Mercedes CLS Shooting Brake (2015) long-term test review

Published: 17 March 2015

► Nearly a year testing the CLS estate
► A look back at the highs and lows
► Too impractical, or a triumph of style over space?

Month 9: the end of our Mercedes-Benz CLS Shooting Brake long-term test

The most satisfying road-test experiences are those where you really understand why a person would buy this car. You find yourself unexpectedly occupying someone else’s shoes, gaining vicarious enjoyment of, say, child-seat friendliness (when you don’t have kids) or off-road capability (when you wouldn’t even attempt to cross a pothole). But the best tests of all are those where you would happily, decisively – perhaps even immediately – buy the car for yourself. When your job involves driving every type of car it’s rare for this to happen; but it happened to me with the CLS Shooting Brake.

Unfortunately, just as the best literature is born of pain and suffering, so the most entertaining road tests are those of cars with a long list of problems and shortcomings – but I’m resolute in my task here. So, whatever is the opposite of shortcomings (longcomings? longgoings?), well, let me give you a long list of those instead.

The CLS has all the advantages of an estate car without the garden-centre middle-classness, its undoubted utility (1550 litres of bootspace, seats folded) offset by rear haunches so sexy it would make a coupe blush. Early fears of compromised rear-seat headroom (the roofline tapers like the new media centre at Lords) and lack of shoulder room up front (it looks narrow because of its styling, but is actually 30mm wider than an E-class) were unfounded. Porcelain leather and piano black lacquer trim complete a cabin so swish you’d expect to find it at the top of the stairs on a 747.

The driving part is beautifully judged – set not to stun but to complement. The 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel engine might not be the sweetest block on the block, being modestly endowed with power (261bhp) and with quite a lump to get off the line, but once moving its 457lb ft of torque flows like a river in flood. Gifted steering, agile rear-drive chassis and a seven-speed auto ’box which understands the brief, gel like the Barcelona midfield, with similar results. It’s the Lionel Messi of motorway cruisers. 

It has to be said that the ride came in for a serious bit of stick from our Ben Barry when he swapped the CLS for his RS6 Avant (‘It hits you like it’s the mallet and you’re the mole,’ he said), but I liked it well enough, especially once the winter tyres got packed away. Ben also had a word about the nose ploughing on in tighter corners, and he has a point, but generally the CLS isn’t a car that incites you to riot. And whether at his hand or at mine, it never feels in any trouble.

We could probably debate the achievement of 38.4mpg at the end of 9021 miles. Good or bad? I’d say pretty impressive, given that the scruff of the CLS’s neck was routinely grabbed through gears one to four, and the official mpg figure of 47.1 is close enough to be almost within DRS range. Someone more patient or less late for work could surely clamber up into the 40s. We spent £1320.40 on diesel but made only 19 visits to the pumps, partly because of the sizeable 59-litre tank.

The other thing that quite often doesn’t happen with long-term test cars is that we get the spec right, but this time we did. We correctly turned our noses up at the lesser 2.1-litre four-pot diesel, just in case we needed to pull the skin off a rice pudding at some point, and equally correctly snubbed the massively overpowered CLS63 AMG, a machine so lairy I feared my six bags of garden rubbish might arrive at the council tip a nanosecond before me. As far as the range goes, we’re in the sweet spot – made even sweeter by £2605 of extras including the £715 Memory Package and £650 Harman Kardon surround-sound hi-fi. Also, as a Brucie bonus, I tried the facelifted CLS, with its two extra gears, gawdy lighting arrangements and £5 more expensive pricetag, and didn’t feel like a saddo iPhone 5 user with 18 months left on his contract. That said, the newer car does get a big-screen info-telly in place of my iPhone-spec screen.

Quick mention of two gripes: the column gear-shifter belongs either on a 1970s Pontiac or in a museum, and the DAB radio is a throwback for anyone old enough to recall Norman Collier’s faulty microphone routine.

It sometimes feels a bit awkward heaping praise on a car. After all, Mercedes have loaned the CLS to me, and cynics will be convinced that I’m in Merc’s pocket, and that I’ll get a free CLS in exchange for kind words. Mercedes would never do that. But can I help it if they’ve got my number?

