You may have seen a heck of a lot more coupes out on the road without even knowing it. Lately, automakers have been playing fast and loose with the descriptor to jazz-up products in their portfolio that don’t meet the criteria. Now, even some SUVs are “coupes” because they’re sleek and sporty on top of being practical. If you want to trace this trend to its roots, you’ll probably end up staring at the Mercedes-Benz CLS. “14 years back 2004, we actually invented the segment of the four-door coupe,” said Bernie Glaser, Head of Product Management at Mercedes-Benz USA. Mercedes says this means they “combined the elegance and dynamic feel of a coupe with the comfort and functionality of a sedan.”
The problem is that the CLS was perhaps too successful at this mission, prompting Mercedes to consider that it should (and indeed does) endeavor to bring these characteristics to all of its sedans. And now the CLS is in danger of getting lost in a segment it helped create.
The Good: The inline six, coupled with EQ Boost, made for smooth travels, enhanced by the atmosphere manufactured throughout the interior. Call it corny, but the ambient lighting and the scent-infused climate control works well to set the tone.
Who It’s For: Anyone who wants a little more grunt than the CLA and the E-Class. Again, the straight-six motor is the main draw, second only to the styling that’s designed to hook those who have an eye for such things, though it may put off those who don’t. Also, anyone who wants to engage in debates on how their mid-size four-door sedan is a coupe until the end of their lease.
Watch Out For: Extra engine prowess is hindered by the focus on comfort. Wait for the AMG version or seek out stickier tires as a decent half-measure. The dual screen surfboard is packed with more graphics and information than occupants will know what to do with. A more user-friendly user interface would make the myriad options, settings, and configurations much more easy to sort while on the move. It certainly pushes into distraction territory.
Alternatives: The Audi A7 (or S7, for the AMG CLS 53) would be a serious rival for the CLS to counter, though the BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe is more analogous to this new Mercedes.
Review: The new CLS is the third generation of the car, which carries forward an unmistakeable profile that distinguishes itself from its brethren in the Mercedes profile. A long arch sweeps from back to front, ending at a shark-nosed front fascia that will be the face of newer Merc models in the near future. That arched line has been the defining characteristic of the CLS since the first one, and its what splits people down the middle about its looks: you love it or you hate it. For the “love it” crowds, it’s an added touch that makes it pop in a way that speaks to their aesthetic whims. If your local Mercedes dealerships were art galleries, The S-Class would be a Caravaggio, and the CLS would be a Matisse.
This new CLS also sheds some of the contours and lines that have been prolific in car design in recent years, opting for fewer edges and creases in a style dubbed “sensual purity” that is highlighted by pillar-less doors and narrow headlights. There’s been extra attention to the interior design, too, particularly in a market where sophisticated comfort is status quo for this segment. Mercedes knows it needs to differentiate itself, and it does so with, among other things, a flowing wood trim piece that stretches from door to door. It’s surrounded by turbine style air vents and every crease is crammed with fiber optics for ambient lighting. 64 color combinations are available, and the lights even change from “hot” or “cold” whenever the interior temperature is adjusted. It’s the first in many ways the CLS interacts with the passengers.
Combining the ambient lighting, scent-infused air conditioning, and seat massage functions, the CLS has an “energizing comfort” setting whereupon different programs will stimulate the senses depending on the mood you’re after. It’s a nice piece of luxury theater that won’t be part of anyone’s daily life, but it’s interesting to see the how far out of the box a luxury automaker will go for ideas to stay ahead of the game. All in all, the CLS succeeds in providing a lovely, comfortable environment to sit in while on the go. Like its “coupe” tag, the rear seats push the CLS into definition-stretching territory by claiming three additional people can sit in the back. This technically makes the CLS a five-seater, but I’d have a hard time reconciling that to be the case if I was the fifth passenger.
Furthering the tech is the 12.3-inch dashboard display that can be paired with another 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster, both of which make up a glass “surfboard” of information. Inputs are either made through steering wheel buttons, voice command, or with the center column touchpad and click wheel. There is such a wide array of menus and settings to go through that your head will spin, but thankfully there are physical shortcut buttons to quickly jump to navigation, media, or other settings for on-the-go access. Even so, it can sometimes be a little overwhelming and confusing as to which menu or sidebar you have access to. Both screens share the same large glass front, but they’re surrounded and separated by a thick bezel that doesn’t conform with the fluid aesthetics of the interior.
