Time was a vehicle manufacturer could afford to specialize. Cadillacs simply had to be comfortable boats. Jaguars simply had to be beautiful. BMWs simply had to handle well. And Mercedes simply had to feel like they were carved from solid rock and last just about as long.
But with every manufacturer constantly improving, it is increasingly imperative that every product do well at just about everything, especially in the luxury class. For Mercedes, this required substantial improvements in chassis dynamics and styling. The erstwhile champion of diesels is now the leading seller of hyper-powerful eights and twelves. Once rare, sport packages and AMG versions are now available--and popular--with every model. Mercedes' styling began to change with the 1996 E-class, which introduced round headlamps to the range. Today's Mercedes sedans are perhaps the best-styled overall lineup, but remain too subtle for many people to appreciate. Among luxury sedans, BMWs have become more distinctive (if sometimes for the wrong reasons) and Jaguars have continued to be seen as those with sensuality and even soul.
This too could change. For the 2006 model year Mercedes has introduced the CLS-Class. A sporty variant of the E-Class as the CLK is a sporty variant of the C-Class, the CLS slots between the E-Class and S-Class in price. The car's main distinguishing feature vis-a-vis the E-Class: styling that seeks to out-Jag Jag.
My father has always wanted a Jaguar because of their styling, and even ordered an XJ6 back in the mid-1980s, but each time has chickened out owing to the brand's legendary lack of reliability. Jaguars have greatly improved in this regard, but in the meantime it has lost its position as the only European luxury sedan with style. If Mercedes manages to capture buyers like my father with its newest model, then Jaguar could face tough times ahead despite the improvements it has made in reliability.
Eager to see if the performance of the CLS matched its looks, we took one for a test drive.
Unlike the CLK, the CLS is a four-door. Mercedes is billing it as "the first four-door coupe." This is debatable on a number of levels. To begin with, Saturn and Mazda both offer coupes with four doors. Beyond this, the CLS' rear doors are forward-hinged like those on a sedan, and the car's proportions are quite sedan-like, with rear doors as long as the front doors. So it's not clear what makes the car a coupe. The racy roofline?
Most likely they're hoping the "coupe" designation will deflect complaints surrounding the car's coupe-like shortcomings. Oldsmobile's first generation Aurora suffered from such complaints; would it have fared better if marketed as a "four-door coupe?"
My eyes see a sedan, so that's what I'm going to call it.
Marketing's bag of tricks disposed of, I'll continue by saying that my eyes see perhaps the best-looking sedan currently available. The CLS' curves and contours are breathtakingly dynamic. In comparison, today's Jaguar sedans, especially the X and XJ, look thick, stiff, and downright frumpy. Not everyone is of this opinion. Some people perceive the CLS's rear end as droopy. They can stick with the relatively boring E-Class.
While the CLS' styling is certainly distinctive, this distinctiveness is not purchased through bizarre panel cuts and odd surfacing. In other words, Mercedes remains on a different path than BMW. The CLS reaches back to classic designs of the past rather than seeking to create a new design language. Harley Earl, GM's legendary stylist, would find much to like here. Although just four inches longer and two inches lower than an E-Class, the CLS manages to look much longer and much lower. Few designs manage to be at once distinctive and timelessly beautiful. In my opinion, the CLS achieves this. Aesthetically it is what the 2004 Jaguar XJ8 should have been.
Inside the CLS has an even stronger Jaguar flavor. An oval-shaped instrument panel is faced with a large plank of polished wood--a signature Jaguar feature. As in Jaguars, this design--where the instrument panel comes to a clear end rather than flowing into the doors--makes the already relatively narrow interior feel even narrower than it is. Sporty, but perhaps a bit tight-feeling for some.
This sporty character continues to the rear seat, where a wood-trimmed console divides the two seats. Yes, this big car is a four-seater.
Despite its stylish lines and prevalent wood trim, the CLS' interior lacks the warmth of Jaguar's best. The materials remain those of a Mercedes, and thus look and feel "cold." The test car's interior's light gray color did not help in this regard.
