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Mercedes CLS250 CDI (2012) long-term test review

By Ben Oliver

Long Term Tests

20 January 2013 09:01

Mercedes CLS250 CDI goodbye - 17 January 2013 

Well how wrong can you be about a car? Or its looks, anyway. When friends ask if you’ll drive them to their wedding, you know you have something pretty special – a car for the big day that you can drive every day.

My Mercedes-Benz CLS250 CDI Sport didn’t feel that special when it first arrived. The brown paint looked flat in the winter light and I wasn’t sure about the styling. But after a dozen years in this job I ought to know that easily digestible styling soon bores; when the sun came out and cracked open that deep paint finish I thought the CLS looked sensational – and I now think there isn’t another premium rival to rival it for looks.

We hope to learn something with these year-long tests. One of the simplest exercises is just to look back and see which characteristics stand out, and which you don’t think much about. Now it’s gone

I remember those looks, and the feeling of ‘specialness’ every time I walked up to my CLS and sat in that extraordinary cabin.

But I also remember the odd dichotomy between driving a proper luxury car and being utterly unconcerned by fuel bills or environmental guilt. This is what we wanted to test by running a CLS with the smallest, 2.1-litre, 204bhp diesel engine. Would it disgrace a luxury car? Or was this, in this chastened times, the ‘new luxury’ – top-end looks and cabin but low fuel consumption, emissions and running costs?

After a year, it’s definitely the latter. The CLS wasn’t quick, but I never really thought about that. Instead I actively sought out long European trips, choosing to drive rather than take the train or fly because the CLS was so comfortable and the fuel costs negligible.

I took it skiing in the French Alps, then to Geneva for the motor show, then elsewhere in Switzerland on business. I did Sussex to Le Mans, Paris and Cologne and back, and an almost complete circumnavigation of Ireland, plus Sussex to Stranraer for the boat.

The car didn’t miss a beat, of course, and I looked forward to every mile. Over 13,560 of them, the CLS averaged 41.2mpg but that includes a lot of town work. The best single tank also went the furthest – very nearly 600 miles at an average of 52.1mpg, which was typical for a motorway cruise.

The combination of frugal engine and Merc levels of luxury works, as does the whole idea of a four-door coupe. The boot never struggled, the rear seats and access never caused complaint, but the low, elegant profile and frameless doors made the car look infinitely more special.

It was special inside too. When speccing the car, we gasped at the price of the optional extended leather package (£3k), but as the cabin quality is another stand-out memory I’m now (almost) convinced. The systems and switchgear, as shared with other Mercs of course, make the approach of some other makers look staggeringly wrong-headed. Mercedes isn’t obsessed with reducing button count, it just ensures that you can access the function you need with the least distraction, which is infinitely more important.

For this alone, when the time came to replace Mrs O’s car about six months into our time with the CLS we chose another Mercedes, a C-class estate.

In fact about the only thing I disliked about the CLS – other than the limited visibility afforded by the coupe-like profile – was the fact that you couldn’t have it as an estate. Mercedes has since solved that with the sensational-looking Shooting Brake. I might go take a look at the terms of that lease

By Ben Oliver


 

You spoil us, ambassador - 28 December 2012

Found myself parked next to the German ambassador recently. You’d usually expect to come off second-best when pulling up alongside the plenipotentiary of a wealthy nation, and especially one with a functioning car industry. But other than being pleased that he drives – is driven in – a Merc, I felt zero desire to drive off in his S-class rather than my CLS. Sorry, Herr Botschafter, but mine’s definitely the better-looking car: lower and sharkier and a much rarer sight on the streets.

Not that the low roofline compromises rear-seat room much – all four doors of this four-door coupe have been much in use this month and nobody squeaks when they get in the back – not even me at six feet. It is strictly a four-seater, of course, but the big, veneered console between the seats makes the point that this is a luxury car: I doubt the ambassador ever has to squeeze up with two pals on the way back from the pub. And he needs somewhere to keep all that Ferrero Rocher. The only change I’d make would be to nick his gunsight three-pointed star.

My time with the CLS is getting short now. There may be tears when it goes. My mind went back to when I very first saw one: disguised and on test while I was on honeymoon in Namibia over two years ago. Hard to believe I’ve lived with the production version for nearly a year now.

by Ben Oliver


More long trips in our Mercedes CLS - 21 May 2012

My wife has left me. I am 700 miles from home, on crutches with a right knee that has all the structural integrity of blancmange, and in two days’ time I’m expected to spend all day walking the halls of the Geneva Palexpo show complex.

