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2019 Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class Test Drive Review
When Mercedes-Benz introduced the CLS in 2004, the curvy 4-seater was the most radical-looking sedan the company had ever made. The world had witnessed more obscure sedans with extreme style—the Rover SD1, Citroën DS, and Aston Martin Lagonda—but never from the conservative designers at Mercedes-Benz. It was genuinely shocking but in a very good way. Today, despite having inspired all sorts of competition, the third-generation 2019 CLS is just as striking. And while it remains a rarer sight on the road, the new CLS claims to lead among luxury cars with superior technology and powertrains.
Look and Feel
Mercedes-Benz calls the CLS a “4-door coupe,” and while other automakers have applied a coupe descriptor to sedans throughout history, the modern definition still calls for two doors. Regardless, the CLS is a sensational piece. The new car removes creases and streaks from the body panels, instead opting for a smoothness that swells and contracts like a Coke bottle. The CLS appears to stretch from its long hood to its dovetail trunk lid and squat lower than before. The side profile, its most defining feature with those slim, pillar-less doors and raked glass, has hardly changed since the first generation. Up front, the CLS grabs the angry race car look of the AMG GT, with a trapezoidal grille and slanted LED headlights. Out back, flush exhaust tips and squinting LED taillights complete this car’s tailored form.
It’s almost perfect, were it not for the rear bumper extension mounted around the license plate. Mercedes modifies the flush European bumper this way in order to meet U.S. requirements. I hated it when I first saw it, but in our car’s Ruby Black Metallic—which glows a reddish brown under the sun—and the two-tone 19-inch wheels on summer tires as large as a Jaguar F-TYPE’s... well, I can forgive such things.
The interior—dear Lord, the interior. Our car’s Macchiato Beige and Titian Red is the best way to experience this sumptuous and lavish space. Where else have you touched a white steering wheel? Everything is soft, supple, and stitched with the finest details. Even the lower door pockets are lined with deep carpeting. It’s a $4,900 extra as part of the exclusive designo series (including the leather-edged floor mats). But basically, you’re observing sculpture. Curved wood with inlaid white lines flows across the dash like a wave, interrupted by industrial circular air vents that lend an old mechanical vibe to an otherwise digital cabin. The ambient lighting is a treat. It can cycle through 64 colors and ten themes that even gently change the hue as you drive or start the car. With lighting in the footwells, beneath the wood trim, inside the air vents, and outlining the stainless-steel speaker grilles on the headliner, the CLS clobbers your senses. (And that’s before you turn on the stereo, inhale perfume, and feel the armrests warm your elbows.) When fully optioned, nothing short of a Bentley or Rolls-Royce is as decadent inside as a CLS.
Our CLS 450 4Matic is the base car, but in this category, base has you completely covered. In the U.S., the CLS is the first Mercedes to launch the company’s new inline-6, an inherently smoother engine design than a typical V6, and one it hasn’t used in some 20 years. This turbocharged 3.0-liter I6 is slightly higher in output than the turbo 3.0-liter V6 we tested in the E400, at 362 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. But this engine’s top secret? It’s attached to an electric motor-generator sandwiched between the output shaft and the 9-speed automatic transmission, which means the CLS-Class is now a hybrid. The generator part replaces the alternator, and since it runs off a 48-volt electrical system powered by a separate lithium-ion battery, it has enough current to power most accessories (like the air conditioning) and start the engine (replacing the traditional starter motor). There is no accessory drive belt like on all engines today. As such, during cold startups there is hardly any shake. When the auto stop-start system engages, you hardly feel any vibration—and unlike most cars with this feature, the air conditioning continues to crank fast and cold with the engine off. In Eco mode, the CLS can shut off the engine while coasting at high speeds and seamlessly restart it if you brake or tap the accelerator. When you want full power, the electric motor provides up to 21 additional hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, indicated by an “EQ” display under the tachometer.
