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Does the Mercedes CLS lead the four-door coupé pack?

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When Mercedes-Benz first launched the CLS in 2004 it claimed it had invented a new market sector. That’s something most major manufacturers seemingly every few months these days, with varying degrees of credibility. But with the CLS four-door coupe, Mercedes seemed to have managed it.

Although there had been big two-door coupés in the Mercedes range before, the four-door Mercedes CLS genuinely was the first of a new line. Unveiled as a concept in 2003, the Vision CLS was clearly going to make production. The concept was a hit, and so was the production car. For a time it had the market to itself - some 170,000 were sold and only recently have Audi and BMW replied with the Audi A7 and 5 Series GT respectively. That made the CLS's replacement - this second-generation car - a formality.

Getting in to the CLS range isn’t cheap with the entry-level car approaching £50,000

Following the arrival of the last-generation E-Class, which the CLS uses as its underpinnings, Mercedes updated its four-door coupé. Again it is pitched a little above an E-Class in price and, again, its engine range is not dissimilar to the more staid saloon’s.

Getting in to the CLS range isn’t cheap, with the entry-level car approaching £50,000 in price, especially with options. All the diesel models wear Mercedes’ eco BlueEfficiency badges, the CLS 220 d kicking off the range, with the alternative diesel being the 350 d. Petrol power comes from the 400 models, while the storming 577bhp AMG-powered CLS 63 S (which unsurprisingly doesn’t get a BlueEfficiency badge) tops the range.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Mercedes-Benz CLS rear

We are not the arbiters of design taste, but it’s fair to say that, although the appearance of the original Mercedes-Benz CLS was very well received, we’re unconvinced that this new model has, thus far, quite garnered the same affection. Although it’s more aggressive, it’s a less pure shape than before but, as with the original, Mercedes deserves credit for manipulating E-Class underpinnings and considerable packaging demands into such a sleek overall profile.

There are, of course, a few changes to the platform to create the CLS, supposedly a more dynamic, athletic car than Mercedes’ very likeable but deliberately stoic executive saloon. Mercedes calls the crease line that starts above the front wheel arch a ‘dropping line’. It’s meant to be reminiscent of older Mercedes sports cars, from the days long before monocoque bodies.

Although it’s more aggressive, it’s a less pure shape than before

A more prominent nose than before is meant to ape AMG’s flagship SLS sports car. The fact that there’s more space behind it, providing better pedestrian impact properties, is a bonus. It’s also meant to visually enhance the length of the bonnet. In keeping with more sporting Mercedes, the CLS gets a massive star in the grille, rather than a diddy bonnet-mounted ‘gunsight’.

INTERIOR

Mercedes-Benz CLS interior

Interior compromises are few enough on the Mercedes-Benz CLS that it will be a rare occasion when the coupé element restricts usability as long as no more than four want to travel – there’s space in the back for only two. Rear passenger space is generous, though, with sculpted seats that are comfortable and snug while also offering plenty of leg, head and elbow room, even for two six-footers. Getting in and out will require some dexterity from rear passengers, though, due to the low, sloping roof.

In the front, there is a sense of subdued quality that has become the norm in modern Mercedes. Many elements are recognisable from the E-Class, including the main switchgear and control system, but the dash is unique to the CLS and makes for a suitably high-end appearance and atmosphere.

The CLS is still one of the most ergonomically sound cars to spend time in

On the equipment front, there is only two - AMG Line which is available on a majority of the range, while the CLS 63 S AMG gets its own trim level. The AMG Line trim endows the CLS with 19in alloy wheels, a sporty bodykit, a sport-tuned suspension, LED headlights and perforated front brake discs on the outside as standard, while inside there is heated front sports seats, alloy pedals, leather upholstery, DAB radio, EasyPack quick fold rear seats and Mercedes' Comand infotainment system.

