Not Without a Fight
On the market only since 2011, the second-generation Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class has had a roller-coaster life. When it first debuted, its slick design and impressive muscle were well-received. It was quickly shown up by the prettier, fancier, and dynamically superior Audi A7, and both were then eclipsed by the BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe. Now, after less than four years on the market, Benz is hitting back.
To appreciate how fully the new CLS will take the fight back to Ingolstadt and Munich, you have to look deep. Cosmetically, the new CLS receives only new headlights, a new lower front fascia, a revised grille, and revised lower rear fascia. The looks are improvements on an already good-looking car, giving it a bit more elegance and reducing some of the old nose’s bluntness. The interior makeover is also light, with the addition of a new steering wheel and Benz’s trademark “floating” navigation and entertainment screen. On the whole, these changes don’t sound like enough to make Audi and BMW worried, but that’s why you have to look deeper.
Perhaps the biggest change is under the hood. Conceding that the competition offers more fuel-efficient six-cylinder models and customers seem to like them, Benz has introduced the new CLS400 powered by a twin-turbo V-6. It’s a good motor, as we found when we first tried it in the closely related E-Class last year. It’s a torquey little motor with a fairly linear powerband that tapers off at the top end. Here in the CLS-Class, it provides more than enough power for most customers, with plenty of turbo-backed torque ready to execute a pass at any time. It’s no monster like the twin-turbo V-8s in the CLS550 and CLS63 AMG, but it’s plenty quick and very smooth. It doesn’t have much of a growl to it, as again, it’s not the performance motor, so Benz has kept it quiet.
A second key difference is the CLS400’s steel-spring suspension, as opposed to the other models’ fancy air suspension. Tuned for comfort, it doesn’t ride noticeably different than the air-sprung CLS550 in that car’s Comfort mode. The ride is fairly soft and keeps out most of the worst road imperfections. The car leans a fair bit in corners, but body motions are well-controlled and it transitions smoothly. With reasonably quick steering and good throttle response, the CLS400 takes a corner pretty well for a luxury sedan — excuse me, “four-door coupe.”
Given the minimal differences, you can accurately guess that the CLS550 drives pretty much the same way. Sure, the twin-turbo V-8 has a lot more power and makes a much better noise, but aside from push-you-back-in-the-seat acceleration, the driving experience is similar. The CLS550’s exclusive-for-now nine-speed automatic transmission is smoother and seems to communicate with the engine better than the seven-speed unit in the old CLS. Compared to the CLS400, though, it just feels faster.
It does pick up one advantage in handling, as its air suspension is adjustable and can be firmed up in Sport mode. Doing so makes the car ride harder, but without becoming harsh. It also reduces the body roll in corners a bit. All in all, the extra power and stiffer air springs help make the car a decent sports sedan, though I wouldn’t call the driving experience any more than marginally improved over the previous CLS-Class.
If performance and handling are what you’re after, the CLS63 AMG is, as always, the way to go. It sports a bigger twin-turbo V-8 with even more power on tap than before. The result is an addictive shove in the chest every time you get into the throttle. Like the other two models, this one seems to play a bit better with its seven-speed automatic transmission than before. The ride, even in Comfort, is again firmer, and even more so in Sport. The handling is substantially better than that of the CLS400 or CLS550 thanks to that performance suspension and a faster steering rack. This car feels like a proper sports sedan, if not an over-the-top one with all that torque. It turns in quickly and accurately with controlled body movements and wonderful grip from the standard 4Matic all-wheel drive and summer tires. Dinner plate-sized brakes clamped by football-sized calipers easily haul the car down from speed over and over without complaint. As with the CLS550, I would characterize the new CLS63 AMG as better than the old car, but only incrementally so.
When you’re not driving like teenager on a Mountain Dew binge, all three cars are perfectly comfortable for everyday commuting. The interior is quiet, the seats are comfortable, and the ride is good, even on the AMG. The latest COMAND navigation and entertainment software displayed on that fancy new screen is a welcome update that features crisper graphics and more functions. Unfortunately, it might be slightly more complicated to use than the old software. For example, having to connect your smartphone as a phone and as a Bluetooth audio player separately, on different screens, using different menus, seems like a needless complication. Navigating between functions on the screen can also be difficult, as you’re never sure which is achieved by turning the dial and which is achieved by tilting the dial to the side.
The other new technology works better. The CLS-Class picks up all the latest safety tech from the new E-Class, which means everything from adaptive cruise control to automatic emergency braking to lane-keeping assistance that can basically steer the car for you. The camera- and radar-based technologies together will essentially drive the car for you when you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, which is the one time you’d really want them to. They’ll also help save your bacon in an emergency.
With more models to choose from, a lower starting price, a more efficient engine option, better looks, and updated technology, the new CLS-Class is poised to recapture ground lost to Audi and BMW. It might not blow the competition out of the water, but it expands the model’s depth more than enough to regain consideration from buyers who may have strayed. Being as it’s a mid-cycle refresh (and an early one at that) rather than a full redesign, Benz may not have delivered a knockout blow, but it’s not going down without a fight, either.
Head to the second page of this review for more than 60 additional photos of the refreshed 2015 Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class.