This is all technically impressive, but while driving, the new powertrain doesn’t feel much different than the regular V6. It’s still a lazy car in the default Comfort mode, reluctant to downshift until your foot is deep into the floor. That’s common in most Mercedes vehicles, and with our car’s adaptive air suspension, it’s done on purpose. The CLS is like gliding on a cloud. That’s how it felt even when driving over the George Washington Bridge in horrendous New York City traffic. Yet there’s a lightness to all the controls that eases this kind of stress. In Sport and Sport+, the engine awakens and emits a snarlier rasp than the V6, with just enough sound coming through the isolated cabin. It moves, trust me. Another trim, the AMG CLS 53, will pick up where the turbo V8 left in the 2018 CLS 550. At 429 hp and 384 lb-ft thanks to an electric compressor (essentially a second turbocharger), this CLS should really tear down the interstate.
Rear-wheel drive (RWD) is standard, although the 4Matic all-wheel drive (AWD) helped the car claw through tighter turns. These sportier driving modes also stiffen the suspension and steering effort, and under hard braking and turning there is noticeably less lean and very little dive. I had summer Goodyear Eagle F1 tires on the car, which aren’t indicative of the all-season tires most buyers will find at the dealer. Either way, the CLS can swing at a higher pace without issue, but it’s better as a cushy touring car. Occasionally, the 9-speed is clunky at low-speed downshifts, but mostly, it’s smooth.
As for the hybrid powertrain’s fuel economy, it’s merely adequate. The EPA says that a rear-wheel-drive CLS 450 will return 24 mpg city, 31 highway, and 26 combined. Adding 4Matic all-wheel drive knocks those numbers down to 23/30/26, and the AMG 53 4Matic returns 21/27/23. Over 936 mostly highway miles, I saw 25.5 mpg on the trip computer, with up to 29 mpg on some stretches from Maryland to Connecticut. This is still a heavy car—and I’m still eager to accelerate hard up the on-ramps.
Form and Function
It's not surprising the CLS has less space inside than a traditional sedan. In the rear, passengers approaching 6 feet need to slouch to avoid fusing their craniums to the ceiling. Knee cutouts on the front seatbacks can help, but people of any size will find squeezing through the short rear-door openings a challenge. It’s not totally cramped, but this is not the generously sized cabin of an E-Class sedan. For the first time, Mercedes has fitted the CLS with a standard rear bench seat accommodating three people in place of two separate seats. Of course, no one can actually fit in the middle seat. I also expected more amenities in the rear. This test car had heated rear seats, a fourth USB port, and a 115-volt outlet—most of which were optional. A car of this caliber deserves dual-zone climate control and cooled seats. Thankfully, those features—and much more—can be found up front, where it offers plenty of space. I took the CLS on a 4-hour cruise from Newark, New Jersey, to Ocean City, Maryland. Results? Zero fatigue. That’s how comfortable and supportive these seats are and how quiet the cabin is, thanks to the double-pane window glass (part of a $1,100 Acoustic Comfort Package).
The CLS's 11.9 cubic feet of trunk space doesn't sound like much, but I found it roomy enough for two large duffel bags, a large carry-on roller, and several backpacks. The opening is big enough to fit most items, and there’s under-floor space (but no spare tire) to hide more items, like a surprise bottle of champagne. The seats fold down, although Mercedes hasn’t yet rated its full cargo capacity.
The dual 12.3-inch displays for the infotainment system and instrument panel (the latter is optional) are overwhelming on the first, second, and tenth try. There are so many ways to manipulate this system—two thumbpads that push and swipe in four directions, a central touchpad with three buttons, a knob that rotates in two directions and pushes in five, plus several more buttons surrounding it. A few shortcut buttons for navigation, audio, phone, and vehicle settings help, along with physical climate controls and the door-mounted seat controls. But there are so many submenus upon submenus to navigate, whether it’s switching from HD Radio to SiriusXM or just changing the color of the ambient lighting.