By Greg Fountain


Month 8 running a Mercedes CLS Shooting Brake: would we be better off with the facelifted model?

Our CLS isn’t the latest model. These days cars are facelifted more often than Zsa Zsa Gabor, and the CLS got its nip/tuck only a few months after we took delivery. It was logical, though – the CLS is based on an E-class, which had a big fat tuck of its own last year. So the CLS needed the new kit too. How much am I missing by being a generation behind?

Two cogs in the auto ’box, for a start – my car has seven speeds, the new one has nine, mainly in the cause of turning 46mpg into 47.1mpg. Then there’s the new front end, which is even more bullyish and less curvy, with its fat grille, intakes which could double as buckets and standard LEDs which cast a ‘welcoming’ blue light when the vehicle is unlocked. I can live without these – the CLS never makes me feel unwelcome.

Inside they’ve added a smashing ‘free-standing’ 8in telly bang in the middle of the dash where my watch-face-sized screen currently sits, but inexplicably haven’t added the C-class’s snazzy touchpad, leaving my rotary Comand controller still the only game in town. And the column shift remains, now looking creakier than a Hammer House of Horror front door.

Not much to regret, then, other than the damage to residual values.

By Greg Fountain

Month 7 running a Mercedes CLS Shooting Brake: is it a good estate and other practical boot size questions

As a newly paid-up member of the Gazebo Owner’s Club I’m now officially in need of the ‘shooting brake’ bit of the CLS Shooting Brake. And as one never packs a gazebo without also packing Far Too Much Stuff to put inside it, the usefulness gauntlet is firmly laid down. Can the CLS mix it with big estate rivals?

To judge by its swoopy looks you would immediately imagine not. The cut of its C-pillar is so louche it almost looks as if the rear end is melting slowly down onto the road as the car flashes past, its lines being shaped in real time by the airflow. Lovely to look at but surely anathema to any gazebo delivery outfit worth its salt.

The sums, however, tell a strange tale. Once you’ve pulled the levers tucked just inside the tailgate to ping the rear seats flat, the CLS’s boot expands like a gas in a vacuum, to an unshabby 1550 litres. Perspective? A similarly seat-flattened C-class Estate or 3-series Touring packs 1500 litres, which means I can carry exactly one keg of beer more than my C-class-equipped neighbour (which seems a good idea, come to think of it). If he upgraded to an E-class Estate, of course, he’d be up by about a gazebo’s worth, and be bragging at dinner parties about his shed-like 1950-litre hold. But on the downside his car would resemble said shed.

Others with more gazebo-ferrying potential include Jaguar’s XF Sportbrake (1675 litres), BMW 5-series Touring (1670), A6 Avant (1680) and the simply massive Skoda Superb Estate (1865). Those with less include Citroën’s C5 Tourer (1462) and Honda’s 1183-litre Accord Tourer. But none of the above looks remotely stylish, the acknowledged price of freight-readiness being paid in sartorial deficiency. The CLS won’t play that game. What’s more, its flicky delicacy on the road, quite nice steering and co-operative 3.0-litre turbodiesel make it pleasurable to drive, even in anger, even when fully gazeboed up. No car in the list above could do it any better, or with anything like the visual panache.

By Greg Fountain  

Month 6 running a Mercedes CLS Shooting Brake: reliability and stellar mileage questions

Old Merc saloons never die, they just become Albanian taxis. I was reminded why when I recently took a taxi ride in Tirana (okay, it was Hockenheim, but the principle holds) and found myself in an early ‘90s E-class with 300,000km (190k miles) on the clock. It felt rock-solid, hardly a creak or rattle, and the leather, though worn smooth, was still immaculate. Could our CLS feel like this 300,000 clicks down the road? I think so, and what’s more it occurred to me that after a mere 7000 miles it’s already feeling a bit like an old car. And do you know what? I love it for that.