But I don’t expect you to feel sorry for me. The wife has only left me in the sense that I’ve just put her on a plane home after ten days’ holiday eating and staying well in Burgundy and skiing in Val d’Isere, where I kippered the knee in an utterly unheroic low-speed faceplant. Any pain and inconvenience is entirely self-inflicted. I’m writing this from a hotel room in Lausanne with a view over Lake Geneva, my foot up, a minibar beer open and the France-Ireland Six Nations match about to start on the telly, so things could be a lot worse. And my Merc CLS250 CDI is waiting patiently outside, having already made this trip less fraught.

We started out, as usual, on P&O’s finest, the colossal and still fresh, year-old Spirit of Britain, and I’m geekily excited about sailing back on her brand-new sister ship the Spirit of France which has just come into service. Terrific fry-up on board, as always, but the problem with the parsimonious small diesel in the CLS is that the car needs fuelling far less frequently than the driver. We reached our overnight stop at the Abbaye de la Bussiere near Dijon comfortably on one tank with no excuse to stop for a stinky French roadside andouilette snout-and-arsehole sausage.

You’re proud to arrive anywhere in a CLS; it’s a good-looking, elegant, distinctive car. The concierge here in Lausanne, used to parking super-exotics, kept mumbling ‘beautiful, beautiful’ as I gave him the keys, and our CLS was the second coolest car outside the Abbaye, after a debadged, Monaco-registered M3.

Wish I’d debdaged the CLS: the big twin tailpipes mean nobody would guess I’d picked the four-pot diesel or that I’m enjoying fuel figures at odds with the car’s luxo image. In nearly a thousand miles of driving on this trip I’ve only filled up twice – early both times – and have three-quarters of a tank left. Economy averages about 40mpg but that includes some high-speed French autoroute cruising. Of more relevance to UK drivers is the trip I made just before we left. Brighton to Bradford and back on one tank: 556 miles, 45 miles range left, and over 50mpg, driving normally.

Having to stop for gas so rarely is a proper luxury, and a long trip like this highlights other qualities. The heated massage seats are a godsend and the optional folding rears worth having and perfect for skis and crutches. The trip computer keeps this eco-geek entertained, the big central digital display that can be configured to show speed in km is useful for keeping on the right side of les flics, as is the speed limit recognition camera that even spots when the limit differs in wet and dry conditions.

Less good? The sat nav has made a couple of bad calls when trying to re-route to avoid traffic and the Merc-approved Pirelli Sotto Zero winter tyres failed to pull the CLS back up a slight but icy gradient, requiring a push from some friendly passers-by, and doubtless some subsequent tutting about the idiot Brit who’d ventured into the Alps on summer tyres, even if I hadn’t. And the flip side of the impressive range is a lack of pace: there’s more than enough for motorway work but 204bhp and 1785kg mean you need planning to overtake on single carriageway.

But on balance, I’m loving the CLS. How many cars would you actively look forward to driving 700 miles home with a busted peg?

By Ben Oliver


We take our CLS to the Geneva motor show – 8 February 2012

So my Mercedes-Benz CLS250 CDI and I are in Lausanne today, just near Geneva. It’s been an eventful trip: with a weekend in Dijon and a week’s skiing in the Alps we’ve covered about a thousand miles already, and then there was the 2012 Geneva show itself.

Random stuff to report: be aware that the French police are using some unpredictable unmarked cars. I was about to overtake an innocuous-looking Dacia Logan at a frisky pace when I spotted its extra aerials, second rear-view mirror and two burly blokes crammed inside. The British-registered Range Rover behind me wasn’t as observant and came steaming past us both. Watching the little Dacia trying to pull the Range Rover over was like watching a Jack Russell worry a cart-horse, and the fine probably cost as much as the Dacia. Good to see the French state taking serious austerity measures: less good to see them plugging the deficit by fining Brits.

Had it been me, I’d have had no excuse as the CLS’s smart speed-limit recognition camera even spots French signs that show different limits for wet and dry conditions and flashes them up on the central display. For this and a dozen other reasons the CLS is a pretty perfect long-distance tool. But it’s chiefly the economy that impresses, and the very infrequent need to stop: I’m getting 40mpg on this trip, though 50mpg and nearly 600 miles from a tank is more typical in slower UK driving. Doubt I’ll ever repeat the 80mpg I got coasting downhill from Val d’Isere though…

By Ben Oliver


Loving the minutiae – 16 February 2012

When we first test a car we focus on the big picture: dynamics, quality, the figures. But the more time you spend with a car, the more you focus on the minutiae. But it’s not a loss of perspective: plenty of you will have ignored all the big stuff and chosen a car because you liked the shape of the gearknob or the bong of the lights-left-on warning.

