First Drive: 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS 550 4MATIC

John LeBlanc
By John LeBlanc
Posted on October 15th, 2010

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FLORENCE, ITALY — It was no coincidence Mercedes-Benz’s new CLS was publicly unveiled during the clothing industry’s twice-a-year Paris Fashion Week. Although the new SLS AMG super sports car has garnered plenty of attention for its looks–mainly for its jaw-dropping “gull wing” doors that pay homage to the ‘Benz 300 SL racecar from the 1950s–Mercedes considers its new, second-generation CLS its most current piece of automotive haute couture.

Despite possessing four-doors and a solid B-pillar, Mercedes insisted on giving the original four-passenger 2003 CLS (based on the five-passenger E Class midsize sedan) the oxymoronic “four-door coup锝 moniker.

Customers ignored the fakery. Robust CLS sales ensued. And rivals copied. To the extent that cars like the Audi A7, Aston Martin Rapide, BMW 6 Series Grand Coupé, Porsche Panamera, Volkswagen Passat CC–and even SUVs like the BMW X6 Sports Activity Coupé–arguably can justify their existence to the first CLS. .

Heck, even Hyundai claims its new Sonata family sedan has “four-door coup锝 styling.

If not as groundbreaking in its style as the original, the new CLS’s fashionably-aggressive new looks will inevitably influence new ‘Benz models going forward. We’ve already seen this year, concepts for a CLS sports wagon (Beijing auto show’s Shooting Break) and a scaled down C Class compact version (Geneva’s F 800 Style), while a four-door coupé version of the square-jawed GLK cute ute has also been rumoured.

Canadians will get two, new CLS models next year as 2012 models. First comes the rear-wheel-drive CLS 63 AMG in the summer; second is the all-wheel-drive (available for the first time in this model) CLS 550 4MATIC, arriving about three months after.

While Europeans get a rash of diesel and V6 gas engine options, both of the Canadian CLSs get gas-V8s only. Mercedes says, however, the pair of all-new, direct-injection engines offer more power and torque but get better fuel economy and reduced CO2 emissions than their respective predecessors.

Our “base” CLS 550 4MATIC receives the twin-turbocharged 4.6-litre V8 (first offered in the 2011 CL full-size two-door) that makes 429 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque, expected to achieve a fuel saving around 25 per cent over the current model’s 9.8L/100 km city, 11.2 hwy ratings.

The high performance CLS 63 AMG uses a 563 hp and 590 lb-ft of torque version of the twin-turbocharged 5.5-litre V8 engine, replacing the older, naturally aspirated 6.3-litre eight.

In regards to pricing, Mercedes-Benz Canada officials say expect to see a 7 to 8 per cent reduction in the current asking prices for today’s $91,200 CLS 550 and $126,700 CLS 63 AMG.

So the first CLS can be attributed for creating a whole new genre of car. Booyah for ‘Benz. But as the first CLS was all about image (Mercedes said 64 per cent first-generation CLS buyers bought it for its styling) or making a lifestyle statement (you don’t really need three-across rear seating), the so-called “coup锝 wasn’t that different to drive than the E Class sedan it was based on, continuing the traditional Mercedes chassis strategy of either a soft-handling base model, or a ground-pounding AMG upgrade.

But for the 2012 models, the German automaker claims the new CLS is more of a “driver’s car,” offering more agility via the marriage of a multi-link rear suspension with its AWD for the first time, new lightweight construction (it’s the first Mercedes to have frameless, all-aluminum doors saving 24 kgs each) and new electromechanical power steering.

After flogging a preproduction 2012 CLS 550 4MATIC (with the standard adjustable air suspension and adaptive shocks setup that is optional on lesser Euro models) over some mountain roads and passes favoured by local Florentine two-wheel crotch rocket pilots, just a few days after its runway debut at this year’s Paris auto show, the car easily impresses from behind the steering wheel. To be succinct, the new CLS is easily the best Mercedes you can buy in combining engaging driving characteristics with a ride that doesn’t require booking an appointment with your chiropractor.

Mercedes’ new electromechanical power steering system (EPS) makes its world debut in the new CLS, and makes a world of difference to the driver. In developing the new EPS, Mercedes engineers said this was the first time they had the freedom to choose and program freely a wide variety of parameters (steering response, feedback, centre alignment and damping, response rate, physical effort), whether it was for the CLS, an M SUV or an SLK sports car. And compared to the numb and uncommunicative setup in the duller E Class sedan, the CLS’s steering ratio is noticeably more direct, linear, and precise, with just enough feedback.

After the improved steering, it’s the new CLS’s ride/handling-balancing act that impresses the most. Even in its sportiest setting, the electronically controlled continuously variable damping system (working on each wheel individually) delivers spirited driving dynamics without compromising ride comfort.

And finally, while other automakers still offer five- and six-speed automatic gearboxes, the new CLS 550 4MATIC comes with Mercedes’ fourth-generation seven-speed automatic. Matched to the new, more responsive V8, the gearbox’s new generation torque converter provides smooth, rapid and responsive cog swaps.

With BMW seemingly on a path to soften its cars (i.e. der neu 5 Series) the once large gap that existed between the rival German cars for enthusiast drivers’ wallets has been dramatically narrowed with the new CLS’s comprehensive driving dynamics personality.

Beyond sporting this season’s latest duds, the new CLS’s improved driving experience finally warrants its $10k-plus premium pricing over its dowdier E Class counterparts.

In fact, the forthcoming CLS 63 AMG is going to have to be an impressive effort to make it worth its premium price over the cooking CLS.

2011 Mercedes-Benz CLS 550 4MATIC

EST. BASE PRICE: $85,000

ENGINE: 4.6L twin-turbocharged vee-eight

POWER: 429 hp/516 lb.-ft.

EST. FUEL CONSUMPTION L/100 km: 7.4 city; 8.4 hwy.

COMPETITION: Audi A7, BMW 6 Series Grand Coupé, Porsche Panamera

WHAT’S BEST: Best balance in ride/handling and steering yet in a Mercedes; car feels smaller than it actually is on the road; responsive gearbox.

WHAT’S WORST: More cartoonish looks of the sequel can’t match the beauty of the original; still a lot of car for only four people.

WHAT’S INTERESTING: Europe will be the largest market for the CLS; an estimated of 1 in 2 of global sales

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