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Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - CLS-class - CLS500 4-dr coupe

Our Opinion

We like
Captivating style, luxury interior, on-road performance and handling, big boot
Room for improvement
Back seat okay but not generous, more expensive than similar-performing E-class

12 Aug 2005

IF beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then the Mercedes-Benz CLS is beholden to just about everybody who sees it.

Of the scores of people drawn to comment on the test CLS500 during our week-long affair, only one had anything negative to say about its looks.

Most fell in love with it immediately – even those who confessed to harbouring long-held, ingrained anti-Benz sentiments.

The CLS is that sort of car. And that’s exactly how Mercedes-Benz planned it.

And how else could it be with a car that is based on the E-class, yet is quite a bit more expensive, quite a bit heavier and noticeably less roomy inside.

The CLS is what Mercedes describes as a sort of amalgam of coupe and sedan. The company says it has the looks of the former, but is as practical as the latter.

We’re not about to argue with the looks, but there’s no question the CLS is compromised in its passenger-carrying ability. But not too much.

The penalty is in the back seat, where the lower roofline and lower-set seats eat into space for legs and torsos.

There’s just enough headroom for a tall rear-seat passenger, and just enough legroom courtesy of scalloped front seat backs.

You’re tucked away on a comfortable seat, looking out at the world via elegantly sweeping, but quite narrow side windows.

And you share this with just one other person, because the seating area is divided into two specific zones with not even the suggestion that a third passenger might be accommodated – the sort of thing you’d expect in a coupe.

On the other hand, and supporting the Benz practicality claim, the boot is big and useful, despite the drop-away rear deck. The quoted capacity is virtually the same as the E-class sedan, and it’s quite well shaped and easily accessed through a big, power-operated lid.

But back to the styling.

When the CLS was shown as a "coupe study" at the 2003 Frankfurt motor show it was obviously well past the concept stage.

With its dramatically curving profile and low-slung proportions it was a spectacular-looking design that looked about as far away from the E-class that sired it as it was possible to get.

A common reaction was to reference the CLS against Jaguar.

Certainly the styling elements were more related to the graciousness and elegance of the British brand than normal Mercedes-Benz pragmatic values. This design would have made a great basis for an XJ Jag.

But a Mercedes-Benz it is, and that’s a good thing for the company.

It will surely attract a quality of buyer who may never in the past have entertained the idea of buying a sedan wearing a three-pointed star because they always looked too, well, stodgy. This Benz sedan is aimed at "people who have a passion for motor cars and motoring".

The CLS is one of those cars that keeps drawing the eye. It makes other, similar-size four-door sedans suddenly look angular and tall.

Standing alongside, you’re always surprised at how low the roofline is – although it actually only squats 40mm below an E500.

The curve of the frameless side windows is its most captivating stylistic signature, but the CLS is also notable for the way the droopy boot fits beautifully with the overall style, much more effectively than, for example, Jaguar managed with the S-Type.

It delivers on its promise too - particularly in the CLS500 tested, which performs as strongly as its lighter E-class counterpart and builds in all the same technology.

This includes Mercedes Airmatic electronically controlled suspension, the seven-speed 7G-Tronic automatic transmission and the 225kW 5.0-litre three-valves-per-cylinder V8 seen across the entire rear-drive Mercedes-Benz range.

The claimed zero to 100km/h figure of 6.1 seconds is the same as the E500, even though there’s a roughly 80kg weight penalty. This shows up in the fuel consumption, which is quoted at 12.6 litres per 100km for the highway/urban mix – although Mercedes doesn’t insist on premium-grade unleaded fuel.

But although the underpinnings might be the same as the E500, the CLS500 feels quite different on the road.

You definitely feel you’re in something a bit special, enclosed in a low-slung cockpit with high silled, almost Audi TT-like side windows and surrounded by flowing shapes and plenty of burr walnut and leather.

And there’s an elegant analogue clock taking pride of place among the instruments.

There’s plenty of luxury to keep passengers happy. The CLS500 gets a standard glass sunroof, Thermotronic four-zone climate control, a six-disc CD changer, heated front seats with power adjustment and memory on both sides, TV and satellite-navigation.

The driver is aided by "active" Xenon headlights, cruise control (with speed limiter) and rear park-assist.

Compared with the E-class, the CLS definitely comes across as a driver’s car.

The driving position can be tailored, in the normal German fashion, to suit anything up to basketball players provided they don’t care too much for those in the back, and the all-alloy V8 produces a lovely, smooth and deep rumble.

The CLS500 responds to the accelerator with a smooth, progressive thrust in the back and virtually seamless gearshifts from the seven-speed transmission.

It feels fast and effortless, feeding back a carefully calculated measure of driver information.

The driver can choose, in sequential mode, whether to control the shifting from the central lever that unconventionally flicks sideways rather than backwards or forwards, or by buttons on the steering wheel.

The Airmatic suspension dials-in three distinctly different modes varying from a comfort setting that only firms up the air springs and shock absorbers during cornering, to a slightly more aggressive setting that activates the firmer rates earlier, to a full sports setting where the car squats 15mm lower and all the parameters controlling suspension and damping are changed to give more purposeful cornering behaviour.

Handling of the CLS handles is good enough that most of the time it’s perfectly fine to leave it in the comfort setting and allow the system to determine when it is being driven more aggressively.

The steering response sharpens up in the maximum setting, where the ride still manages to remain quite comfortable.

The steering, like everything else mechanical, is straight from the E-class and is basically a straightforward road-speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion system, is weighted close to perfection. Very rarely does the car feel as big and heavy as it actually is.

Big discs (330mm ventilated at the front and 300mm solid discs at the rear) and four-channel ABS with brake assist provide a feeling of strength and confidence that is well up to any challenges this substantial car might dish out.

The system also incorporates the Benz "Start-Off Assist" that holds the car in place when waiting at the lights on an incline with the transmission in drive.

Like all Benz models, the CLS occupies the safety high ground with "intelligent" dual front airbags, side airbags front and rear, and full-length curtain airbags.

A lovely car to look at, the Mercedes-Benz CLS500, and an equally lovely car to experience on the road. It breathes competence and quality, is luxurious and fast and asks fewer compromises than a two-door coupe.

The boot is great, but the rear compartment not so - particularly if you’re reasonably tall.

The CLS isn’t designed for regular multi-passenger use, although it manages a lot better than any living two-door. It’s not a flawless beauty, but it’s far from being superficial.

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