a tidbit: the average CLS buyer in Australia is in their mid 50s, a little older than the average E-Class buyer.
No matter how you cut it, the new Mercedes-Benz and Mercedes-AMG CLS family clearly remains a sexy counterpoint to the E-Class range, at the expense of cabin practicality.
It fills the brief and gives a glimpse at the future, albeit one that requires a degree in mechanical engineering to understand. We could’ve written 50,000 words on this car, but 50 pictures and those preceding paragraphs tell the real tale better, right?