In 1976, Mercedes-Benz introduced the legendarily bulletproof W123, which was followed in 1984 by the W124 that carried the line into the early ’90s and the arrival of the round-lamped W210. Literally and spiritually, these cars are E-classes, made up of various sedans, coupes, wagons, and the odd limousine. But around the time the W211 generation hit showrooms in 2002, the designers and marketers decided that the segment could be further split and introduced the “four-door coupe” Mercedes-Benz CLS-class in 2004. The E, you see, had always carried a whiff of stodginess, even when massaged into such memorable speed barges as the AMG Hammer of the 1980s and the Porsche-developed 500E of the 1990s. Now Mercedes has split the segment even further, with the new AMG GT 4-Door taking the place of the hottest CLS models, leaving the CLS itself to occupy a middle realm that suggests more style and sport than the E but less of the ineffable stuff than the family-size AMG GT.
The Positive Power of Further Electrification
To muddy things further, the base-level AMG GT 4-Door, the GT53, and the top CLS, the Mercedes-AMG CLS 53, share a powertrain that’s not strictly an AMG proposition. The 53s employ a 429-hp 3.0-liter inline-six with both a twin-scroll turbocharger and an electrically driven supercharger. It also features an integrated 21-hp motor/generator sandwiched between the engine and transmission that Mercedes calls EQ Boost and is fed by (and feeds) a 1.0-kWh battery. The motor seamlessly fires the engine after an auto stop, the electric supercharger eradicates any lag at low rpm, and the turbo makes the whole thing sing. It’s a corker of a power plant, utterly harmonious in operation. There’s no stop/start stumble, no waiting for the turbo to spool up to speed, plus the inherent balance of the straight-six means that there’s no unbecoming harshness or graininess, traits that have sometimes bedeviled Daimler’s V-6 engines.
The inline-six goodness also applies to the 362-hp CLS450, which mainly suffers for lack of the electric supercharger (but it does have the same EQ Boost motor and 48-volt electrical system). Power is certainly adequate, but the delivery feels a bit lazy and uninspired compared to the instantaneous torque everywhere that’s available from the AMG variant. It is smooth and quiet, a Beverly Hills boulevardier for five passengers (up from four in previous iterations), but it lacks the eagerness and holistic excellence of the CLS 53.
Both versions of the six are backed by a nine-speed automatic. The CLS450 is rear-wheel drive as standard, and its optional 4Matic all-wheel-drive system employs a fixed 31/69 front-to-rear torque split. The CLS53 gets the carmaker’s 4Matic+ system, which offers fully variable torque distribution.
In the handling department, the cars feel just a smidge stiffer than their E-class counterparts, but while the CLS450 carries the rheostatics ally numb steering that has come to plague too many German automobiles in recent years, the CLS 53 offers a surprising amount of feel through the wheel. On winding byways outside Barcelona, we found the 53 dirt simple to place on the road, while the 450 proved itself a vaguer co-conspirator. As much as we love the 10Best Cars–winning E43, the CLS53 improves upon the proposition, offering just a little more edge and an extra modicum of sporting sure-footedness, without stepping on the everyday-usable drivability and comfort. We can’t wait to see what the E-class is like with the new inline-six powertrain, and sources suggest that we won’t have to wait long to find out.
For the E-class stalwart who simply can’t wait for the new engines, this latest CLS is the most E-like example yet. With its larger back seat, the CLS swallows two full-size adults easily, although the slicker roofline will still have taller rear occupants ducking to get through the aft portals. The large expanse of screen real estate inside the car will immediately be familiar to anybody who has sampled a recent E-class. The most obvious difference between the E and CLS interiors is the vent design. Even there, it’s a distinction the casual observer might miss were it not for the illumination of the vents in the CLS to match the ambient interior lighting.
Outside, the CLS53’s mild shark nose wears the twin-bar grille design previously reserved for V-8–powered AMG models, presumably because many of the V-8 models are migrating to the vertical-bar Panamericana grille design first introduced on the AMG GT3 race car. The CLS450’s nose employs the brand’s stylish and slightly whimsical diamond-pattern grille. Mercedes would also like you to note that the CLS features “very flat headlamps.” Owners of European-specification 1970s-era S-classes might have a word or two to say regarding the relative extremity of headlamp flatness. Compared with the two previous-generation cars, the new CLS seems positively slab sided, wearing only a soft shoulder and a relatively subtle lower character line to ever so slightly hint at a fuselage shape. Out back, the CLS 53 sports a short ducktail spoiler and bold quad rear pipes integrated into the bumper, where the spoilerless CLS450 houses a pair of trapezoidal exhaust outlets.
The case for the CLS used to be simple. For the past 14 years, it’s been a mid-size executive sedan aimed at the style-conscious buyer with a yen for personal luxury. After riding in a development prototype of the CLS450 last summer, we wondered if Mercedes had brought the four-door coupe too close to the E-class sedan, cutting out too much of the car’s previous character in the name of increased size and user-friendliness. The arrival of the AMG GT 4-Door brings the mission of the new CLS into clearer relief, although one can’t help but feel that the sportier AMG car has stolen some of the CLS’s thunder. For fans of traditional Mercedes virtues, the new CLS—the CLS 53 especially—offers up muted style, plenty of technology, and stellar ride quality, while goosing the package with a healthy injection of involving sportiness. In a mid-size Mercedes lineup rife with choices, it’s a standout.