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Model Tested: 2011 Mercedes-Benz CLS, V6 & V8 petrol and diesel, seven-speed automatic transmission
As luxury cars become more and more difficult to tell apart when it comes to the experiences they offer their occupants, design is becoming increasingly important in the drive to poach sales from rival manufacturers, unless you happen to be Porsche, obviously.
As if to prove this point, Mercedes is making a big deal of the looks of the new Mercedes-Benz CLS – a car that can rightly claim to have kick-started a marketplace revolution of sorts.
All the refinement of an S-Class with a more sporting silhouette, this elegant four-door coupe has sold consistently well, with about 30 percent of these going to fleet purchasers. Mercedes says “almost all customers chose the CLS for its distinctive styling”, so replacing it with a new model was always going to be a challenge.
When it was launched in 2005, Mercedes had this particular niche stitched up but now rivals like the Audi A7 Sportback and BMW 5-Series GT have got in on the act too, so the new CLS needs to cut a distinctive dash.
In the metal it does exude enormous presence. Its nose is reminiscent of the SLS-AMG supercar, and that is a good thing.
As your eye follows the lines of the beautifully contoured bonnet and along the shapely flanks, however, things get a little confused because the rear quarter is where it gets a bit ugly with a fussy and quite unnecessary pronounced wheel arch that’s supposed to hark back to Mercs of the 1950s.
From some angles the CLS looks wonderful, though – something that can’t be said of Porsche’s grotesque Porsche Panamera.
Inside the CLS it’s business as usual, which means a gorgeous cabin design, flawlessly executed and crafted from the finest materials. It’s a lovely place to spend time and craftsmanship seeps from every pore, which after years of questionable build quality is a blessed relief for Mercedes.
As you’d expect, there’s a plethora of gadgetry to keep driver and passengers entertained but it’s intuitive and simple to use and there’s more room in here than the outgoing model, too. The driver feels cosseted with a dashboard that swoops around, giving a sporty feel that’s quite in keeping with its coupe lines and everything is supremely tactile – you can’t help but touch the gorgeous, supple leather that covers practically every surface.
Initially there will be four engine choices: a 2.5-litre diesel, a 3.5-litre diesel, a 3.5-litre V6 petrol and, top of the range until the obligatory AMG model inevitably comes along, the 5.0-litre, V8 CLS 500.
But seeing as though such a high percentage of CLS sales have been made up of diesel engines, it’s perhaps surprising they bothered with petrol at all. The 250 CDI can return over 4.2L/100km (55mpg), while the punchier 350 CDI offers 5L/100km (47mpg), making it 21 percent more efficient than the current engine – it’s the one we’d go for and actually offers more torque than the big V8.
On the road the new CLS is supremely quiet, refined and comfortable. It's practically impossible to detect gear changes from the seven-speed automatic transmission and the selective damping suspension manages to smooth out the roughest of road surfaces while providing the driver with plenty of information – it’s a perfect mix of comfort and control which makes the CLS feel as much a driver’s car as a relaxed cruiser.
The engines, whether diesel or petrol powered, are silky smooth and feel effortlessly muscular, with plenty of torque providing mid-range grunt – even the 250 CDI feels plenty powerful, which for a car this size is no mean feat. There’s plenty of grip and if you opt for the active seats you get a reassuring squeeze from the side bolsters when you’re powering through the twisty bits. On a long stretch of motorway, at the touch of a button you can have yourself a massage, too.
Aerodynamics have been improved and various changes to both design and construction methods have resulted in a substantially quieter cabin, with wind roar practically eliminated. And it goes without saying that safety systems are present by the truckload.
Mercedes proudly points out that the optional LED headlamps are a world first insomuch as they offer full dynamic functionality. A total of 71 individual LEDs also do a decent job of replicating daylight in the pitch dark. But then, when you look at the many safety features we now take for granted in our cars, many of them started life in a Mercedes, so expect others to follow suit once again.
Lane Assist, Attention Assist, Blind Spot Assist, High Beam Assist, and Nightview Assist are just some of the systems on offer when you’re ticking the options list but Attention Assist is standard across the range.
The CLS options list also offers Pre-Safe, which basically alerts the driver audibly and visually if it thinks you’re about to hit something, slamming on the brakes if you don’t react when it thinks you should have. It would seem that if you’re deep of pocket when speccing up a posh German car these days you’re also incapable of dipping your own headlights or applying your own brakes.
Mark my words, sometime soon there’ll be Drive Assist on offer, where the car does absolutely everything, including dictating what you listen to on the radio and stopping when it thinks you’ve gone long enough without taking a leak. Which, in a car like the CLS, would be a great shame because it really is an enjoyable thing to hustle along a decent country road.
It doesn’t feel as big as it undoubtedly is and, with a new steering system debuted here turn-in is nice and sharp for such a big car. There’s definitely a more intimate feel, with more information being relayed through the wheel, which is a step in the right direction.
Pricing is still to be confirmed but it’s likely the new car will be no more expensive than the outgoing model. As an accomplished all-rounder, the new CLS delivers in spades.
Its styling may prove too challenging to some but Mercedes has succeeded in taking the key attributes of an already fine, desirable car and making it better in almost every respect.