Choose the only petrol in the range - the CLS 400 and you will get additional equipment thrown into the package, including an electric sunroof, reversing camera and keyless entry and go on the exterior, while electrically adjustable front seats and a Harman & Kardon stereo system installed inside. Decide you want more power then upgrade to the beasty 577bhp AMG-tuned CLS and not only do you get the charming 5.5-litre V8 under the bonnet, there is also a beefy bodykit inclusive of new front grille, spoiler and sports exhaust. Inside there is climate control, numerous AMG details and a racetimer.

As ever, the Mercedes ‘Comand’ system requires some familiarity and lacks the intuitive nature of, say, a decent touchscreen. But thanks to the well laid out switchgear elsewhere, it’s still one of the most ergonomically sound cars to spend time in.

The boot is where the biggest compromise is made in terms of practicality, with a respectable capacity of 520 litres but a long, narrow space that is awkward to use.

There is another element that makes the CLS one of the best executive cars on sale at the moment, and that is refinement. At idle we recorded a measurement for the CLS 350 of just 37dB. To put that in perspective, a Rolls-Royce Ghost produces 44dB, and the CLS betters the Rolls just slightly at 50mph and 70mph, too.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

3.5-litre V6 Mercedes-Benz CLS diesel engine

The six-cylinder versions of the second-generation Mercedes-Benz CLS are so impressive on so many levels that you might be inclined to overlook the entry-level four-cylinder CLS 220 d. But you’d be making a big mistake. Powered by a twin-turbo 2.1-litre diesel engine with 201bhp and a thumping 369lb ft of torque, the CLS 220 d not only has more than adequate performance but also gives usefully lower fuel consumption and CO2 emissions than any of its six-pot siblings.

The CLS 350 d gets an upgraded 3.0-litre V6 common rail diesel providing a good balance between performance, economy and refinement. Mercedes-Benz claims 0-62mph in 6.2sec – an improvement of 0.8sec over the earlier CLS 350 d. It’s through the gears, though, that the gains are more noticeable. The real strength of the petrol V6 in the 350 BlueEfficiency is not its outright performance but its clean, flexible power delivery and the ability to be silent and serene, or rasping and urgent according to demand.

You'd be making a big mistake by overlooking the four-cylinder CLS 250 CDI

The CLS 400 petrol uses a 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6, which produces 328bhp and 354 lb ft of peak twist, which is capable of knocking off 62mph in 5.3sec while still able to do 37.7mpg.

This is a five metre, near two-tonne four seater, capable of better than 30mpg on the run, and yet that also has 402bhp and can hit 62mph in under five and a half seconds. The CLS 63 S will take no longer than 4.4sec to reach 62mph according to AMG. We only managed 5.2sec but, given we spent half of that reaching the first 30mph, faintly glacial by the standards of these cars, we don’t doubt the 4.3sec claim one iota. Despite the tardy start our test CLS posted a sub 10 second time to 100mph. Make no mistake, the CLS 63 S is comfortably in the top division of saloon performance.

RIDE & HANDLING

Mercedes-Benz CLS cornering

Steer along an appropriate stretch of road in the Mercedes-Benz CLS and it rewards with a subtle and well resolved poise and response. It never feels like a sports car, but it feels tauter and more alert to driver input than an E-Class saloon. This is primarily down to firmer suspension and heavier steering, but the result is more than simply a less forgiving, low-roofed E-Class.

As with many other Mercedes models, the way the flagship CLS 63 S rides and handles make it an entirely different car. It comes close to matching the CLK Black Series for overall entertainment while maintaining the traditional AMG virtues of refinement and comfort. The CLS’s great agility and body control belie its substantial mass (1910kg), and it’s an engaging car to drive fast.

