Subtlety is more than enough

There must be a sticker on the back of the Batmobile that reads ‘My other car is a Merc CLS’. Truth is, the sexiest Mercedes saloon ever looks more like the product of DC Comics’ art department than Mercedes’ sometimes rather hesitant design studio.

Certainly it’s doubtful if a four-door saloon has ever exuded a more moody and menacing presence; the head-swivelling impact of our CLS 500 on pedestrians and passers-by was every bit as powerful as any supercar’s.

We like the CLS. Ex-European editor Peter Robinson enthused over the CLS 350 last September, calling the boldly styled four-door an ‘emotional Benz’ likely to win over those who find the BMW 6-series and Jaguar XJ cabins too restrictive.

Then the monstrously quick 469bhp 5.4-litre supercharged V8 CLS 55 administered a bloody nose to the BMW M5, not only refusing to be out-dragged by the 500bhp M-car but also handling with a suppleness and athleticism alien to the identically-engined E 55.

And it was the car with that mighty hand-built AMG engine I reacquainted myself with to establish some benchmarks before trying what, on paper, should be the real-world star of the CLS range, the naturally-aspirated 306bhp, 5.0-litre V8.

The first (and perhaps most compelling) reason for choosing the 500 is that at £52,115 it costs just over £20k less than the 55. All right, you sacrifice enough grunt to power a hot hatch and you will most emphatically be done over by an M5 in a straight line. But it’s hard to think of another circumstance in which 155mph and 0-62mph in 6.1sec is slow.

Where the 55 is brutally fast, the 500 is deceptively fast. That is, your neck muscles get a slightly easier time of it but when you look at the speedo – along with the rest of the dials, the most attractive Mercedes has produced in many a year – you find yourself travelling about 20mph faster than you thought. The effect this extra dimension of refinement has on your driving is profound.

In the 55, you’ll find almost any excuse to toe it for a hit of accelerative violence and V8 yowl, however short the straight. In the 500, the temptation evaporates; you use the ample performance when you need it. Progress is smoother, quieter, softer-edged, more easily measured.

Partly, this is because the electronics that support the engine don’t have to work so hard. In the 55 the transmission and traction control aren’t quite up to containing the fury of the supercharged engine when it goes ballistic. The 500 is less savage and more relaxing, aided by the imperceptible cog-swapping of the 7G-tronic seven-speed auto transmission in place of the 55’s old-tech five-speeder.

Moreover, with fewer kilos in the nose and less-aggressive footwear and suspension settings, the 500 rides more smoothly and quietly on any of the three electronic damper settings. No, it can’t generate the thrills and grins of the 55, but it is the better car.

David Vivian

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