The intelligent drive features that have made their way from the S-Class to the E-Class now find themselves a part of the CLS. It’s a package made up of the semi-autonomous driver aides we’ve come to expect from sophisticated luxury vehicles: lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control and collision avoidance alerts. You’ll be glad to have many of the pre-safe systems in case the worst happens – systems that mitigate injuries as much as possible – but some of the avoidance tech leaves much to be desired in certain real-world conditions. For instance, during a test of these systems on a traffic-heavy highway portion, the pre-safe “impulse side” was triggered. This meant that during a lane change, the car detected a car adjacent to me and “pulsed” me back towards the lane I was departing. Had there been a car there that I somehow didn’t see, I’d be singing this system’s praises, but as there wasn’t one, it was panic-inducing enough for me to switch it off – permanently if this was a car I purchased.
Under the hood is the first inline-six power plant that Mercedes has had in 20 years. The 3.0-liter turbo six-cylinder engine sends a substantial 362 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque to either the rear wheels or all four in the 4matic. It makes its way through a nine-speed automatic. If the inline-six wasn’t an interesting feature on its own, it’s supported by a 48-volt electric motor integrated into the starter generator. While it can provide a boost of up to 21 horsepower, don’t expect it to deliver an extra blast of speed like the CLS’ Formula 1 cousins. Instead, it mitigates turbo lag and delays when starting back up when the engine’s automatic start-stop feature kicks in at intersections. Naturally, it assists in fuel-saving measures and even gives the CLS the ability to engage into a “glide mode” during certain flat-or-downhill stretches, shutting the engine off and keeping the CLS coasting along well enough to delight even the most discerning hypermiler.
Dialed up to full performance, the CLS is satisfyingly engaging. Steering noticeably firms up, as does the suspension, and it ekes out acceleration quick enough to want more, yet not be disappointed. It’s attuned for the right amount of fun anyone attracted to the CLS would need. the EQ Boost does help smooth out turbo lag, but there’s enough delay in the power delivery to notice, once you get the car up to speed. The ceiling for performance is lowered even further by the standard set of Goodyear tires fitted to the 19-inch wheels. The four-door felt like it could deliver more control than the set could allow, forcing me to hold back during some of the more demanding switchbacks. The more I pushed, the more I reconciled with the feeling that the restrictions imposed on the CLS were deliberate to favor comfort over agility. It only later occurred to me that the AMG version was going to be the version to tip the balance into performance’s favor. The AMG CLS 53 will pack the same straight-six, but will be enhanced to provide 429 hp and 384 lb-ft of torque, hitched along with a speedshift nine-speed gearbox and all the other AMG goodness Mercedes can slap on. It’ll be interesting to see how the CLS shapes up when set up for its full potential.
Verdict: Its clear that the CLS was balanced to favor comfort and luxury over barnstorming agility, and that’s perfectly fine. In those regards, the CLS presents itself confidently. The divisive styling works better in this iteration than in the past, though whether it’s enough to win detractors over is yet to be seen.
Regrettably, the biggest issue with the CLS has to do with Mercedes’ propensity to make sure there’s a car to suit every need, and the overlap that it causes makes it hard for cars like the CLS to stand out. The inline-six, with its extra grunt and EQ boost functions, are the highlights here, as well as the S-Class sourced safety features, though some functions won’t be to everyone’s taste. Pricing will be a major determining factor for those in the showrooms trying to wade through the alphabet soup of the Mercedes catalog when it arrives this fall, but it has yet to be officially announced.
Call it a coupe, call it a mid-sized sedan, or call it whatever you want, the CLS is unmistakably a Mercedes-Benz, and that’s generally a good thing.
What Others Are Saying:
• “On the road, the CLS450 feels composed, its standard non-air suspension soaking up road inconsistencies and returning a smooth ride that has the makings of a great road-trip machine. ” — Andrew Krok, Roadshow
• “It’s also the first CLS to have a fifth seat, so you can torture one more person’s hairdo with the lack of headroom in the back from that drooping roofline that supplies the lie that this vehicle deserves its “coupe” branding. ” — Justin T. Westbrook, Jalopnik
• “The COMAND infotainment system itself is still cluttered; diving into navigation and vehicle settings will yield some confusing outputs.” — Jeff Perez, Motor1
2019 Mercedes-Benz CLS 4Matic Key Specs
Engine: 3.0-liter inline-six turbo
Transmission: nine-speed automatic
Torque: 369 ft-lbs
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