The battle between the head and the heart-the analytical and romantic sides of our nature-is an eternal one. But in the car business, emotion sells cars to private individuals as effectively as numbers do to fleet managers.
In the late '90s, the designers at Mercedes looked at the four-door car and asked themselves what it might have in the 21st century. The answer resulted in a rewrite of the book that said this type of car had to be upright and staid. Taking the underpinnings of the then-new W211 E-Class and putting them through a Clark Kent-to-Superman act, what emerged from the design studio was the sleek Vision CLS concept car that stole the show at Frankfurt in 2003.
Since then, the world of four-doors has continued to change, and it seems the CLS was a catalyst of that change. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then VW's Passat CC is an unashamed CLS clone, albeit downmarket. And how did the Mercedes designers react to the fact that the CLS is now being challenged in the style stakes by new blood like the A7 Sportback and the forthcoming BMW four-door coupe? What would the second-generation CLS have to do to make an equally good living in the second decade of the 21st century?
The 2010 model year CLS would have to stand out from the crowd today as well as its namesake did in its debut year. The new car is better resolved as an overall concept, and much more sophisticated in the design vocabulary used in its detailing. Yet at the same time it appears all the more contrived for it.
Its nose treatment is very SLS-like and is probably the most aggressive face on any current saloon, perhaps even more so than the Maserati Quattroporte in this respect. This new face features the option of the first all-LED headlamps on any production car. This five-function Intelligent Lighting System with Adaptive High Beam Assist, which only dips the light closest to oncoming traffic, is also the most complex looking headlamp on the market.
The new car's more muscular stance is strengthened by wide tracks, which push the wheels close to the edge of the arches. Despite the more fussy body detailing, the aerodynamicists have done a good job in airflow management and the Cd of 0.26 is an improvement.
The new interior shows the evolutionary thought process was applied to the cabin too. As with the exterior, the cabin architecture is smart casual to the E-Class' formal and more upright idioms. Both in form and material look and feel, the CLS interior is more special, less obviously mass-produced. Of course as with all Mercedes models, there are different levels of trim that can be specified.
Both test cars were part of the limited edition launch series featuring matte gray paintwork and a unique Designo interior. These cars looked and felt very complete, with stitched leather on the dashboard top roll and black piano wood trim. The new three-spoke sports steering wheel also feels good in the hands.
Of equal importance is the extra cabin room. Although I'm just five and a half feet tall, I have always found the original CLS cabin rather claustrophobic. The new car is 20 mm wider in front and 30 mm wider in the rear, with a taller roofline. This extra room makes all the difference, while the reshaped doors also make it easier to get in and out.
On paper, the specification of the new-generation M276 3.5-liter V6 quad-cam motor could be mistaken for the Sport version of the outgoing M272 used in the SLK350 and 2008-onwards SL350. This is because both have output of 301 hp at 6500 rpm, although the new direct-injection motor in the CLS350 BlueEfficiency has 273 lb-ft of torque from 3500 to 5270 rpm compared to 258 lb-ft at 4,900 rpm from the M272 "Sport" motor.
All CLS variants use the 7G-Tronic automatic gearbox, now in its Plus version with electronic mapping that shifts up early when in "E" mode to maximize economy, as well as working with the standard ECO start-stop system. This is where things start to get complicated for a customer who has just sat down to tick the order boxes. The test cars just had an E-S button on the center console, and that simply chooses Economy or Sport modes for the gearbox and engine mapping.
You can order a sport steering wheel with paddle shifters, which was fitted to our limited edition models. On this wheel, you get M mode when you use the paddles, but the system then defaults back to the chosen E or S mode after a minute or so. To further muddy the waters, you can also order the AMG Sports Package, which features a flat-bottomed AMG steering wheel with aluminum paddles, and an E-S-M button for engine and gearbox modes in place of the S-C-M button on the previous model.
In normal driving, the new V6 is smooth and quiet, and is a refined and economical companion on a long motorway journey, delivering remarkable fuel consumption, along with a 6.1-sec 0-62 mph time.
However, when you extract the full performance of the car, the gearbox seems edgy and sometimes drops two ratios on kickdown. The engine also sounds and feels stressed at high revs, a far cry from the sweet and willing Sport V6 I remember in the SL350, which incidentally is not a lighter car.
