Mercedes-Benz CLS & CLS 55 AMG (2005-)

words - Mike Sinclair
It wasn't that long ago that Mercedes' offerings were pretty straight forward - at least in terms of the badges they wore

What we liked
>> In-the-metal looks
>> Involving interior execution
>> 55's powerplant

Not so much
>> Rear seat egress
>> Headroom front and back
>> Noisy rubber on 500

The sedans came in small (C), medium (E), and large (S) and the coupes wore an SL badge. Then along came the CLs, CLKs, SLKs - all of which started to blur the nomenclature rules.

Offroaders still lust for the cross country ability of the G wagons and the As and Ms broke new ground in terms of vehicle type and Mercedes target market. Now, there's a B Class just around the corner and before the end of 2005 we'll see the first R Class displayed in Australia.

The CLS, M-B's most recent release, debuted Down Under just last week. It adds yet another branch to the M-B family tree - and, further confuses the badge-watching anoraks. Based on E-Class architecture, it is a svelte, low-roofed sedan which a little contradictorily has been dubbed a "four-door coupe" by Mercedes and pundits around the globe.

Three models will eventually be offered by Mercedes-Benz in Australia. At launch two V8 models will be offered (CLS500 and CLS 55 AMG hottie) and, later this year we'll get the CLS350 powered by Mercedes' excellent 200kW 3.5lt V6.

Benz says the CLS is unique as it combines "the elegance and dynamism of a coupé with the comfort and practicality of a saloon." As noted above, though based on E-Class mechanicals, the CLS certainly has a look and on-road presence all of its own.

Much of the discussion about the CLS will focus on its low-roofed sweeping exterior lines. Some early critics likened the styling to that of the much-maligned AU Falcon. And not just locals... In the metal, however, there's no doubt the car is striking - it's unlikely anybody's going to mistake the Benz for a Broadmeadows banger up close.

On the road the car has real presence. The rear end, ungainly in print, has a fluidity that is, indeed, coupe-like. The heavy crease that runs the length of the car adds drama and there's an aggressive flare to the guards that doesn't come across in two-dimensional imagery. There's even a hint of SLK about the lines of the A pillar and front guard. Don't dismiss this car until you've seen it in the metal.

Unlike its E-Class equivalents, the CLS range gets an individual specification level. Forget Elegance and Avantgarde, the CLS is more comprehensively equipped. Like the SL, CL and SLK standard equipment is ramped up along with the engine cylinders and power. Basic spec is at least a step up on the equivalent E.

Priced from under $140,000 (pricing will be released closer to the cars' arrival later in 2005) the CLS350 will effectively be the base model of the range. With leather trim and lashings of burl walnut, however, buyers will go wanting for little. Standard appointments in the six-cylinder CLS include Thermotronic four-zone climate control system, Comand DVD-based navigation and display system complete with six-disc CD, speed-sensitive power steering, Parktronic parking distance control, Bi-Xenon headlamps with the cornering function and 17-inch alloys. The 350 also gets gearshift buttons on the steering wheel, like the 17s, smart headlights and up-spec climate control an option on the equivalent E.

The price premium is $16,000 on paper, but Mercedes reckons on the extra cost for the CLS being closer to $5K once specification is adjusted.

The $173,900 CLS500 raises the specification level further, including Airmatic DC air suspension, glass electric sunroof, TV tuner and 18-inch wheels shod with 40-series rubber.

Top of the CLS range is the AMG-fettled CLS 55 AMG. Priced at $250,000 the hi-po CLS gets a swag of go-fast goodies under the skin, lower profile 18-inch rubber and a further upgrade in cabin, driver convenience and equipment spec.

The CLS interior with its lashings of leather and unique 'soft' form curved instrument panel and timber-planked dash is a significant departure for Benz. Though there's no doubting the dramatic exterior lines take centre stage, the interior plays a substantial role in the 'theatre' that differentiates the four-door from its more upright E Class stablemates.