Once acclimated, you’ll revel in the customization. It's not a touchscreen, but the instrument panel can be altered to fit three primary designs, but even then, you can replace the tachometer with a map, see how the car’s driving assists work, watch real-time tire pressure and temperature monitoring, and view any one of dozens upon dozens of layouts that best suit you. The standard navigation comes with three years of map updates and live traffic, although the automatic rerouting feature couldn’t always detect big backups. In fact, what looked like a minor slowdown on Delaware’s Route 1 was actually a 5-mile standstill. The car had no clue it would be so bad.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come standard, while onboard Wi-Fi and a wireless charging pad in the center stack are optional. Mercedes also brings what it calls Mercedes me connect, a suite of telematics services that offers remote unlocking, stolen-vehicle tracking, and other conveniences. A searchable digital owner’s manual makes it easy, for example, to learn how to program the garage door opener. However, the CLS tech becomes silly with Energizing Comfort, which features a “spa” program that combines the car’s seat heating, cooling, perfume mister, and ambient lighting with special music. It also has an exercise program in which a woman’s voice instructs you to clench your buttocks. We didn’t go there. The car did.
When equipped with the Driver Assistance Package ($2,250), the CLS employs one of the best semi-autonomous systems in the business. On highways and marked 2-lane roads, the CLS can steer and brake autonomously over long distances. It can change lanes by itself when you hold the turn signal, it follows and adjusts to posted speed limits and slows down for curves, intersections, and exit ramps. But among these systems, being the best doesn’t mean much. While it works well at stop-and-go and normal traffic speeds, the CLS will screw up enough times—whoops, we’re not turning anymore!—that you’ll want to disable everything. And some features, like the auto-braking function that attempts to keep you from changing lanes into a nearby car, jolted me when I was already well ahead of the car behind me. Out came a stream of expletives. No matter what Mercedes says, it’s not as intelligent as an attentive human. Spend your money instead on the Burmester stereo ($5,400) and its “3D-Surround Sound.”
Despite flaws in the driver-assistance systems, the ones working behind the scenes are impressive: pedestrian and blind-spot detection, front and rear cross-traffic alerts, and advanced steering that can help the driver route around a stopped obstacle. Forward-collision alert, auto braking, and a driver-attention monitor also come standard, as does a sensing system so advanced it can predict if someone is about to rear-end you and quickly adjust your seat, close the windows, and flash the hazards. The car’s stereo will play what Mercedes calls “pink noise” during a collision to protect the ear from loud sounds. An early form of vehicle to vehicle (V2V) connected networking is also standard, called Car-to-X, that transmits and receives road warnings to and from Mercedes vehicles. Another system can limit the effects of crosswinds. An optional system can detect side-impact collisions and instantly inflate the seat bolsters to push driver or passenger up to 2.75 inches further away from the impact. When equipped with 360-degree cameras, the central screen can show all four tires—perfect for watching those delicate rims in the McDonald’s drive-thru—or automatically display the front camera when pulling up to a spot.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) have not rated the CLS. However, both agencies have rated the 2018 E-Class sedan that shares the same chassis. In NHTSA’s eight crash-test metrics, the E-class scored a top 5 stars in every category. The IIHS scored it as a Top Safety Pick+, awarding it the top Good rating in all six crash tests and rating its collision-avoidance features as Superior. We expect the CLS to perform just as strongly.
The new CLS 450 starts at $69,200, the CLS 450 4Matic starts at $71,700, and our car cost $101,105 with options and destination. That’s huge money for what amounts to an E-Class in a sexier body. But the CLS competes in a narrow, high-end field that includes the Audi A7 and BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe. Additionally, buyers might consider a lower-tier Porsche Panamera or a Maserati Quattroporte, neither of which are as pretty. Options are extremely pricey, and resale value is only average. Expect a 50% hit after just three years. However, few cars are as richly appointed, technically proficient, and drop-dead gorgeous as this Mercedes.
Clifford Atiyeh is a reporter and photographer who has spent a good portion of his life driving cars he doesn't own. He is vice president of the New England Motor Press Association and committed to saving both manuals and old Volvos.
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