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First drive: New Merc CLS flagship arrives

Coupe-style CLS53 replaces V8 CLS63 as Mercedes spreads electrification across board

10 Feb 2020

FEW people would have anticipated that the aspirated 6.2-litre V8 engine that pushed Mercedes to the fore in sedan performance and evoked a wealth of desire by enthusiasts, would eventually be replaced in its luxury models by smaller hybrid powerplants.


Mercedes-Benz admits that electrification is the future - at least as a way of reducing emissions. The trick is to maintain performance and keep its cars on the mantle as objects of awe and desire.


Open the door to the CLS flagship, the CLS53 AMG, and without qualification it ticks all the boxes as a luxury sedan.


It is festooned with leather, has superb quality in its materials and fit-finish, and contrasts black leather and stitching with chromed and alloy switchgear and fascia panels.


Like the design brief ordered, the CLS sits low and hungry. It’s long at 4988mm, wide at 1890mm and these dimensions are compounded by its 1435mm height.


It slinks back from the roofline where it meets the windscreen, flowing over the rear passengers’ heads - a bit tight for taller occupants - and then before being ruffled briefly over the rear window, continues its slope to the short boot.


It is everything a luxury sedan with sporting ideals should be. But the tail badge eschews the coveted ‘63’ logo that identified the top-shelf V8 engine, with its shouty exhaust and unmistakable bark under duress.


Now the best CLS the owner can buy has a chrome ‘53’ badge.


Is that a bad thing? No. For purists who love the addictive burble and bark of the 6.2-litre V8, all is not lost because there is an answer - the four-door GT63 S.


They will, of course, have to pay for it and pay dearly they will because the GT with the big-bore V8 is $359,100 plus on-road costs - a shade under twice the price of the CLS53 AMG.


That may not be worth the big leap, especially in Australia with limited potential to legally explore the performance.


Given this market, it makes a lot of sense to opt for the more modestly-priced CLS53 AMG and validates the move by Mercedes to smaller engines backed by electric assistance.


Mercedes-Benz Australia product communications manager Ryan Lewis told GoAuto that the 3.0-litre bi-turbo ‘43’ model is offered in the CLS body in other markets but was knocked back for Australia.


“There was no demand for that engine in that model,” he said, as Mercedes-Benz Australia stays with the choice of the 53 or the CLS350 (2.0-litre four-cylinder) and CLS450 (3.0-litre inline six).


“Our focus is with the 53. Buyers who want the extra performance can move up to the GT63 S.”


He said the wide range of custom options with the CLS53 also broadened its audience.


“There are a lot of choices for customers in this car and that’s a big part of its appeal,” he said.


“The Edition One offered at launch, for example, came with carbon-fibre trim with a copper weave that was very attractive and very much sought after.”


The CLS53 AMG continues the electrification path of Mercedes-Benz but the technology differs from that of the mild-hybrid C-Class versions.


It has a 3.0-litre inline-six petrol engine - coded M256 - with a single, twin-scroll turbocharger and an Integrated Starter Generator (ISG) mounted against the engine’s flywheel.


This electric motor starts the engine, acts as the generator for recouping energy when the car is braking or coasting and most importantly, has 16kW/249Nm that assists the engine when needed.


The 48-volt motor - which charges a lithium-ion battery under the boot - powers the CLS53 AMG’s electric compressor that forces air into the engine, effectively the second turbocharger.


Its role is to provide instant boost to the engine on acceleration and negates lag. Together with the electric motor, it is a seamless rush of power that perfectly showcases how electrification can work in concert with a conventional internal-combustion engine.


Aside from operating the compressor, the 48-volt motor runs the car’s secondary electrical system that powers the air conditioning compressor and water pumps, so there are no belts at the front of the engine to reduce maintenance.


Without extra crankshaft-drive pulleys on the engine, it also reduces engine length - ideal given the plan to keep the mechanical bulk within the wheelbase as much as possible to maximise chassis dynamics.


The ISG design compares with the C200 models that have a belt-driven starter-generator (BSG) unit.


These use a 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol good for 135kW/280Nm and an additional 10kW/160Nm from the electric motor.


The CLS53 AMG’s engine is rated at 320kW at 6100rpm and 520Nm of torque from 1800-5800rpm - the latter’s broad range indicative of the effect of the electric supercharger.


The EQ Boost motor has a separate 16kW/249Nm but the two figures aren’t relative as the motor produces its outputs at different times to the engine. Mercedes does not provide combined output figures.