I've already mentioned the cabin's narrow feel. The CLS' racy roofline translates to a relatively small amount of glass, especially in the side windows. Surprisingly, this wasn't a major issue once inside the car, even when in the rear seat. Visibility remains acceptable looking forward, not so good to the rear. People who like to be able to see the corners of the car from the drivers seat won't be happy in this one.
A larger issue: that racy roofline makes getting into and out of the sedan unusually difficult. Rear seat passengers especially have to duck to avoid heading the header. If people see the CLS as a sedan, they will be disappointed. Many sports cars are easier to get into.
Once into the car comfort is good if not great. The test car was fitted with Mercedes' "multicontour" seats. These include adjustable side bolsters and dual power lumbar. I wouldn't order the car without this option unless your body happens to be the right size and shape for the standard seat. Mine isn't; so when I find side bolsters that fit me snugly I'm very happy.
With so many adjustments, support is excellent. Comfort, however, remains a bit lacking. Mercedes continues to trail the Scandanavians and even BMW in this regard. Its seats are a bit firm and just don't mold themselves to your body as well, myriad adjustments notwithstanding.
Befitting its "coupe" designation, the CLS' rear seats are on the tight side. They're shaped nicely, but are mounted too close to the floor for good thigh support. Because of the car's shape both headroom and kneeroom are tight for an average-sized man (me). Those six-feet and up won't be happy in back. I should note that the E-Class is hardly outstanding in this area, so the CLS isn't too much worse. If you want a Mercedes sedan with a roomy, comfortable rear seat, you're getting the big one.
And now for a positive surprise: the CLS "coupe" manages to have a roomier trunk than any Mercedes sedan. Don't plan on folding the rear seat for even more space, though. A small passthrough will have to do.
On the Road
One thing about coupes, real or imagined: they're not sports cars. More or less sedans with racier rooflines and (usually) fewer doors, they tend to drive much like sedans. The CLS is no exception. Aside from its cozier cockpit, it drives much like a Sport Package-equipped E-Class. Which means there are plenty of sedans out there that are more enjoyable to drive. Bottom line: the CLS doesn't drive nearly as special as it looks.
The engine is the same 5.0-liter V8 offered in every other Mercedes model save the C and SLK. It produces the 300 horsepower expected of a luxury car V8 these days, but doesn't feel especially powerful or sound especially sophisticated. The smaller V8s from Lexus and BMW pack considerably more midrange punch and make more upscale noises while doing so. The CLS500 accelerates quickly based on the speedometer needle, especially once up to highway speeds, but doesn't feel all that quick. The current Mercedes V8 is a three-valve-per-cylinder unit designed to minimize emissions. A more sporting four-valve engine is on its way, and not a moment too soon.
For performance that matches the CLS' looks, you'll want the AMG version, wtih its 469-horsepower supercharged V8.
Six-speed automatics are the norm in this class these days. In an attempt to one-up the others, Mercedes introduced a seven-speed automatic last year. It is the only transmission offered in the CLS500. More gears generally translate into better performance and economy. However, my father and I drove the new Lexus GS 430 right before driving the CLS, and it both feels stronger and earns significantly better numbers from the EPA. (In contrast, the CLS500 earns a $1,300 gas guzzler tax.)
For its part, the Mercedes transmission hesitates to downshift and generally doesn't seem as expert as others at keeping a step ahead of the driver's desires in selecting the right ratio for the moment. It deserves as much blame as the engine for the car's perceived energy deficit.
The CLS fares no better in the handling department. A thick-rimmed small-diameter steering wheel and low driving position promise sporty handling, but the car does not deliver on this promise. At low to moderate speeds the heavier-than-average steering simply feels odd. It doesn't promptly return to center coming out of a turn, and so must be manhandled a bit. Though this doesn't present any real physical challenge, it doesn't feel right and makes driving the car both smoothly and aggressively difficult. At higher speeds the car handles well enough, with good balance and grip. However, the steering continues to feel artificial.
Overall, the CLS feels distant and not sporty. The E-Class suffers from similar issues; it is just about my least favorite mid-sized luxury sedan to drive. I personally much prefer driving either the smaller C-Class or the larger S-Class. Among mid-sized luxury sedans, my father and I both thought the Lexus GS was much more fun to drive. I also prefer either the Jaguar S-Type (despite a less refined chassis) or the BMW 5-Series (about the best ride-handling balance on earth).
