The new CLS is, according to Mercedes-Benz, a "four-door coupe." Okay, I'll agree to the four-door part, but "coupe"? The CLS indeed does have a curvaceous roofline evoking the design of a classic sports coupe, but it has the four doors, interior dimensions and luggage room of a capacious sedan. Ultimately, who cares what you call it, as the CLS is the sexiest car from Mercedes-Benz since the gullwinged 300 SLs of the 1950s. It's a delight both to the eye and to the driver.
The new four-seater CLS (adults easily fit in back) was penned as the result of the question, "What can we do to modernize the concept of a luxury coupe?" A full-size model was first shown at Frankfurt 2003 and drew raves for its eye-catching sensuality, convincing the Mercedes board of its appeal to...whom? Was there a gap in the lineup that had yet to be filled?
Mercedes thought so and is preparing to sell 30,000 of the CLS worldwide in this, its first full year of production. The lion's share is coming to the U.S., in both CLS 500 or CLS 55 AMG versions, and buyers are expected to be those who prize style as highly as substance in their lives, and those to whom driving is more recreation than daily drudgery.
The CLS 500 debuted in the U.S. in January and the CLS 55 in February, and though prices hadn't been announced when this article was written, figure the tariffs to fall between E and CLK models below and S and CLs above, with a correspondingly higher sticker for the AMG version.
Though the CLS shares many components with existing Mercedes models, the amalgamation is far more evocative than most "parts-bin" projects. Designed to attract "younger, more active" buyers to the Mercedes fold, the CLS 500 competes in the U.S. with the Lexus GS 430, Jaguar XJ8, Audi A6 and BMW 5- and 6 Series, while its European brethren (which includes the not-imported-here CLS 350) also goes up against the Alfa 166.
To some carmakers, it might have been enough just to have designed the voluptuous body and then wrapped it around an existing platform, especially if the platform were as accomplished as those from Mercedes. It works differently in Stuttgart. Every new car, regardless of its lineage, carries forward the company's technological richness and then adds to that wealth with new touches that often go unnoticed by the casual buyer, and the CLS is a prime example of this evolutionary dynamic at work.
To begin from the outside, the clearcoat layer of the car's paint utilizes nano-technology to suspend untold numbers of ceramic particles into the paint binder. As the liquid paint hardens, the ceramic particles form a dense, regular structure on the surface of the paint, which Mercedes said increases scratch resistance by 300%.
Increasing strength and reducing weight is almost always a project engineer's overriding concern. To help accomplish that juggling act for the CLS, almost half of the steel bodyshell is built from high-strength alloy sheet steel, some of which features a new "dual-phase" microstructure to increase strength and resistance to high loading forces. Reducing the entire structure's weight was partly accomplished through the judicious use of aluminum, including for the parcel shelf, the front-end module member and the panel aft of the rear seatbacks. Even the spare wheel well received attention; it's now comprised of a fiber-reinforced plastic for further weight savings.
Plastic comes into play below the car's floor as well, replacing PVC as the underbody cladding. Not only does it help resist stone chipping, its design aids aerodynamics, providing a smoother surface and eliminating virtually all air turbulence. The car's overall excellent Cd of 0.31 was a goal from the start of the project, even when the styling department was in the process of designing the coachworks. The shape of the front and rear aprons, hood, C-pillars and luggage deck all contribute to a more slippery surface, yet these components also appear as well integrated into the car's appealing looks as the three-pointed star on the nose.
Unseen elements which also contribute to optimize progress through the air include plastic elements in front of the front wheel arches to improve airflow across the front axle links, aerodynamic cladding on the rear axle spring links, and mini-spoilers in front of each wheel to reduce dynamic pressures at the tires and improve airflow around the wheels. Even the windshield wiper system received a dose of new technology. The dual-wiper arms were refined in the wind tunnel. Called aero wipers. they feature a new mounting system and integrated spoiler for better wiping and less noise.
Okay, enough of the tech-geek stuff. Let's turn to the more sybaritic aspects of this delicious package. The CLS has the most inviting interior yet from Mercedes-Benz. The view forward is dominated by an expanse of burr walnut that stretches almost from pillar to pillar. Finished in a silk matte to differentiate it from the high-gloss finish of the usual Mercedes interior trim, its surface is broken by recessed center air vents, the control panel for the standard (in America) Thermotronic automatic four-zone climate control and the main instrument cluster, which, along with each dial, was given a chrome surround. The gauges themselves were covered by a special mineral glass for optimum readability.
The fit and finish is impeccable and looks custom-tailored down to the arrangement of the breaklines indicating the modular assembly of the dashboard. Notice, for instance, how the front passenger-door airbag's lines blend perfectly into the upward sweep of the walnut panel. Neat and elegant.
Everywhere your eye rests is aesthetically in touch with the car's intent, which is to make the owner feel a bit special, a bit different from the average Mercedes buyer. The CLS owner is also likely to be one who will stretch a car's dynamic limits, and the CSL does indeed deliver ride and handling inferred by its sporty looks.
Lower, with a wider track, the chassis is suspended by a front four-link setup that borrows heavily from the E-Class, while the rear multi-link suspension owes its heritage to the SL's axle. Airmatic DC air suspension is standard, of course, along with Sensotronic brakes, ABS, Brake Assist and ESP. It's all very impressive and does its stuff with the smoothness of a well-tuned instrument, which is a perfectly apt description of the powerplant as well.
Five liters big, with three valves per cylinder, its oversquare dimensions (97x84mm) produce 306 bhp at 5600 rpm and 339 lb-ft of torque between 2700 and 4250 rpm. As with most Mercedes, the vehicle speeds the CLS produces are deceptive because of the excellent noise control from both above and below the floorpan. Zero to 62 mph takes about 7.0 sec. and maximum speed is limited to 155 mph.
A new seven-speed automatic transmission called 7G-TRONIC is standard in the CLS and was developed to improve acceleration and mid-range power, lower consumption and increase shift comfort. In two words, it works. Kickdown is greatly improved through a new direct downshift capability, which means the transmission can bypass as many as four gears when downshifting instead of having to pass quickly through each one. There's also a new torque converter lockup clutch to help prevent driveline power losses, even in first gear, and a manual shift mode lets the driver choose the gear via buttons on the steering wheel or with the shift lever.
A high level of standard content can be augmented by very few options. American-spec CLS models get 18-in. five-spoke alloys with 245 section tires up front and 275s in the rear; leather upholstery; sunroof; auto-dimming rearview mirror; four-zone climate control, Teleaid, a mini-spare and, of course, a full complement of safety features beginning with eight airbags.
But that's all stuff that can be fitted into the wonderful E-Class sedan or wagon. There are other reasons for slipping into the CLS, like the reason you buy Italian shoes or French haute couture. It's because style is very much a part of its substance.
Likes* Loveliest body from Mercedes since the gullwing* Interior of bespoke quality* Engine runs like handcrafted clockwork
Dislikes* Seven-speed automatic (it's not all that bad, but give us one of M-B's great new manuals as an option)
Wow Factor* The best blend of styling and interior space in the luxury/sports market