Best AMG yet? It's a CLS call

Mistake. Thirty seconds of wheel-time in the new CLS 55 AMG was all it took to understand that this is the AMG hotrod we should have compared with BMW’s new M5. Not that a CLS super-saloon was on hand three weeks ago (Autocar, 21 September) but, with the benefit of all-knowing hindsight, the far more sporting CLS would give BMW’s new icon a tougher fight. No, we’re not saying CLS AMG would triumph over M5 – that verdict must wait for another comparison – but the fight would be closer, more compelling.

Judged as a sporting saloon, the CLS 55 AMG feels quite different (and superior to) the E 55. Ironic this, for it is their very commonality under the sheet metal that permits the AMG version to arrive just four weeks after the launch of the regular 350 V6 and 500 V8 CLSs, though all three versions go on sale simultaneously in the UK, early next spring. Normally, the gap between Merc and AMG versions is at least six months.

Just goes to show what can be achieved by fine-tuning the chassis. The key to the CLS’s more fluent handling is the 10 per cent quicker steering rack (not surprisingly, it also becomes standard on the E 55 from November production), fitted to all variants. For the CLS, AMG stiffened the rack’s mounting bushes to add further precision to the helm. Mercedes’ Airmatic suspension is standard on the CLS 55, the ride height set 10mm lower. To further emphasise the low-slung coupé-like styling, the test car’s new twin five-spoke 19-inch alloys (18s are standard) bulge out to fill every millimetre of the wheelarches. Can’t wait to see LA’s first blinged CLS 55 on 22-inch chrome rims.

AMG’s engineers also played with the front dampers, but left the spring rates and rear dampers alone, although the rear suspension is now mostly steel (rather than alloy), and driveshafts and prop shaft reinforced to cope with the added torque. The dampers are 30 per cent stiffer in compression and 10 per cent stiffer in rebound (in all three modes). Subtle changes only, but they verify the regular CLS chassis’ more driver-oriented character. The standard tyres come from the SL55, but the test car rode even more aggressive 245/35 ZR 19 front and 285/30 ZR19 rear Pirelli P-Zero Rosso rubber.

Unsurprisingly, AMG selected its near-ubiquitous (six-model strong) 5.4-litre supercharged V8 for the speediest version of the CLS. Its numbers match those of the E 55 – 469bhp at 6100rpm, and the gut-wrenching 516lb ft of torque from 2650-4500rpm that is the real secret to the effortless, big-hearted, performance. Despite the CLS’s 85kg weight penalty over the E 55, Mercedes’ claims identical performance – 0-62mph in 4.7sec. The shock when we first drove this strident engine in the SL55, and revelled in its monstrous linear acceleration, has receded through familiarity and in the face of ever-more-powerful AMG models. But don’t let this detract from its capacity to deliver true speed in any circumstances, at least on the dry roads we experienced during the launch.

If anything, the new CLS enhances the latent potential of the engine. The new model’s character is less point-and-squirt, more precisely flowing, more intuitive, than the E 55’s. The cohesive tautness of the CLS means it feels more sorted and controlled than the E 55, so speed can be carried more easily into, and through, corners. The quicker steering reduces the sensation of understeer, though this remains the dominant handling trait. Still, the various electronic interventions allow you to slightly alter the car’s stance by means of the throttle, braking the inside wheel or wheels, before power is cut. The result is a more natural driver’s car, with less obvious computer manipulation than in the E 55. And that allows you to push harder: the car’s broader sweet spot is easy to find, and far easier to enjoy.

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Mercedes’ air-suspension works a treat, too. The steel-sprung CLS 350 impressed, but the Airmatic’s ability to soak up intrusions, control body movement and deliver a supple ride is even more impressive. AMG persists with offering a choice of three damper settings to cater to the marketing department’s insistence on overt technology (though experimentation revealed the hardest setting ruins the ride). Subtle development has reduced the electro-hydraulic braking’s over-servoed all-or-nothing pedal feel. The massive cross-drilled discs (eight-piston front calipers, four-piston rear) kill speed quickly, and are now sufficiently progressive to allow the driver to softly brush the pedal, meaning you can set the car up for the next corner without pitch upsetting the balance. Gradually, Mercedes is shifting various engines to the new seven-speed automatic. Trouble is, AMG is still developing a stronger version capable of absorbing the supercharged V8’s torque. Which means the CLS retains the old five-speed auto, probably until 2006. Inevitably, a decade’s progress guarantees the old ’box can’t match the fluency of the new one; it’s occasionally caught out by a sudden throttle lift or power application that induces a jerky shift.

AMG’s restrained interior treatment builds on the beautifully crafted, lush CLS. Body-hugging bucket seats get more lateral support, Alcantara suede trim, piping and double stitching on the Nappa leather add a touch of sporting luxury. Even so, with a price tag of around £68,000, it comes as a surprise to find Mercedes’ Comand sat-nav system and parking sensors are among a long list of options and not fitted as standard.

AMG admits that once word gets out about the overall excellence of the dramatic new CLS 55, sales are certain to be at the expense of demand for the E55. Despite the anticipated cannibalisation, they expect to shift 3000 of each next year. We’d wager the move to the CLS is going to be even stronger. And we can’t wait to see the new Merc go head-to-head with the M5.

Peter Robinson

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