The CLS is fitted with Mercedes' Airmatic suspension. When I drove the S-Class with this suspension a few years ago I found that changing the setting from "comfort" to "normal" to "sport" had a huge impact on both handling and ride quality. In the CLS there are only two settings, and I was hard-pressed to tell the difference between them. I traversed the same set of curvy roads three times, alternating the setting, seeking to perceive a difference. My father and the salesperson thought they felt a difference, and I suppose the ride is firmer and lean is reduced in the sportier setting. But the difference is certainly much less than in that S-Class.
This isn't entirely a bad thing. Unlike in that S-Class, ride quality is good in either setting. This despite the car's standard 18-inch low-profile rubber (the S-Class had the benefit of much taller sidewalls). As expected in a post-Lexus luxury sedan, noise levels are low, so you feel like you are moving much less quickly than you are. Good for luxury, not so good for sportiness.
Mercedes CLS Price Comparisons and Pricing
A similarly-equipped E500 is about $7,000 less expensive. And a similarly-equipped Lexus GS 430, with sporty pretensions of its own, is a whopping $15,000 less expensive (and $18,000 less expensive invoice-to-invoice).
So you pay dearly for the CLS' flashy sheetmetal. That said, it's a much better bargain than the car's optional AMG design package--nearly $5,000 for slightly wider tires and a body kit.
Prices change frequently, and differences will vary based on feature level. To quickly generate these and other comparisons with the specific features you want, visit my Web site, www.truedelta.com. (It's the only site that provides true "apples-to-apples" price comparisons.)
TrueDelta's page for the Acura CLS:
The CLS is drop-dead gorgeous. Otherwise, it is less successful. Getting in and out is unusually difficult for such a large sedan--definitely the car's weakest point. Performance is at best average for a high-priced sedan. I suppose if you really love the look of the car, and I cannot fault you if you do, the rest of the car is easily livable. But the CLS's styling begs for a stronger engine and more agile chassis. The former is provided by the AMG model. The latter, probably not.
Overall, if driving enjoyment is your top priority you'll be happier in a less attractive BMW or even a Jaguar S-Type. For the price of the CLS you could even buy a supercharged S-Type R and have $10,000 left over. The CLS is a car for people who put styling first. Maybe it is a coupe.
Incidentally, plenty of people apparently fall into this camp. Mercedes is selling about 2000 of the cars each month, with sales of the E-Class and S-Class off by about the same amount.
Even before the test drive it was unlikely that my father would join this crowd. His neighbor has had multiple problems with the seven-speed automatic in a 2004 S-Class. The transmission has been replaced at least once, but continues to misbehave. Eager to keep a long-time customer satisfied, the dealer has agreed to replace the big sedan with a CLS. Which pretty much killed the deal for my father. Can't have the same car as the neighbors, you know. Luckily, after the test drive he didn't want the CLS anyway.
Without taking styling into account I'd be tempted to give the CLS two stars. But its so darn good lookin' I give it a third and even recommend it.
Mercedes CLS Reliability
Want better reliability information? Want to really know what difference it will make if you buy a Mercedes CLS rather than something else? My website, truedelta.com, will be providing this information in the form of "times in the shop" and "days in the shop" stats.
From these stats you might learn that your first choice, compared to your second choice, is likely to make 2.3 extra trips to the shop in its first five years. You might decide its advantages compensate for this, or you might not. Either way, you'll be able to make a much better informed decision than you can today
Before I can report results, I need data on all cars--not just the CLS--from people like you. To encourage participation, those who help provide the data will receive free access
to the site's reliability information. Non-participants will have to pay an access fee.
For the details, and to sign up, visit www.truedelta.com.
A link to this website and alphabetized links to my other vehicle reviews
can be found on my profile page
Some of my reviews of related vehicles:
BMW 5-Series review
Cadillac STS review
Jaguar S-Type R review
Lexus GS review
Mercedes E-Class review
Previous generation Mercedes S-Class review
2007 Mercedes S550 review
Amount Paid (US$):
Model and Options:
CLS500 with premium and lighting packages, power trunk