The CLS is generally less satisfying to drive than a Jaguar XF

The CLS’s standard suspension set-up includes two-phase passive dampers, whose tuning offers a firmer response to big chassis inputs (like big cornering forces) than to small ones (like town-speed ripples). Thus equipped, and on relatively modest 18-inch wheels, the CLS displays a well resolved blend of ride comfort and body control. In less taxing driving, the CLS settles as the softer damper settings cast imperfections aside. There’s a little patter over uneven surfaces, but its ride is more cosseting than, say, an Audi A7’s, so it’s as relaxing as you’d expect a £50k car to be.

At higher speeds, the accurate steering requires nothing but a nudge for lane changes, and its stability and refinement make it a seriously good cruiser. Turn up the wick and you’ll find the CLS’s turn-in is precise, and once the long nose is tucked in the car will hold its line well unless provoked. In dry conditions it is inclined to wash into gentle understeer if pushed too hard, although with the right approach you can allow the rear axle a little slip to aid a tighter line. It’s prone to shifting uncomfortably on its dampers if you hit a mid-corner bump, though.

Other quibbles? The steering’s weight is sometimes inconsistent at town speeds, and the CLS is generally less satisfying to drive than a Jaguar XF, but it offers as broad a palette of dynamic ability as we’ve come to expect in this class.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Mercedes-Benz CLS

Neither the Mercedes-Benz CLS nor any of its direct rivals is what you'd consider an affordable car. Despite the lack of convenience compared with the E-Class, the CLS is to all intents and purposes an executive-plus-priced car; think £50k rather than £40k for a mechanically equivalent E-Class.

The CLS is so well equipped that we’d expect most customers to live without the plethora of options available. Even navigation is standard on the 250 d, although you have to move up to V6-powered models to get the full COMAND system. Even then, the CLS is competitively priced next to an Audi A7 and the BMW 5 Series GT.

The CLS is competitively priced next to an Audi A7 and the BMW 5 Series GT

Most running costs should be class representative, with the four-cylinder diesel claiming an impressive 54.3mpg and 135g/km of CO2. That makes it a particularly effective company car, with performance figures not that far from the bigger diesel. Losing 1.3sec in the 0-62mph race is a fair result given the 350 d’s 46.3mpg and 160g/km. There’s at least a £3500 premium for the 350 d, too.

The V6 petrol CLS’s economy was excellent for a 3.5-litre V6 offering substantial performance. Overall, we averaged 29.1mpg, with a touring figure well into the 30s – the official claimed average is 40.9mpg.

Residual values of the CLS are reasonably strong and sit well above 40 percent after three years and average miles. The niche appeal of the CLS and the initial cost mean it doesn’t do quite as well as the E-Class on that score.

As with performance and handling, the CLS 63 S is so far removed from the standard CLS in comparison that it may as well be a separate model. We returned an average of just 19.8mpg (25.8 at a cruise) and it sits in the highest tax band despite the new twin-turbo unit being vastly more efficient than the old naturally-aspirated V8. Our test car also came equipped with £40,000 of options.

 

VERDICT

Mercedes-Benz CLS rear quarter

Curiously, with the Mercedes CLS aimed at being rather more dynamic than the conventional executive saloon on which it’s based, it is the car’s refinement that is its overall defining feature. Fitted with the smooth V6 petrol engine, the CLS is an exceptionally quiet cruiser and it’s pretty good with diesel power, too.

Perhaps that fits with the sleek exterior shape, if not the CLS’s intended dynamic ethos. Much as having a four-cylinder diesel under the bonnet of such a car with sporting intent also seems odd, it actually works well.

It's the CLS's refinement that is its overall defining feature

Think of the CLS not as a sporting four-door coupé, then, but as a modestly booted and very hushed executive saloon with a modicum of dynamic ability. It’s at its most impressive when cruising, rather than entertaining.

Those abilities combine with excellent fuel economy and an interior that’s a pleasure to spend time in: enjoy all these qualities, and don’t ask too much of the chassis, and you’ll find the CLS is in its thoroughly impressive element.

 

Mercedes-Benz CLS 2011-2018 First drives