Mercedes-Benz is rightly proud of the outgoing CLS and the market for ‘four-door coupes’ that it pioneered. That car was a real shock when it was unveiled, a radical departure not just from the E class, but the entire Benz range. Some people hated it, but that was kind of the point. And those who loved it really, really loved it. The £15,000 or so premium over an E class just didn’t matter… except to Merc’s bottom line. No wonder they’re so keen to get the new generation right.
Although the new CLS range starts with a humble CLS250 and goes all the way to the CLS63 AMG, the CLS350 CDI BlueEfficiencyY will be the big seller in the UK (over 90 percent!). The new car is 21 percent more efficient than its predecessor. The turbocharged V6 thumps out 265bhp and 457lb ft from just 1600rpm, whilst returning 47mpg.
Mercedes CLS 350 CDI: the new exterior styling
I’m not so sure that the styling is a step in the right direction. It’s less shocking, more clearly related to the E class. With a dash of CL here and SLS there you can’t argue with its road presence and the new CLS does look like an expensive object, but to me it’s also less dynamic and a touch heavier handed. A shame as with extensive use of aluminium for things like the doors, bonnet, front wings and many of the suspension components it’s actually as light as the smaller original CLS and with a Cd figure of just 0.26 it’s more slippery, too. Furthermore the engineers have been given more freedom to differentiate it dynamically from the E class and they’re rather pleased with the result. The say it epitomises ‘refined sportiness’, whatever that means…
Inside the Mercedes CLS 350 CDI
The interior is exquisite. Again it’s not quite as out there as the old CLS's cabin with its huge plank of curved wood, but it retains the driver-focussed themes that worked so well in the old car and has much better materials, a cleverly integrated infotainment system (sorry, horrible word) and permeates a general sense that all is right with the world. The driving position is great and endlessly adjustable and should you be speccing a CLS anytime soon make sure you tick the box for the Dynamic Multi-contour seats with massage function. Bloody marvellous, I tell you.
Driving the Mercedes CLS 350 CDI
So let’s assume you’re one of the 20 percent of customers who want to know what the CLS drives like. You’ll want to know about the electric power steering because it really informs the car’s entire dynamic make-up. At just a smidge over two turns lock-to-lock you might assume it makes the CLS a little nervous. However, by designing the rack so that it’s quite sedate around the neutral position it actually feels rock solid at motorway speeds. The ratio speeds up aggressively as you add steering input (it’s 30 percent faster past 90 degress than at the straight ahead position), aiding agility and reducing your wheel twirling on tighter roads. If the set-up sounds slightly freaky, the reality is rather intuitive. I’d say the steering is too light at parking speeds (like they’ve borrowed the system from a Rolls Silver Shadow) but once past about 20mph, the weighting and the way the front end responds to your inputs feels entirely natural.
Mercedes CLS 350 CDI: power and performance
The 3-litre turbocharged turbodiesel engine is quiet and creamy. A BMW in-line oil-burner is smoother still, but few would complain about the refinement or the power on offer here. The torque is instant and pleasingly insistent, the claimed 0-62mph in 6.2-seconds entirely believable. The revised 7G-Tronic Plus automatic is impressive, too. In ‘E’ mode it slips quietly between gears and optimises the shift pattern for economy, in ‘S’ for Sport it’s more eager to serve-up the full hit of torque, but it’s not one of those ‘boxes that is forever downchanging in search of qualifying-lap performance. Don’t bother using the paddles on the steering wheel though, they don’t seem to correspond with what the ‘box is doing even in Manual mode.
Mercedes CLS 350 CDI: ride and handling
On the Airmatic suspension in Comfort mode the low speed ride is pillowy soft. For those obsessed with that magic carpet glide, this is pretty enticing. However, I always find that air suspension in Mercs feels incredible for about 10-minutes and then you notice how rapid fire bumps make the wheels patter and skip. Sport mode is much better and actually the ride quality is still superb. Up the pace a bit and the quick steering and good body control combine to make the CLS feel pretty keen. The balance is more neutral than an E class but the car still understeers just a little earlier and a bit more determinedly than you’d hope. There’s no disguising 1815kg, it seems. The ESP system is overly keen to tidy-up your excesses, but in so doing actually chips away at the car’s inherently smooth edges. Switch the ESP off (although it’s really just having 40-winks and ready to wake-up quickly should you get silly) and the car feels more fluent and just as safe. So far, so unremarkable. Refined, yes. Sporty? Not really.
All of this info might just be irrelevant, given that the majority of previous-generation CLS buyers chose the car for its looks alone. Good to know that the CLS really is a well resolved product with its own character, though. And we should applaud anybody who can serve up this level of refinement and performance and yet achieve staggeringly good fuel consumption figures. Even the new CLS500 manages 31.3mpg – an 1890kg car that can dip below 5-seconds from 0-60mph, remember. No matter what the figures say this is no sportscar at the moment, but it’s a useful improvement over an E class and a lovely place to spend time.