The leather has lost its showroom sheen and begun to feel deliciously lived-in, that quirky column-shifter (which already felt like a relic from the past) now seems more at home, and the slightly agricultural V6 diesel has settled to a familiar thrum. Once the polish has faded, this Merc will remain the same forever. Just one problem: I dare say that by the time we’ve driven the equivalent of New York and back 25 times the Comand online media interface will feel as modern as a wind-up gramophone. Engineering is permanent, but technology is temporary.

By Greg Fountain

Month 5 running a Mercedes CLS Shooting Brake: Ben Barry swaps his RS6 for the Merc wagon

I’m a little disappointed by the mpg figure on CAR magazine’s Audi RS6 estate. Yes, I know, it’s a 1935kg estate packing a 552bhp pistol, but the ability to shift from V8 to four-cylinder mode along with stop/start technology helps it claim 28.8mpg. Typically, the RS6 does a few two-mile-long school runs every week, or spends its time on motorways doing 70-85mph. After a two-hour motorway stint, the fuel computer will often tell me that I’ve come very close to the claimed figure. Yet I can’t better 21mpg when I do the maths, which is slightly worse than my old M5. And I have never come close to 175mph in the RS6 or been able to drive around with the rear tyres on fire.
So a chance to borrow Greg’s CLS350 CDI was warmly welcomed. It quotes 47mpg, and CAR has been managing mid-to-high 30s. I calculate that’d save me over £1k every 10,000 miles.

With its distinctive styling and AMG alloys, the CLS certainly did a good job of stepping centre stage just as the RS6 left the spotlight. It feels special and luxurious inside too. On the road it’s refined, the gearbox smooth, the steering numb but nicely weighted and the turbodiesel V6 noticeably lustier than my old Jag XF Sportbrake Diesel S’s.

Of course, you can’t expect a CLS CDI to handle like an RS6, or else the AMG model would have nowhere to run. And, predictably, the CLS doesn’t; it ploughs on in tighter corners like a seven-year-old wearing holes in his knees at the local disco.

But who cares, right? Hang the handling, sort the ride quality; it’s a luxury Merc after all. Weeeeeeeellllll… the CLS doesn’t ride very nicely, in fact the RS6 – on standard air springs – is much more compliant. The Merc suspension – steel springs up front, airbags at the bag – hits you like it’s the mallet and you’re the mole, and the whole thing just never settles like a luxurious saloon should, even on major roads like our nearby A1.

It’s not unbearable, but it is a disappointment, because I think the CLS is one of those niche propositions that genuinely fulfills a purpose. Less boxy than the capacious E estate but still far more practical and luxurious than the E saloon, it’s the next best thing to an S-class estate. It just needs a suspension tune to match.

I know most people can’t simply choose between £56k and £87k cars, but I’m fortunate and I can; I want my RS6 back please, even if I will be over £1k poorer after 10,000 miles.

By Ben Barry 

Month 4: the Mercedes CLS Shooting Brake and annoying electro-nannies

As someone who loathes ‘driver assistance’ systems there’s a fair chance I’m eventually going to fall out with any Mercedes I drive. After all, Merc pretty much invented the art of thinking it’s cleverer than the driver. Yet, while it’s probably just as well if I don’t meet the bloke who invented ‘attention assist’ in a dark alley anytime soon, the CLS isn’t at all annoying. Attention assist, by the way, creates the sensation of having two simultaneous same-side blowouts when you change lanes without indicating, this being in the cause of waking you up. It’s the assumption that I was asleep in the first place that offends me most.

The cabin of our 2015 Mercedes-Benz CLS Shooting Brake

But despite the endless potential of such gizmos as ‘headlamp assist’, ‘anticipatory safety system’ and ‘adaptive high beam assist’ to cause offence, it genuinely feels as if the car is happy to leave me to it. Maybe it’s so clever it senses how cross I’ll be if it interferes, and judges my resulting mood to be more dangerous than if I did actually fall asleep at the wheel.

In other news, my mpg is futtering away at around the 36 mark, which was already grim even before I picked up July’s Error of Judgement of the Month award for lending it to Ben Barry.

