Catalonia, Spain – Automakers have little hope of selling their cars if they don’t look good (Murano convertible, I’m looking at you).
There are exceptions to every rule, but for the most part design is king. This is especially true today as the car world is flooded with more choice than ever before.
Think about an iPhone or a Macbook. They tend to cost much more than their competition but Apple still manages to move truckloads of them.
And some might dislike the brand but there is no denying that Apple makes beautiful and sexy products that compel people to throw large sums of money at them. Even if their stuff weren’t functional (it is), people would buy them just for the visual and tactile stimulation of owning something sleek and metal.
Apple can also be credited with standardizing the formula for smartphones that now virtually every one employs.
Likewise Mercedes-Benz, a brand long synonymous with luxury and innovation was the first company to produce the now ubiquitous “4-door coupe”, a term in itself a bit of an oxymoron. Coupes are sleeker, less practical and more of an emotional purchase and that’s exactly what the first generation CLS introduced to the world in 2004.
It was slightly longer and wider than the E-class but only seated 4 and had a sloping roofline that gave the car a dramatic and slippery look, but also cut into the rear head room making for a somewhat claustrophobic ride for rear passengers. Anyone over 6 feet tall, your author included, ran the risk of kissing their noggin on the headliner during ingress.
Practicality aside the design of the first gen CLS was a winning formula. It had an unmistakable silhouette and gained admiration from the public and other auto manufacturers alike.
Case in point is the number of “4 door coupes” and even SUV coupes that are for sale on the market today.
Just like that first iPhone, a winning formula is hard to ignore.
Imitation is often said to be the best form of flattery, and just about everyone from Aston Martin to Volkswagen now have some form of this design language.
It would seem that given the much lower take rate of coupes that the CLS would be a bit of a tough sell. But the first and second generation went on to sell a whopping 375,000 examples during its run.
So here we were in beautiful Barcelona (Bartheloona as it’s actually pronounced) tasked with putting the new 2019 CLS 450 and AMG CLS 53 4 Matic+ through its paces in the mesmerizing Catalonian hills.
There are certainly worse jobs out there.
Right of the bat you notice the styling direction of this new model has been taken back to the original. I was not a fan of the 2nd generation CLS. To me it looked bloated and a bit slab sided, not nearly as cohesive and refined as the first one. The drama of the original seemed to have disappeared.
It’s safe to say now—sexy is back again.
“Our designers have consistently realized the philosophy of “sensual purity” without any hard edges,” remarked Peter Kolb, Overall Vehicle Testing for Mercedes-Benz during our pre-flight session.
This new CLS is refined, elegant and athletic all at the same time. The designers have gotten rid of the character lines that run the length of the car, which makes for a very pleasing, slippery shape.
Like a shark and a bullet had a baby.
That aesthetically pleasing shape is also very aerodynamic achieving a significantly low drag coefficient of 0.26, no doubt aiding the already impressive fuel economy.
But the most significant development is the introduction of the 48 V electrical system to North America, and the re-introduction of the straight six—an engine configuration sadly missing from the Mercedes lineup since 1998. Likely abandoned for V6s due to packaging constraints, straight sixes are known for their buttery smoothness and refined character that is not present in most other engine configurations.
That electrical system is made possible by what Mercedes calls the ISG(integrated starter generator). This unit sandwiched between the engine and transmission combines the starter and a generator in a neat package to give the car a true 48 Volts of electrical power.
This is 4 times as much as normal 12 V systems and is used to power the water pump and air conditioning compressor among other functions like energy recovery and a boost mode (called EQ boost), which supplements the gasoline engine with an additional 22 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque in short bursts.
There is also a new “sail mode”, which as it sounds allows the car to coast at highways speeds on electrics alone. It is an uncanny feeling when you’re motoring along at 120km/h and the rev counter drops to zero as the the gasoline engine shuts off. It starts up again seamlessly if more power is needed.
There is still a regular 12 V battery on board to power other consumbales like the instruments and lighting.
The CLS 450 and AMG CLS 53 both outfitted with Mercedes’ new 3 litre twin turbocharged straight six generate 367hp and 369 lb-ft of torque and 429hp and 384 lb-ft respectively. These motors feel like V8s and have absolutely no lag whatsoever.
