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Does the five-door Mercedes-Benz CLS Shooting Brake have the substance to back its style?

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Sometimes the word ‘estate’ doesn’t quite cut it, apparently. Not content with introducing us to the concept of a four-door coupé, Mercedes is insistent about reintroducing the ‘Shooting Brake’ moniker for the five-door variant of the likeable Mercedes CLS.

It’s amazing how quickly you get used to an idea. Most of us were rather taken aback when Mercedes first launched the CLS, but it slotted swiftly and easily into the range and our understanding. It came across as more dynamic than the last generation E-Class (2009-2016) on which it is based and almost as classy as (and undoubtedly more individualistic than) an Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Unlike its larger sibling (as with Audi’s Audi A6 next to the Audi A8), the CLS doesn’t say that its driver is on his way to an airport departure lounge.

Option in the smaller 18-inch wheels and air suspension to maximise your touring comfort

Quite what the Shooting Brake says is what we’re here to find out. Logic dictates that if you want an executive-sized Mercedes-Benz with ample room in the rear, you’d buy an E-Class estate. But logic frequently works in mysterious ways, or not at all, in this sector, and sometimes what a car says about its owner is as important as what it does.

 

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DESIGN & STYLING

Mercedes-Benz CLS Shooting Brake rear

Without mentioning any names (cough, Audi A7, ahem, BMW 6 Series Gran Coupé), Mercedes refers to the four-door CLS as a “template for numerous copycat designs” and expects this wagon variant to be the same again. It might have a point. It has had to scratch quite hard to uncover this particular niche, but with a healthy selling price, no niche is too small, if you can reduce development costs by borrowing from elsewhere within the range.

That is precisely what the Shooting Brake does, adding little other than taller bodywork to the rear of the four-door Mercedes CLS, which itself borrows rather heavily from an E-Class that was renewed not long before the Mk2 CLS’s 2010 introduction.

Big boned? Be wary of whacking your hips or shoulders on entry

We’re still unconvinced that this generation of CLS matches the sleekness and elegance of its predecessor, but the Shooting Brake is arguably an improvement on the saloon. “Every genuine car legend appeals equally to the heart and mind,” says Mercedes CEO Dieter Zetsche, apparently without any intent to exaggerate.

We wouldn’t put a CLS in the ‘legend’ bracket in its appeal, but it’s attractive enough. The rear overhang borders on the clumsy, in the view of some testers, but just as many were won over by the smooth grace of the upper window line.

The CLS Shooting Brake is the largest car spawned from this platform. Significant use of aluminium in its panels aims to hide that from the scales. It’s just 44mm short of being a five-metre-long car, and 16mm longer than the four-door. Neither E-class saloon (4868mm) nor estate (4895mm) broaches 4.9m, so it is perhaps no surprise that the CLS has a boot capacity of at least 590 litres.

Beneath the skin, the CLS rather more closely mirrors the mechanical layout of the E-Class. Three engine options – two diesels and one petrol – make up the range. Ours was the more powerful diesel, the CLS 350 d. All engines are mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission except the 350 d which is fitted with a nine-speed auto. Suspension is three-link at the front, multi-link at the rear, and while coil springs are standard all round on the CLS saloon, air springs are standard at the rear on Shooting Brakes (with all-round air an option).

INTERIOR

Mercedes-Benz CLS Shooting Brake interior

If you find the compromises on cabin practicality that the Mercedes CLS saloon imposes a little too much to put up with, the Shooting Brake probably won’t win you over. That said, you’re likely to be in the minority. Two of our testers are more than 6ft 3in tall, but only one complained about limited space. And that complaint wasn’t the result of restricted cabin space; it was more about the rather tight door apertures.

The CLS remains if not generously accommodating then roomy enough. Unless you’re very tall indeed, you’ll find just enough headroom in the front and a little more of it in the back than there is in the CLS four-door.

Mercedes' column-mounted gear selector feels cheap compared to the space-age dials and wands offered by rivals

The driving position is low, and dropping your backside down into it takes a little more care than in most executive wagons on account of the proximity of the pillars. But once you’re in, you’ll find that this is a cabin with so much else going for it. The high fascia and equally high waistline of the car act to cocoon you in what’s a very lavish, luxurious, immaculately hewn cockpit. Quality levels are excellent. And it’s beautifully lit. The optional ambient lighting adds real class after dark, and the footwell lamps for the back seats make it easy to spot items that have tumbled from pockets or bags.

How much space has the roofline extension added? You might be surprised. Although it’s relatively narrow and shallow, the boot is very long up to the rear seatbacks. Mercedes claims that, seats up, there’s more space than in an Audi A6 Avant or 5 Series Touring. We can believe it.

As for the standard equipment, there is one trim level - AMG Line. It adorns the CLS Shooting Brake with 19in alloy wheels, sports-tuned suspension, LED headlights, an aggressive bodykit and an automatic powered tailgate on the outside as standard, while inside there is DAB radio, LED ambient lighting, heated front sports seats, and Mercedes' Comand infotainment system.

If you think the diesels aren't fast enough, then there is Mercedes-AMG 577bhp CLS 63 S Shooting Brake, which adds folding mirrors, electrically adjustable front seats, keyless entry and go, a reversing camera and climate control, alongside all the AMG-styled drama you would expect such as red brake calipers, AMG decals and details, a sports exhaust system and a beefy bodykit.

