It’s not unreasonable to say that Mercedes-Benz invented the concept of a “four-door coupe” when it first introduced the CLS-Class back in 2004. That E-Class-based car was notable for its reasonable rear legroom, a plunging roofline…and a decidedly un-coupe-like four doors, which led to a design trend that’s been annoying pedantic car writers ever since.
But if you can ignore the merits of that argument, the CLS — now in its significantly curvier third generation — is a striking car to behold. It looks long but lean, aggressive yet practical, and all the while maintaining a strange sense of being exotic. (Though that last point is perhaps owed to the fact that Mercedes sells surprisingly few examples of the CLS; in 2017, the whole model line barely outsold the never-seen-it-on-the-street AMG GT sports car in the US.)
The most intriguing version of the still-fresh CLS-Class, however, must be the CLS53 AMG, which pairs the swoopy styling with AMG’s newest Goldilocks-level performance. It’s not the earth-ripping V8 power of the 63 series, it’s not the basic CLS450 spec…so it must be perfect, right?
The Good: The CLS53 shows off the variety of upsides that come with sexing up a German sedan and putting 429 horsepower in it. The engine is fantastic — one of the best implementations of modern downsized-and-turbocharged powerplants — and the handling makes the car feel smaller than it actually is. The interior styling is cribbed almost entirely from other Mercedes-Benz models, and like all of them, it makes for an incredibly pleasant place to sit. Likewise, the exterior styling is more hits than misses.
Who It’s For: The CLS53 is tailor-made for someone unwilling or unable to pick a side. Want enough power to get in trouble but not enough to test your life insurance policy? Want fun styling without giving up real back seats? Want high features tech without ditching internal combustion? You’ve found your car.
Watch Out For: There are some styling aspects, like the rear bumper and front fascia, that don’t particularly work to this reviewer’s eye, but that’s all subjective. That said, for such a jack-of-all-trades car, the suspension is too stiff and the exhaust too loud — seemingly ported over from the speedier, less-well-balanced end of the AMG spectrum.
Review: My venue for testing the CLS53 — a long-range cruiser if there ever was one — was a drive from New York City down to Charlottesville, Virginia, a round trip of about 850 miles. After arriving, my dad, drawn in by the curves and cocaine-tastic white paint, initiated the car-evaluation-walkaround that only dads are capable of. After a couple minutes of poking around, he paused and said, “Not the worst way to spend $80,000.”
The core premise of the CLS53, of course, is compromise. It attempts to be the best of all worlds in pretty much everything it does: handling, comfort, power, speed, sportiness, price, size, space, even emissions. Naturally, because of how silly of a plan that generally is, it falls on its well-sculpted face in a couple of these categories. But surprisingly, the CLS 53 nails a lot of them.
The third-generation CLS-Class’s looks definitely improve on what was already a pretty attractive formula. In profile, the CLS53 is a very pretty car, justifying how this kind of coupe-ish styling became a thing 15 years ago. The back is where most of Mercedes’s latest design language comes into play: it’s super-curvy, with a suitably sporty little ducktail spoiler. That being said, the US-spec version is hampered by two goofy little tack-on plastic bumpers surrounding the license plate. The rest of the exterior carries over more of MB’s coupe styling than sedan looks, but at times it can be a bit of a strange mashup. The front end, for example, served up Ford Mustang vibes every time I looked at it.
The interior, likewise, commits fully to being design-forward, and damn, do the results look great. Big swooping forms, wood carved to mold around the futuristic vents, the best steering wheel in the business and a pair of gigantic LCD screen that seem to merge into one to span from gauge cluster to the infotainment system. Tech-wise, it’s the same as every other well-equipped Mercedes on the market — think the responsible older brother of a Tesla. No touchscreens, carefully measured self-steering capabilities on the highway — but most of the fun stuff is there, down to the reconfigurable LED ambience lights.
The strongest indications that you’re in the sportier, AMG-enhanced CLS come from both the cute red stripe at 12 o’clock on the steering wheel and the half-dozen buttons in the central console allowing you to tweak the suspension, engine, transmission and loudness coming out the tailpipe. Though as far as I can tell, you can basically just forget them once you set everything to the Individual mode; I spent just about every mile in the comfiest suspension setting (anything else will turn your pelvis into powder), the most aggressive engine setting (if you’ve got it, flaunt it), and the quiet, or “Balanced,” exhaust setting.
A quick note on that: the alternative to the “balanced” exhaust is called “Powerful.” That setting is loud enough to take you from amused to embarrassed pretty quick, especially when some guy pulls up next to you in a -63 series or a BMW M5, both of which can sound more subdued but will ruin the CLS53 off the line.
Performance-wise, the car is a bigger blast than its middleweight status might make you think. It’s not an obscene, overpowered manchild machine like the 63 AMGs; it’s a little more measured, a little more usable, a little less brutal. It’s a big, heavy car, but the new inline-six that’s the defining feature of the 53 series is a bit of an engineering marvel. M-B takes an already-decent 3.0-liter engine and adds a twin-scroll turbo with an electric auxiliary compressor (which brings more boost at lower rpm without compromising top end power) and a weird little electric starter-generator whose a torque-filling capability isn’t crazy-noticeable but allegedly adds 21 horsepower. The net result is 429 horsepower, with 384 lb-ft of torque at a delightfully low 1,800 rpm.
Dynamics are maybe the area where the CLS53 is the most of a compromise — it’s gotta live up to coupe handling and sportiness expectations, while being bigger and more comfortable like a sedan. But in a testament to Daimler’s engineering teams, it works. If anything, it’s probably biased a little too much towards coupe sharpness — a fact that became clearer after 14 hours of high-speed road tripping.
Verdict: All told, the Mercedes-Benz CLS53 is a perfectly reasonable way to spend $80,000 or so on a car. Certainly, nobody could accuse you of being irrational; it does just about everything well. But there’s room to have a little more fun in this life. After all, a smaller, sharper Mercedes-AMG C63 S coupe or Audi’s RS 5 Sportback are about the same price. Who really wants to be Goldilocks?
2019 Mercedes-AMG CLS53 Specs
Powerplant: 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six with electric starter-generator hybrid assist; nine-speed automatic; all-wheel-drive
Torque: 384 pound-feet
0-60 MPH: 4.4 seconds
EPA Fuel Economy: 21 mpg city, 27 mpg highway
Mercedes Benz provided this product for review.
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