With most engines being turbocharged these days, turbo lag is not what it used to be. Significant enhancements have made modern turbos very reliable and capable of generating full boost pressures in extremely short times. This was but a pipe dream for the turbo engines of the 80’s.
We sat down with Dr. Ralph Weller, responsible for developing these engines, for dinner where he tried to explain how all of this worked. He lost me pretty quickly when he started talking about shifting load points and being able to operate in different engine maps on the fly, but I was able to catch onto a few things.
One of them is the electric auxiliary compressor (basically an electrically driven turbo) that can spin up to 70,000 rpm in as little as 300 milliseconds. This gives instantaneous power on demand until the traditional exhaust driven turbo has spooled up to speed.
And this is something that was apparent almost immediately when driving either the 450 or the AMG (which has a slightly larger turbo). Power was delivered as soon as I mashed the throttle and carried all the way to red line with no sign of letting up until the next gear was selected and the process was repeated.
Coupled with the electric boost from the 48V system, it almost felt like a naturally aspirated V8 was under the hood. The biggest difference was the sound.
We expect AMG cars to have that familiar V8 rumble which admittedly sounds stupendous, but the leonine growl delivered by these buttery smooth sixes is almost better.
It actually gave me goose bumps when I opened up the taps. It felt like all 6 cylinders were wired directly into my cranium. It filled my ears and it made me giggle almost uncontrollably.
Most turbo engines today sound gruff and muffled, with no real nuances. They are tools to get a job done, which they do. But the drama delivered from a properly tuned exhaust is unbeatable and makes the driving experience so much better.
On the steep hills surrounding Barcelona the exhaust on the AMG echoed of the canyon walls, gurgling and popping on overrun. I felt compelled to pull the left shift paddle for no other reason than to listen to the music delivered by these straight sixes.
This alone is almost worth the price of admission, which is admittedly very steep. The 2019 CLS will be priced slightly higher than the outgoing model but exact figures have not been determined yet.
Out in the Catalonian hills the electric steering rack was actually communicative. A surprise, given the feel of electric racks in almost any car today—regardless of price.
It was a pleasant surprise.
The ride in both the CLS 53 and 450 was acceptably firm but the glass smooth roads of Spain aren’t really the best place to get a read on ride quality. Nevertheless we did not spend much time in comfort mode.
And when I say smooth roads, they are smooth everywhere. No matter the elevation.
Climbing up these cragged mountains, one hairpin after the other, the overall handling balance of these very heavy sedans was remarkable. The amount of grip on hand immense, much more than I was willing to explore mind you. It felt lighter than it is, which is 4300lbs. And that’s a lot. But this is a lot of car so it’s not a surprise really.
The AMG has a new fully variable AWD system that is continuously switching from AWD to RWD depending on driving conditions. The transition is seamless with nothing noticeable to the driver.
The cabin environment is a great place to be, the newly styled air vents look like jet turbines and are much easier to operate. They glow now, too, matching the 64 colour ambient lighting that is present throughout the rest of the cabin.
There’s not much to dislike here. Still not a fan of the wiper stalk being on the other side, but that’s a quibble really. This car, and I quote Mr. James May here, gave me a bit of that illustrious fizz. I have not felt that in a new car in quite a while.
A more thorough test on Canadian roads might reveal more foibles.
Until then I believe Mercedes has a winner on their hands.
2019 Mercedes-Benz CLS 450 4Matic and Mercedes-AMG CLS 53 4Matic+
BODY STYLE: Mid-Size Luxury Sedan
DRIVE METHOD: Front-engine, All-wheel drive.
ENGINE: In-line 6 cylinder 3.0L with ISG – CLS 450: 363 hp @ 5500-6100 rpm, Torque: 369 [email protected] 1600-4000 rpm CLS 53: 429 hp @ 6100rpm, Torque: 384 lb-ft @ 1600-4000 rpm – EQ boost adds additional 21 hp and 184 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: 9G-TRONIC 9-Speed automatic
FUEL ECONOMY: (Premium) Combined CLS 450 8.0-7.8 L/100 km CLS 53 CLS 53 8.9-8.7 L/100 km (European figures)
CARGO CAPACITY: 520 litres
EXPECTED: Late Summer 2018