 

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Mercedes-Benz CLS Shooting Brake side profile

Given the potent image of the Mercedes CLS, it would seem only right that the Shooting Brake has a bountiful power reserve to call upon. On the face of it, the 3.0-litre Mercedes V6 diesel has such a stockpile. Peak torque of 457lb ft is available from 1600rpm, and despite weighing just shy of two tonnes, the car will make it to motorway pace from 30mph in just 6.4sec.

However, there is a marked difference between mercilessly provoking the CLS on MIRA’s closed test tracks and living with it day to day in default mode. Leaving the automatic transmission in ‘D’ (or ‘E’ as it pointedly terms it), the Shooting Brake occasionally feels less light on its feet than our numbers suggest. Certainly, this is due to the throttle map, which, understandably, has been tuned with greater sympathy for economy than persistent readiness, thus making the car’s out-of-the-box performance slightly duller to the toe poke than you might expect.

The Shooting Brake is as happy cruising about town as it is covering large distances at high speeds

Clicking the gearbox into Sport eliminates the need to flex your ankle quite so far to the ground, but it’s an edgier state of being. For our money, a V6-powered CLS should be whisking its occupants from place to place more effortlessly and briskly, without strategic button pushing.

Obviously, you could opt to change gear for yourself, but the auto ’box suffers from ponderous downchanges and won’t hold on to a ratio. Our 0-60mph time of 7.0sec came up 0.4sec slower than Mercedes’ claim to 62mph, although the discrepancy could justly be attributed to a damp day and the winter tyres on our car.

The result is a luxury car that’s adept at a high street amble and gratifyingly swift when told to be. That would seem to cover the bases, and the CLS 350 d undeniably does, but its minor faults are located in those everyday moments of stodginess in between, and that is the slender difference between it and the tighter-wound mechanical flair found among close rivals.

RIDE & HANDLING

Mercedes-Benz CLS Shooting Brake cornering

Accounting for wheel size, Comfort or standard suspension tune and optional all-corner air suspension, there are more than 10 different rolling specifications for this Mercedes CLS. The one that Mercedes chose for our test car wasn’t the one we’d have asked for (19s, standard suspension). But within a few hundred metres, it showed that Mercedes’ dynamic priorities for this car were the right ones.

Those who look for a supple ride from their big Benz won’t be disappointed. Low-slung and exotic it may be, but the CLS Shooting Brake is pleasingly gentle and compliant. The secondary ride of our test car could have been better; those 30-profile rear M&S tyres do create a bit of roar, as well as the occasional thump over sharper edges. But you’ll give the car the benefit of the doubt, given the way it glides through larger dips and over cattle grids, for example, holding occupant comfort paramount at all times. Mercedes has done an excellent job of matching the ride characteristics of the coil springs on the front with the air springs on the rear. The ride is flat and harmonious, and absorbent at all times.

It's not the last word in driver thrills, but the CLS is accurate, secure and satisfying

It can still hunker down and take a corner, though. The CLS has direct and incisive steering and can be hauled into an apex much more easily than an equivalent E-Class. Grip is well balanced between the axles and it’s a generally accurate and quietly rewarding drive. When really pushed, you can find faults with its handling, but they’re not big enough faults to discredit what is a particularly fine grand tourer.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Mercedes-Benz CLS Shooting Brake

Assumed exclusivity is virtually the whole point of the CLS, so it’s hardly surprising that the line-up (and the Shooting Brake specifically) is more expensive than conventional competition. Even the most expensive Jaguar XF Sportbrake – arguably the model’s closest current rival – is almost £4500 cheaper to buy and no more costly to run. Of perhaps equally pertinent note is the fact that the similarly well endowed (and considerably more practical) E 350 d estate was nearly £15k less than our test car, and even the new generation E-Class Estate 350 d in AMG Line spec weighs in over £4000 less.

Apart from its grandstanding visual presence, the premium does buy a respectable amount of kit. The powered tailgate, LED lights, seven-inch Comand multimedia system and Parktronic parking assistance are all standard, as is leather upholstery and metallic paint.

A high list price should guarantee at least relative exclusivity

Mercedes claims the CLS 350 d Shooting Brake will manage a very reasonable 47.1mpg combined and emit only 162g/km of CO2. We averaged only 36.2mpg over our time with the car, and our touring figure of 42.8mpg also suggests that the Shooting Brake is likely to make good use of its 80-litre tank.

 

VERDICT

Mercedes-Benz CLS Shooting Brake rear quarter

Mercedes calls the Shooting Brake a special proposition for a special type of customer, one who does not wish to forgo sportiness or luggage space while travelling in style. That statement, and the model’s inflated price, would suggest that the Mercedes CLS has been compressed into an even smaller niche, but this is a discreetly rewarding grand tourer.

Granted, there are compromises. That slenderised rear is no substitute for a squarer estate back end on outright practicality, and there are quicker, more compelling driver options for less money. But familiar strengths – including its interior class, refinement, amiably effective dynamic and idiosyncratic presence – stand this car well apart.

The CLS Shooting Brake trades heavily on core Mercedes strengths, namely class and refinement

For some, that voguish distance will be insurmountable. As for our affections, they stop short of real fondness. To truly appreciate the Shooting Brake, you probably need to fall in love with its eccentricity long before you drive it.

 

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Mercedes-Benz CLS Shooting Brake First drives