By Greg Fountain 

Month 3 running a Mercedes CLS Shooting Brake: we meet a CLS63 AMG

On reflection, the wheelspin should not have come as a surprise. With 557 horses stampeding towards the road through the tiny aperture offered by two rear wheels there was always going to be a bit of argy bargy. The figures however, weren’t readily to hand when I hit the on-ramp to the A1 for my routine journey home. Had I checked beforehand I would have realised that this CLS63 AMG has a ridiculous 292bhp more than my long-term 350 CDI and – even more astonishingly given my car’s willing mid-range grunt – 73lb ft more torque.

So, yes, the back end scrabbled and shimmied a bit before spooling up and catapulting me towards home, and yes, it was one of my quicker journeys. The fun quotient, however, we could debate.

Borrowing another model from the same range by way of comparison is standard Our Cars procedure, but in this case there was an agenda: Mercedes wished to replace our winter tyres with a spangly set of summer-ready Contis, and (before certain readers and one particular editor begin complaining) were deaf to the suggestion that we did it ourselves, like an owner might. They offered a taste of full-phat AMG in CLS Shooting Brake guise while we waited, perhaps in a bid to prove that the ‘AMG’ part of my car’s unfeasibly long name serves mainly as a name-lengthener.

The faster CLS (in white) is £27,055 more expensive than our car (in black) – money which could arguably be more wisely spent on Mark Walton’s Golf GTI. Or a deposit on a house. The white car swaps our six-pot diesel for a 5.5-litre V8, which sounds proper snarly and hastens the horizon quicker than a decent pair of binoculars, but the overall effect is lost on me. The car lacks the haptic delicacy of our CLS, placing baseball-bat bluntness ahead of minutely engineered precision on its priority list. It’s a shame, as the AMG magic wand knows a few tasty spells, but here they’ve just overdone the sauce, drowned out the flavour with heavy handed condiments.

And, when you shrug off the A1 in favour of some corners, all that rear-end drama gets a bit much. This isn’t delicious rear-wheel-drive chicanery M3-style, but bloody hard work. Basically, if you want to feel your rear tyres breaking grip you’d rather they weren’t quite so far away. Until now I’ve thought of the Shooting Brake as a big car that drives and handles like a smaller one. A Good Thing. AMG has made it feel more like the near-5m-long, near-two-tonner it inescapably is. A Not Good Thing.

So, I’ll stick very happily to my turbodiesel, which is every bit as flighty as an estate car needs to be. That said, it does miss a couple of tactile open goals, both of which the white car tucks confidently away. The first is the starter button; my car requires the so-last-decade labour of key-insertion and key-turning (what is this, a North Korean gulag?) while the 63 AMG wears a shiny, can’t-miss-it alloy starter button. The second is the white car’s neat, centre-set gearstick, the stand-in for which in my car is a creaky old column-shifter to the right of the steering wheel, which often confuses me into reconfirming the selection of Drive mode rather than turning on the wipers.

Still, the new tyres are an absolute whizz, giving the ride quality a transformation so complete even its own mother wouldn’t recognise it. The effect is a bit like the whole HD telly thing – what you had before seemed fine, but once you experience the change it’s impossible to imagine you lived without it. Of course the winter never showed up (a pity in some ways – I’ve recently moved to a hilly town and wanted to test the benefits of winter rubber). Let’s hope global warming doesn’t give us snow in June – I’m on the wrong tyres. 

By Greg Fountain 

Month 2 running a Mercedes CLS Shooting Brake: wonky DAB radio, otherwise shining

Manchester United 0 Liverp… ottenham 0 Ars… Hull… ester City… 2 Cardiff… Ful……… ston Villa 1 Chel…… Annoying, isn’t it? But this is the wonderful world of DAB radio in the CLS Shooting Brake. Before you say ‘don’t blame the car, it’s DAB that’s rubbish,’ may I point out that no other car I have driven in the last two months behaves this way on the same journey. A minus mark on an otherwise spotless record.

