Recently retired Daimler CEO, Dieter Zetsche, is widely acknowledged as being the chairman responsible for an altogether less formal approach to the way Mercedes-Benz conducts its business. It could, however, be argued that 24 months before Zetsche walked into his first board meeting sans a necktie (see our August 2019 issue for an in-depth interview with him), the 2004 launch of the first CLS had already introduced a welcome element of business-casual to the brand. Based on the W211 E-Class of the time, the swept-back, coupé-mimicking lines of the first-generation CLS offered customers all the substance of its donor car in a sleek new package brimming with character and anti-establishment charm.
Successful enough to be green-lit for a second generation launching in 2010, the sharper lines of the subsequent W218 model would even spawn an effortlessly cool Shooting Brake derivative, only adding charisma to the package.
With unfortunately no wagon version on the horizon for the latest generation, the new C257 CLS nevertheless makes the most of its sleek profile and fiercest interpretation of the brand’s “predator face” design language yet to distinguish itself from both its closest rivals and within its broader family. Sharing a wheelbase with the current E-Class, the new CLS is longer (by 65 mm), wider (38 mm) and 33 mm lower than its sedan sibling. As stealthy as it looks, the CLS also boasts an impressively low drag coefficient of just 0,26. Further menace was added to our test unit via upgraded 20-inch alloy wheels and an optional (R7 000) heavy tint on the rear windows.
Shading aside, the purposely narrow glass house on Mercedes’ latest four-door coupé translates to a heightened sense of snugness. Upgraded to a full five-seater via the inclusion of a third three-point seatbelt, rear-passenger comfort in the CLS remains acceptable rather than generous, with access and headroom for taller passengers at a premium. Added versatility comes in the form of an optional 40:20:40-split folding rear backrest increasing luggage capacity from an above average 384 to a 872 litres.
It’s an altogether more favourable situation up front, as both seats offer impressive levels of adjustment, comfort and lateral support. Combined with one of the most premium-looking (and feeling) Mercedes-Benz interiors, there’s no shortage of E-Class-derived sophistication on offer within its raked-roof sibling. With this in mind, it’s a pity local dealerships will seek an additional R14 375 for the must-have upgrade to the latest digital infotainment system (including a 12,3-inch display screen), as well as a further premium for genuine leather upholstery.
Offered in an all-wheel-drive configuration in left-hand-drive markets, all second-generation CLS derivatives sold in South Africa – including the mighty 63 S AMG tested in June 2015 – had available torque delivered exclusively to the rear wheels, a setup that proved somewhat unnerving once figures like 430 kW and 800 N.m were deployed.
With the unveiling of the latest iteration of the tailored CLS comes the news the range will peak with a new 53 designation, affording the closely related (although ultimately more focused) forthcoming AMG GT63 S 4-door the honours in terms sledgehammer performance. Also available in the E-Class, this new 3,0-litre straight-six engine boasts a combination of traditional turbocharging (represented by a single, twin-scroll blower), as well as mild hybrid technology in the form of an electrically powered compressor mounted adjacent to the inlet port and a 48 V “EQ Boost” electric motor positioned between the engine and transmission able to supply an additional 16 kW and not-insubstantial 250 N.m to the party when required.
Refined at idle, wonderfully linear in its delivery and capable of adopting myriad characters depending on the situation, this is one of the finest examples of a modern inline six-cylinder that we’ve experienced.
Mated with the brand’s impressive 9G-tronic automatic transmission and sending torque to all four wheels via a (rear-favouring) continuously variable 4Matic+ system, this 320 kW/520 N.m AMG offering managed to complete the benchmark 0-100 km/h sprint in just 4,63 seconds; only fractionally slower than the tyre-shredding CLS63 S tested in 2015.
As with the infotainment system, some testers noted that having to add R24 000 to the asking price of an AMG-built product for the pleasure of a sports exhaust upgrade seems a little mean.
With the five-step Dynamic Select system switched to eco, a new glide mode decouples the transmission once it detects a steady-speed cruise, thereby improving overall fuel consumption. As such, we achieved a relatively impressive fuel-run figure of 9,5 L/100 km for the new top-of-the-range CLS.
A further benefit of not being selected for Affalterbach’s first team is that the 53’s overall ride quality hasn’t been compromised in the pursuit of lap times. Indeed, where recent 63 models have offered impressive levels of grip and precise, it has more often than not been to the detriment of real-world compliance. Fitted as standard with AMG Ride Control with air springs, the new CLS53 lowers itself at cruising speeds, while the driver has the option to both raise the ride height when required, or firm up the suspension through three settings. Left to its own devices, it’s a setup that manages an impressive middle ground between comfort and agility.
Also adjustable is the weight of the electrically assisted steering system, itself offering welcome levels of feel and precision, both while negotiating a mountain pass blast or where the heavy 53 is most at home: on the open road.
While it remains to be seen whether the decision to save the full 63 treatment for the AMG GT 4-door that, on paper, appears so closely related to the modern CLS, will pay dividends, the immediate benefit of this realignment is that it’s unshackled the less powerful member of the family from the pressures of expectation. Indeed, by focusing instead on overall refinement and establishing an optimal balance between performance and luxury, Mercedes-Benz has granted the CLS the kind of polish and poise that arguably best suits its styling.
Much like the C43 Coupé compared with the full might of its C63 sibling, there’s a lot to be said for the benefits of turning down the wick somewhat and offering owners a best-of-both-worlds scenario. There’s enough spirit to get the adrenaline pumping when the occasion arises but also enough refinement to be taken seriously at the next board meeting.
All things considered, there’s a genuine chance that an average driver might, indeed, be more effective and confident behind the wheel of the all-wheel-drive CLS53 than in a more powerful member of the same family.
ROAD TEST SCORE