This individual character is further enhanced by the distinctly un-Germanic interior the CLS debuts. With seating for four and curves aplenty, the next observer who compares the ambience of Benz's latest with best of the British bespoke builders will not be the last.

The Mercedes componentry is familiar but there's a fair swag of Jag about the CLS's cockpit. Both the driver and passenger are cosseted, but such is the sweep of the scuttle and console that they each end up with their own 'zone.' The console is extended into the rear making the CLS strictly a four-seater.

A selection of timber options is offered in both high gloss and 'silk matt' finishes. Including the 'designo' selection, there are 14 leather colours from which to choose.

The CLS is built on the same wheelbase as the E Class and, according to M-B, delivers conventional saloon levels of rear leg, shoulder and headroom. The reality is that while rear leg and headroom may be up on the likes of BMW's 6 Series coupe, it is still markedly reduced on a conventional sedan. The deeply sloping side window line means that getting in and out of the back seat requires a little familiarisation.

Such is the configuration of the CLS that 183cm my co-driver needed to have the front seat at its lowest setting to get headroom in the front.

These constraints may mean that some prospective CLS buyers will still stay with the E. What Mercedes argues is the limited headroom and compromised rear seat space are little price to pay for the show-stopping looks of the car. Ultimately you will be the judge - with almost half of the company's 400 (approx) car 2005 allocation presold it may well be on to something.

All versions get electrically adjustable memory front seats as standard equipment... Active ventilation or and dynamic multi-contour seats are offered as options.

There's no arguing about boot space - it's a four golf bag boot with a little clever packing. Though not as commodious as the E, it's more than adequate and, yes, there is a full size spare (350/500 only, 55 AMG gets a spacesaver) although it is fitted to a lightweight 'limited use' wheel.

Mercedes-Benz has long claimed leadership in the field of car safety. Based on the E Class, the CLS picks up all of the saloon's safety systems.

All recent Mercedes models boast a three-stage impact protection system which combines energy absorption zones and a central high-strength safety cell to maximize occupant safety.

Seat belt tensioners, belt force limiters, multi-stage airbags and curtain bags are all part of the extensive armoury as are the standard suite of safety-related driver aids including ABS, Emergency Brake Assist, traction and stability control. Chances are, if the safety system is available - it's standard equipment on a Mercedes-Benz and the CLS is no exception.

The new four-door will however be one of the first Mercedes to become available with the maker's new PRE-SAFE preventative occupant protection system. Available in "the near future", according to M-B, PRE-SAFE is able to detect emergency situations and intervenes to prepare both the occupants and the vehicle for an impending collision. The system automatically: tensions the seat belts of the driver and passenger; adjusts the front passenger seat if it is in "an unfavourable" position; automatically closes the sunroof and side windows.

Says Mercedes-Benz: "the development responds to accident research findings which indicates that more than two thirds of all traffic accidents follow critical driving situations - skidding, emergency braking or sudden evasive action - which allow the conclusion to be drawn that a collision is imminent. This valuable time before a crash, which can be several seconds, has previously been wasted for passive occupant protection purposes - well-proven protective systems such as seat belts, airbags or belt tensioners have only gone into action during an impact."

Under the new skin, the CLS essentially echoes the equivalent E Class model. Chassis platform, basic suspension componentry and powertrain mechanicals are all drawn from the E Class parts bin. Not that that is any way devalues the CLS - we're on record writing that the E Class, especially in 3.5lt V6 350 form is one of our favourite prestige saloons.

The CLS 350 is equipped with the same newly-developed V6 engine and 7G-TRONIC automatic gearbox which graces the E350. With an output of 200kW and max torque of 350Nm from 2400rpm, it's a lusty combination that should offer a blend of performance and refinement.

According to Mercedes Benz, the six-cylinder CLS accelerates from 0-100km/h in 7.0sec, is electronically-limited to 250km/h and has an ADR 81/01 fuel consumption of 11lt/100km.

Packing a 225kW 460Nm 5.0lt V8 engine, the CLS500 does the usually quoted sprint in a rapid 6.1sec and claims a remarkably frugal 12.6lt/100km. Top speed is also electronically-limited.