Instead let’s talk about the spotless record. The CLS is simply a joy to live with. It looks dead sexy, yet pulls a Dr Who trick on the inside. The cream leather chairs make it feel like a limo, the piano black detailing exudes cool and edgy.  And then you open the tailgate (well, you press a button and the tailgate opens itself) and find sufficient logistics for a large rock band… or an absolutely tiny family.

The engine (it’s a 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel) is a proper workhorse, with enough torque mid-range to feel quick everywhere you need it, and the fact it has even less character than an F1 car (also a V6 turbo) hardly damns it. True, I would hope a car with ‘Sport’ and ‘AMG’ in its name would make more noise. But my neighbours like it.

By Greg Fountain

Month 1 running a Mercedes-Benz CLS Shooting Brake: the welcome

Before you can buy a McLaren P1 you have to have some tuition on how to drive it. Makes sense – it’s a complicated car. Before you buy a CLS Shooting Brake, however, you need tuition in explaining why you bought it. This also makes sense and is equally complicated.

It’s an estate, isn’t it? No, it’s a Shooting Brake. Which differs from an estate how? The boot’s smaller but it’s more stylish. If it’s smaller, is it cheaper than, say, an E-class estate? No, it’s £15k more expensive. What is it then, sporty or something? Not really, it’s a six-cylinder diesel with an automatic gearbox.

You get the picture. Refine your patter in advance. You’ll thank me.

Personally, I think the CLS Shooting Brake is delicious. It’s a car that flays any notion of Germanic rationality. It’s a flash of sheer inspiration of the sort you might expect of, say, Renault – the difference being that nobody ever bought a quirky executive car from Renault because it would be slightly rubbish and would depreciate quicker than an ice-cream in the sun. People do buy CLSs, though, despite the fact that, back in 2004 when the first CLS was launched, we didn’t think they would. A four-door coupe? What for? Former colleague Tim Pollard coined the phrase ‘coupaloon’ in honour of the CLS (although we subsequently barred its use due to it being too annoying). But the CLS needed a new word because there hadn’t been anything like it before.

The Shooting Brake’s schtick basically consists of: ‘If you thought the CLS was daft…’ Spun off the back of the second-generation CLS in 2012, the wagon version managed to preserve the swoopiness of the donor car while raising its rear roofline to create 590 litres of bootspace (and 1550 with the seats folded). An E-class estate has 695/1950 litres, but then it does resemble the boxes you can stack easily within it. So it’s a compromise.

Our CLS is powered by the 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel engine, offering a cautious 261bhp but a thumpy 457lb ft of torque, the latter making up in the mid-range for the off-the-line shrug of the former (we eschewed the alternative diesel, a 2.1-litre four with less power than an Eon customer after a nasty storm). Ours is not a fast car as such (6.6sec 0-62mph, 155mph) but then it’s no slouch either. From the driver’s seat it does feel as if there’s a bit of personality disorder going on – the ying of a seven-speed auto that isn’t the slinkiest meeting the yang of steering that’s forensically weighted for a satisfying drive. Okay the ride’s a bit fruity when storm-damaged roads do their thing, but then we are stuck, for now, on winter tyres. And overall, it’s sooo untroubling to drive. I love it.

I’d heard mutterings that persons possessing a, ahem, fuller figure, might find the proportions of the Shooting Brake a bit squeezy. It has small door apertures, a narrow beam and low ceilings in the back, after all. Nothing of the sort! It’s comfier than a mink onesie (so I’ve heard).

You can put this CLS on the road for £56,025, but naturally we didn’t put it on the road until we’d spent a further £2605 on such non-negotiables as a Memory Package (£715), Harman Kardon surround-sound (£650), reversing camera (£390) and heated front seats (£350). Also, the (gorgeous) porcelain leather and (rather chic) piano-black lacquer trim relieved us of a monkey, no questions asked.

So, me and CLS, we’re good to go. I completed my ‘why I bought it’ course, and scored low marks. But I told the truth: ‘There’s no rational excuse for this car. So I had to have it.’

By Greg Fountain

Keeper Greg Fountain and CAR magazine's Mercedes CLS Shooting Brake