Because of this, the CLS350 is not my favored variant. That honor rests with the CLS350 CDI and CLS500. The former boasts 260 hp and 457 lb-ft of torque and a 6.2-second 0-62 sprint.
For keen drivers with deeper pockets, the CLS500, with its bombastic performance and V8 growl, is the obvious choice. Powered by the 4.6-liter, direct-injection, twin-turbo M278 engine first seen in the recently face-lifted S- and CL-Class models, the CLS 500 has 408 hp from 5000 to 5750 rpm and 443 lb-ft of torque from 1600 to 4750 rpm. The new V8's extra 52 lb-ft and 22 percent better fuel economy are strong arguments in its favor. Still in a mild state of tune, it rockets the CLS500 to 62 mph in just 5 seconds. It is smooth and powerful, and has that wonderful V8 soundtrack on tap when you press the accelerator to the carpet. Like all V6 and V8 CLS models, its top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph.
Having just lived with an E500 coupe for a few days the week before, I have to say that the new engine is not as sharp in its response as the M273, nor does it have that hard, almost-AMG edge to it that is a feature of lighter Mercedes M273-powered models like the E500 and SL500. It makes up for this softer edge with a level of torque that leaves any car equipped with the older engine gasping in its wake. With twist peaking at just 1600 rpm, and seven closely stacked gear ratios, you have instant and palpable thrust on demand in any gear.
Where the V6 sounds and feels peaky, and irritates by dropping two gears at a time as mentioned before, the bi-turbo V8 simply thrusts the car down the road with minimal effort and no fuss. At the other end of the scale, a 201-hp CLS250 CDI will eventually appear in the price lists. This will be the first time Mercedes has ever offered a four-cylinder in the CLS range, but with the advent of the S250 CDI, it seems that anything is now possible.
While Airmatic suspension is standard on the V8 model, it is an option with other engines. As before, Airmatic automatically lowers the ride height by 15 mm over 62 mph irrespective of whether the suspension is in Comfort or Sport mode. In Comfort, the preferred mode for wafting along motorways, the car has a very high degree of ride comfort on all road surfaces, even with 19-inch wheels.
On twisty roads, Sport mode tightens up the primary ride nicely while retaining a high level of secondary ride comfort over short, sharp bumps. The lower roll angles and better damping control make full use of the variable steering ratio of the EPS (Electric Power Steering) system unique to the CLS.
According to Dr. Rudiger Rutz, senior manager of the Driving Dynamics team,this can vary the steering ratio from 12:1 to 16:1, and gives maximum assistance at low speeds. "The electric motor gives you 30 percent more assistance, changing ratios up to 90 degrees of steering lock, and then constant and reduced assistance over that."
According to Dr. Rutz, where the C218 CLS was largely the same under the skin as the W211 E-Class, save for slightly more sporting suspension settings, the C219 version has a different front axle arrangement with a higher roll center that makes a discernible difference to the way the car moves down a twisty road.
The difference lies in the adoption of the overall front suspension strategy from the E63 AMG. This features a semi-MacPherson strut and two lower links, one of which has a different angle from the normal E-Class for improved geometric precision under load. The 4Matic four-wheel-drive system is available as an option on the V6 and V8 models from the start, with a different hub carrier and a front differential.
The unique suspension layout makes a huge difference in the way the CLS drives. Where the E-Class is competent but unexciting, the CLS is more direct and engaging. It is now as much fun to drive as its looks are enticing.
The new CLS looks and feels special, and like the original from 2004, this is the eye candy in the showroom. But with its unique chassis settings and wide range of standard and optional state-of-the-art technical features, this car also walks the walk, at least with its more powerful engines.
With its larger, more airy cabin making it even more practical, the more purposeful looking new CLS may well even win over the small group who hesitated buying the original car. I predict that it will be an even bigger success than its predecessor.
Longitudinal front engine, rear-wheel drive
4.6-liter V8, dohc, 32-valve, bi-turbo
Multilink, AIRMATIC damper system, anti-dive (f/r), anti-squat (r), anti-roll bars
Internally ventilated rotors, ABS, Brake Assist, ESP
Length/Width/Height (in.): 194.5/74.1/55.7
Wheelbase: 113.1 in.
Dry Weight: 4,167 lb
Peak Power: 408 hp @ 5750 rpm
Peak Torque: 443 lb-ft @ 1600 rpm
0-62 mph: 5.0 sec.
Top Speed: 155 mph