Me? I love the way Mercs like my CLS allow you to get rid of the radio traffic announcements that interrupt your listening. If you’re stuck in traffic, or worried you might soon be, they’re a godsend. When they come on just as Jimmy Page is about to hit his stride in Stairway to Heaven (younger readers see Wikipedia) they’re an irritant. I could just switch the TA function off when not required – the Merc’s user-interface makes this pretty easy – but then I’d forget to switch it back on again and get caught in a ten-mile tailback the next day.

No: what you need is a simple, immediate way to get shot of Dave Nice from Chump FM and his irridading habit of pronouncing t’s like d’s. Other cars have you wildly stabbing at buttons as you try to remember which arcane combination brings Jimmy back. Not in the Merc. The single, most obvious motion deals with the emergency: you bring your left fist down on the rotary controller, an action pleasingly similar to bopping the idiot on the head, and he’s gone.

It’s just one example of the CLS’s finely thought-through functionality, which itself is just one reason I’m really enjoying my time with this car. Others? The cabin quality, and the pride and pleasure I get retrieiving this elegant and willfully different four-door coupe from a car park full of less bold designs.

Frankly, the miles haven’t been mounting quickly enough, so I’m currently planning the long continental drive I think this car was born for: skiing in the French Alps, then the Geneva motor show, then some other non-car business elsewhere in Switzerland for a few days. A lot of miles, and a lot of time in the cabin, and I honestly can’t wait: not least as I’ll be out of range of Dave Nice.

By Ben Oliver


Welcome to our new Mercedes-Benz CLS250 CDI long-termer – 30 January 2012

Welcome to the new luxury. The Mercedes-Benz CLS250 CDI is an elite car for humbler times. It’s a coupe that offers each occupant a door, rather than making rear-seat passengers feel like second-class citizens, and is powered by a small, efficient, clean diesel engine when for a century big Benz coupes have had big benzin engines. Cars like this just didn’t exist when I started doing this job a decade ago. You can still have a V8-powered CLS if you want one. But when and where can you use it? Benz thinks lots of us will like the idea of an elegant, luxurious car with just-sufficient power, a longer range, lower running costs and less guilt. And I’m going to spend the next year finding out how appealing this new niche-niche is.

Seems the new luxury comes at an old-fashioned price. Our CLS Sport costs £49,355 before options and £58,055 after, which must be some sort of record for a 2143cc, 204bhp diesel four. I didn’t specify this car myself and if I had, I’d have been pretty happy with the kit that comes as standard. The ‘basic’ car has leather, 18s, bi-xenons, sat-nav, a digital radio, parking sensors and self-parking; for another three grand the Sport trim adds 19s, LED lights and sportier styling, suspension, transmission and brakes.

So when the CLS comes pretty fully laden, how did we end up with a car costing nearly nine grand more? Most of that has gone on seats and trim: three grand on a ‘luxury package’ that extends the leather around the cabin and improves its quality, and adds an Alcantara headlining and ‘ambient’ cabin lighting with three changeable hues. Adding three memory positions and four-way lumbar support to the already electric seats adds £715 to the bill, and the ‘dynamic’ seats that offer massage, more adjustment and active bracing through corners add £1310. There’s a grand for a glass sunroof, £950 for an upgraded hard-drive sat-nav with a bigger screen, and £650 for a better, 14-speaker Harman Kardon hi-fi. All very nice, and together they provide a Bentley-esque cabin atmosphere now even more at odds with the humble motor out front. But all very pricey: I’ll make sure I spend some time in a ‘standard’ CLS to see if it really feels nine grand less special.

I’d definitely have chosen the £445 folding rear seats and £350 heated front seats myself, and the £295 Speed Limit Assist, which uses a front-facing camera to spot speed-limit signs you might have missed, will be interesting to test. But I don’t think I’d have chosen the colour. The car has just been delivered, but the Cuprite Brown is not endearing itself to me. Cuprinol Brown might be a better name. A brave design like the CLS doesn’t need a brave colour, and Merc makes it easy to make your CLS look sensational. There are four greys and silvers that flatter the lines, and if you want to be bold the aubergine or porcelain leather options look amazing.

Mine, however, is brown. I’m not going to criticise a car for something so easily changed, and the man at Merc insists brown is the new white. But for now the CLS looks less like the new luxury than the transport of a prosperous, solid, small-town West German pork butcher circa 1975. It’s a very different picture inside though, and when I get to the end of the 1000-mile running-in period I hope I’ll find it doesn’t drive like a brown ’70s diesel Merc four-door. Actually, wasn’t James Hunt’s famously bricked-up ’70s Merc 450SEL 6.9 brown too? I’m feeling better about mine already.

By Ben Oliver