The combination is good for a 0-100km/h time of 4.5 seconds (the 63S does it in 3.5 seconds) and claimed fuel consumption of 10.7 litres per 100 kilometres, with the vehicle driven here averaging 13.5 L/100km on its test.


Drive is through a nine-speed automatic ‘Speedshift TCT’ transmission that is effectively a conventional torque-converter system without the torque converter. It is not a dual-clutch system but instead uses a multi-clutch pack.


Mercedes’ 4Matic system gives all-wheel drive with the ability to move up to 50 per cent to the front axle and up to 100 per cent to the rear.


Chassis features are the standard air suspension (Air Body Control) with driver modes of Comfort, Sport and Sport+ that adjust the ride quality.


The CLS53 AMG body remains similar to the previous CLS model though identified by debuting the distinctive triangulated adaptive LED headlights.


Externally it wears 20-inch wheels – a higher spec for Australia as other markets start with 19-inches – though there are options including 21-inch rubber.


The drivetrain makes up the bulk of changes from previous CLS models, though the cabin now incorporates the latest from Mercedes’ MBUX infotainment development.


This includes the broad sweep of the two 12.3-inch digital screens that take the information and glorious colour of the maps across almost three-quarters of the dashboard.


Inside the MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User eXperience) is layers of navigation, personal communication, vehicle function and audio systems, in this case a surround-sound unit from Burmester with 13 speakers.


Voice activation and touch work together in a system that, while initially complex, familiarises to become a stand-out driver aid.


Bluetooth drives the connectivity from a mobile phone through the MBUX, while standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto expand the audio options.


The dash also has digital radio, wireless phone charging, two USB ports and sat-nav with free updates for three years, with options including head-up display and Wi-Fi.


The dashboard design is hard to beat in the segment. While some rivals opt for the sombre yet exclusive black look, Mercedes strives to add bling with a wealth of chrome and metal shine, highlighted by the six turbine-shaped vents - four in the middle, one at either extremity of the dash.


There is a lot of bling – perhaps too much – especially in the spokes of the steering wheel where Mercedes appears to have concentrated its high-frequency switchgear.


The front seats are heavily-bolstered AMG-spec units for comfort and support and include an active mode that boosts panels when the car corners.


The seats and door cards are finished in the quilted leather that identifies the top-shelf Merc models.


Cabin room is excellent, a byproduct of the long 2939mm wheelbase, with good headroom for front occupants but a bit limited for rear-seat passengers over 1.75m.


For the first time, the CLS has seating for three in the back seat, though the centre position is not recommended for any distance. Previous CLS variants were four-seaters.


The profile of the CLS hints at one downside to the style, with the boot holding 490 litres – decidedly small for such a large car.


That is further compromised by the small boot aperture and narrow dimensions of the cargo bay.


Standard safety gear is comprehensive, opening with autonomous emergency braking with adaptive cruise control and nine airbags, and under the “Driving Assistance package Plus”, the CLS gets front and rear cross-traffic alert, collision-avoidance steering with lane-keep assist and blind-spot monitor.


The ride comfort typifies the big-Merc qualities of having suppleness but with body rigidity that gives some firmness to the ride.


It is a car almost totally dependent on the road condition, and that spells either a compliant and enjoyable ride or one that places stress on the occupants’ kidneys.


Keep the suspension in ‘Comfort’ and the ride is supple enough to iron out the bumps, with the air suspension soaking up most of the smaller bitumen irregularities.


But dial ‘Sport’ or ‘Sport+’ and the car becomes uncomfortably harsh that borders on painful when the surface is a typical NSW country road – rough!


Keep the car in the city and suburbs or on highways and smooth-finished interstate roads and it remains beautifully composed and comfortable and quiet.


It will lure and decimate corners with limpet grip, partly because it’s an all-wheel drive so allocates a bot of drive between the four wheels but mainly because of its inherently balanced body and drivetrain placement.


The right-side gear selector remains a contentious design concept - people still report changing lanes with it as an indicator, only to flick the car into neutral - but that’s probably more about familiarisation.


The bling inside can be too much glare and distraction on a sunny day and the boot is a bit too small, but as a car that invites and excites, it only has the Audi S7 and BMW 8 Series Gran Coupe as true rivals.


2020 Mercedes-Benz CLS pricing*

CLS350 (a) $143,200
CLS450 (a) $161,900
CLS53 AMG (a) $186,800

*Excludes on-road costs

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