When Mercedes-Benz revealed the Vision CLS Concept 15 years ago, it appeared genuinely radical from a company whose outlook often seemed to tend toward the conservative. It was radical for the market, too, creating the four-door luxury coupe sector that was soon imitated by BMW and Audi - it's not often that either steals such a significant march on the rivals.
Despite still occupying a relatively niche position, 375,000 CLS sales since 2004 makes it a significant model for MB. For this third generation car, Mercedes says it "pioneers the new design idiom" of the company, while also delivering the "very latest infotainment generation" and all manner of active safety and assistance technology. Arguably of more interest is to PHey types are the extensive aero work (resulting in a 0.26Cd drag co-efficient), a new range of straight-six engine and the electrified AMG 53 flagship, too.
That 435hp range-topper is where we begin, because where else would you head first given the choice? Sadly the conditions are not playing ball; Baltic Barcelona about as unsuitable for any car as you can imagine - cold, bleak and icy, with stationary JCBs hiding around corners clearing the way. For a near-450hp AMG they sound downright lethal. But we persevered...
Of course this is a new and vastly more accommodating AMG, boasting four-wheel drive and all manner of technology to prevent your enthusiasm getting the better of you. So actually, with the benefit of winter tyres as well, the CLS53 AMG allows the driver to make generous use of its remarkable powertrain.
The straight six is just as smooth and sonorous as you'd hope, but of course enhanced in this application by Mercedes EQ Boost and electric compressor also. It's tremendously complex technology, the EQ starter alternator providing a temporary 22hp and 184lb ft as well as supporting the electric compressor, the apparently seamless integration and calibration of it all being arguably Mercedes' greatest achievement.
While not entirely without delay, for the most part the 53 simply feels like it's powered by a far larger, atmospheric engine, which is presumably the point. Just a few years ago this sort of performance and response from a turbocharged 3.0-litre straight six would have felt like witchcraft; in fact the tech probably still is, even if the effects are no longer quite as incredible.
An on limit assessment will have to wait for another time, with as much of the test drive duration spent avoiding frozen slush as it is interpreting dynamic messages. For what it's worth the CLS53 rides beautifully, its plushness never entirely sacrificed regardless of the drive mode and the overriding impression one of extensive, thorough development and an adaptive set up that really should suit any situation.
That drag co-efficient helps it feel beautifully refined, the steering is good, the performance is strong... the CLS53 may not be the world's most exciting performance car, but it's a fantastic technical achievement and an entirely lovely product. One to return to in a less frozen UK soon, certainly.
Arguably of equal intrigue is the 2.0-litre CLS that's also available to drive, a model so fresh that it's waiting on full European emissions homologation. It uses a new four-cylinder turbo that Mercedes promises more than 300hp from, mated to the excellent nine-speed auto found elsewhere in the range. And you know what? It was a delight in snowy Spain, a lighter engine delivering the usual dynamic benefits of a more positive front end, a greater sense of agility and a lithe, athletic ride. It even sounds alright, too, vastly more pleasant than any recent Mercedes four-cylinder diesel, even if the noise from the outside doesn't really correlate with what your ears are treated to inside. An unexpected surprise, that one.
The CLS350d, using the straight-six OM656 diesel launched in the S-Class, is also bloody fabulous, although it should be said that came as less of a shock. The refinement is genuinely impeccable, the diesel revving fantastically smoothly and settling to a near-silent cruise once up to speed. Even the stop-start doesn't disturb the hush too much, which is so often a letdown for diesels. In the driving, freezing rain, the CLS350d is a joyous place to spend time, tangibly more so than the old V6 equivalent; if there was an opportunity right there and then to drive back to the UK rather than wait for the flight, it would have been a sorely tempting offer.
With the mechanical advances of those new engines, plus the additional style of the coupe body, combined with all that's so very good about the E-Class, the CLS presents a formidably strong case for itself. The semi-autonomous drive tech still feels to need some work, but the richness of the materials, opulence of the interior design and incredible comfort make the car a compelling luxury package.
In the UK a CLS350d costs the best of £10k more than an E350d equivalent using the old engine, with prices starting at £57,510 and £48,155 respectively. What the CLS does so well is make that premium feel entirely justified, largely thanks to that superb new engine but also with a level of desirability that even the very good E-Class cannot match. Not only does it entirely warrant its position against the best E-Class (and
) it has ever faced, the CLS questions why you would need to spend anything more on a luxury car - it's brilliant.
|Mercedes-AMG CLS53 - Specifications|
|Engine||2,999cc, 6-cyl turbocharged|
|Transmission||9G-AMG Speedshift automatic, all-wheel drive|
|Torque (lb ft)||383@1,800-5,800rpm|
|Price||TBC (CLS350d from £57,560, CLS450 from £57,660 and CLS400d from £60,460)|