Both engines are partnered with Mercedes' much-applauded 7G-TRONIC seven-speed automatic transmission. We've sampled this trannie in everything from SLKs to E Class wagons and the odd glitch aside (see E 350 Estate test) can attest to its competence. One day all cars will have a self-shifter this good.

Wheelbase is shared with the E, though the CLS has a wider track. Suspension tuning is unique to the CLS. In both steel and air-sprung versions the car's stance is lower (than the equivalent E) and the componentry is tuned for sportier performance. As such there is no sport suspension option on the CLS. Of course, the AMG car takes the underpinnings to the next level via its own version of the semi-active, Adaptive Damping-equipped Airmatic DC.

The CLS 55 AMG is powered by one of the great engines of the moment. Proven in the E 55, CL 55 and S 55, the supercharged 5.5lt V8 pumps out an impressive 350kW of power and 750Nm of torque. Performance is effortless with 100km/h coming up in just 4.7sec from standstill. Keep the pedal buried and 200km/h is reached in just over 16sec.

Like the above-mentioned performance models, the CLS mates the blown eight with AMG's Speedshift five-speed autobox. Unlike the 7G, Speedshift has a full manual option - no upshifts or kickdown allowed. Steering wheel mounted toggles or the conventional lever can be used to do the shifting.

Buyers of "British and Italian cars" were quoted as peripheral targets for the CLS, but the crosshairs have been firmly drawn on the BMW 6 Series and 5 Series as well as Audi's A6. Indeed, M-B expects up to 40 per cent of CLS buyers will be new to the marque and that many will be eschewing a 'true' coupe to jump onboard.

It is the 645 that the car has most often been compared against. Priced at $196,000 the Bavarian is a good deal more expensive than the Benz. It is also, arguably, a 2+2 with rear seat use considerably more restricted than the CLS.

Dubbed the 'Jag-fighter' by its development engineers, ironically the CLS points to where Jaguar could be today with a modicum of courage and some adventurous design. There's hardly a surplus of XJ and S-type buyers Down Under -- now this car has hit there could be even less.

CarPoint drove the CLS500 and 55 AMG over a 400km-plus launch program on some of the same FNQ roads experienced during the recent E90 3 Series launch. The mix of roads and weather conditions (and, yes, it does rain in FNQ in June) delivered a reasonable opportunity to sample the cars in everything but freeway and stop-start city going.

Smooth and refined if not exactly blindingly quick, the CLS500 is an accomplished mile-eater. With the Airmatic DC set on the softest 'Comfort' setting little intrudes in the way of bumps though lateral body control is a little floaty. Opt for Sport 1 or 2 and the car is tied down a little more and is happy when pushing on.

The steering is quicker than the standard E and provides a reasonable degree of feedback without being demanding. The Michelin Pilot Sport tyres fitted to the 500 we drove were noisy on the coarse surfaces, however.

The 55 AMG is a true performance saloon with an addictive rush of power and a wonderful blend of induction and exhaust noise when prodded. Rolling on lower profile, wider rubber the car is a little more likely to follow surface irregularities but that's more a function of its eagerness to answer the helm than any roadholding fault.

In damp conditions we were happy to let the traction and stability control to do its work and concentrate on pointing the car in the right direction. There's no doubt the latest incarnation on the electric nanny is the most intuitive yet. You might notice the warning light flashing on the dash, but unless you've seriously overcooked something or been deliberately hamfisted the interaction is not obtrusive. Top stuff...

There's always a hint of serious burble from the CLS 55. And you can appreciate it even at 110km/h cruise for compared to the Michelins on the 500, the Pirelli PZero Rosso rubber is a magnitude quieter.

All that remains is for us to drive what could be the real world pick of the bunch, the CLS 350. One of the best powerplants on the road today, in the CLS the V6 should be a cracker. We'll let you know - you can count on it...




Published : Wednesday, 1 June 2005
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