2007 Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Style and flash with ability to dash.
The CLS has frequently been called one of the most beautifully crafted Mercedes-Benzes ever. We won't challenge that observation. It has the look of a coupe. Yet it has four doors. And in terms of interior comfort, the CLS makes for a great four-passenger sedan.
The Mercedes CLS is roughly the same size as the E-Class sedan, with which it shares a number of major components. Yet the CLS-Class features fewer variants than the E-Class and it occupies a higher range on the price scale, with more standard luxury equipment. What distinguishes the CLS most readily from other Mercedes sedans is its four-seat cabin and gorgeous exterior styling. It comes in two varieties: powerful and crazy powerful.
For 2007, the CLS line features new V8 engines. The baseline is now the CLS550, powered by a 5.5-liter V8 introduced in the full-size S550. This engine is considerably more powerful than the one it replaces (in last year's CLS500), yet without a decrease in fuel-economy ratings.
The super-fast 2007 CLS63 AMG gets a new, hand-built 6.2-liter V8. With 507 horsepower and 469 pound-feet of torque, the CLS63 is one of the most powerful four-door cars available. For 2007, the CLS63 also gets a new seven-speed automatic transmission, replacing the five-speed previously used in AMG cars.
While both CLS models offer performance, it's styling that distinguishes the CLS. Technically, the CLS is a sedan because it has four doors. Mercedes calls it a four-door coupe, and that's a good description. The swoop-roof, pillar-less CLS has the graceful, sensuous, feel of a coupe with the rear-seat access of a sedan. Whatever it's called, it may be the most visually appealing four-door on the market. Those great looks come with a slight penalty in terms of interior space, of course. The CLS only has four seats with four seat belts, while the E-Class cars have five.
In terms of technology, however, the CLS gives up nothing. Its air-spring suspension automatically gets firmer or softer depending on road conditions. A vast array of Mercedes safety features come standard, including rear-passenger side-impact airbags and one of the most advanced skid-management systems in production. More than 70 percent of the steel in the body and frame is galvanized, high-strength alloy, and even the paint is advanced. The clearcoat layer is impregnated with tiny ceramic particles, increasing resistance to scratches by 300 percent compared to conventional finishes, according to Mercedes.
The CLS is unique among luxury sedans. It's a must-see for drivers willing to exchange a rear center seat for a load of curb appeal.
The 2007 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 ($66,900) is powered by a 382 hp 5.5-liter V8. The CLS550 comes with leather seats with three-position memory, four-zone automatic climate control, a 12-speaker harman/kardon audio system and hand-rubbed wood trim.
Options include the Lighting Package ($1,240) with headlight washers and bi-xenon headlamps that swivel when the steering wheel is turned. The Premium Package ($4,740) adds heated seats with active ventilation, DVD-based navigation, a six-CD changer and power rear-window sunshade. Stand-alone options include Distronic radar-guided cruise control ($3,150), Parktronic park-assist warning ($1,100), the navigation system ($1,260), and Keyless Go ($1,090) one-touch starting.
The CLS63 AMG ($92,200) comes with a 6.2-liter V8, air suspension tuned for sharper response and flatter cornering, larger Z-rated tires, and more powerful brakes. Its seven-speed automatic features Speedshift paddle shifters that allow it to work like a manual transmission without the clutch pedal.
The AMG Sport package ($5,000) adds the handling and braking and looks of the CLS63 to the CLS550 without the big engine.
Safety features that come on all CLS models include front multi-stage airbags, side-impact airbags for front and rear passengers, front and rear curtain-style head protection airbags, seatbelts with pre-tensioners and force limiters, ABS with Brake Assist, Electronic Stability Program, a roll-over sensor, low-tire warning system and Tele-Aid emergency telematics.
The Mercedes-Benz CLS has been labeled both coupe and sedan. It's a four-door car with the ambience of a coupe, and a beautiful coupe at that. This is one of the most striking four-passenger cars anywhere.
The sedan quality derives from one obvious characteristic. It has four large, conventionally hinged side doors that allow unfettered access to both the front and rear seats.
Its coupe-ness is harder to define, but it's this quality that makes the CLS so interesting and attractive. And it's not just its long, low-slung profile. It's the frameless side windows, the lack of a visible center roof pillar, and the descending slope of the rear pillar, which blends into muscled rear fenders. A pronounced shoulder line sweeps back from the front wheel arch, creating a wide, tall-waisted stance, as though the car has been stretched by the wind. It's hard to believe that a tilt/sliding glass sunroof will fit within the arching roofline, but it does.
The front of the car thrusts visually forward with prominent grille slats, a deeply wedged hood and fenders that dive steeply into the distinctive headlamp clusters. A deep bumper forms a coupe's characteristically muscular rear, braced by two chromed exhaust pipes.
The CLS features details that reduce noise when cruising at high speed. Look closely and you'll discover things like plastic deflectors in front of the front wheel arches to improve airflow across the front axle links, aerodynamic cladding on the rear axle spring links, and mini-spoilers in front of each wheel to reduce dynamic pressures at the tires and improve airflow around the wheels. Even the wiper arms were refined in the wind tunnel. These aerodynamic wipers feature a mounting system and integrated spoiler for better wiping with less noise.
We're not sure we love the looks of the aggressive lower body cladding on the CLS63 AMG. It's just not as pretty as the CLS550. The staggered-width, 19-inch five-spoke AMG wheels look fantastic. The deep front and rear aprons and sculpted doors sills are anything but ugly, yet they get in the way of the graceful shape.
The AMG version rides a half-inch lower than the standard CLS, but both models cut a fairly slippery profile. A drag coefficient of 0.31 is low for such a sculpted four-door car. This aerodynamic efficiency contributes to overall fuel efficiency and reduces wind noise at high speeds.
Inside, the Mercedes-Benz CLS has the bespoke quality of some of the world's most expensive sedans. This richness flows from good, clever design as much as from the materials used. A driver feels successful at the wheel of the CLS, much as a rear passenger feels in the back of one of Mercedes' mighty Maybach sedans.
The view forward is filled by an expanse of burr walnut that stretches between round vents in the far corners of the dash, finished in a silk matt rather than the high-gloss familiar in many Mercedes. The walnut surface is broken by recessed center air vents, the climate control switch cluster and the main instrument cluster, which features three chronometer-style gauges and two LCD bar graphs for fuel level and coolant temperature. Each gauge is ringed with chrome, as is the cluster as whole. The graphics are crisp, and covered with a special mineral glass that virtually eliminates glare.
Fit and finish is good, and the custom-tailored feel is enhanced by the design. Note how the front passenger airbag door blends perfectly into the upward sweep of the walnut panel. Note how the chrome-and-walnut theme carries down through the center console, with a ring surrounding the transmission shift lever, and into the rear cabin, with a separate walnut panel and chrome trim for the rear-seat climate controls. Note how the curve of the center rear console is reflected in the reverse curve of the outboard armrest.
All four seats are covered in leather, with a thicker, richer Nappa finish in the CLS63 AMG. The standard front seats are adjustable 10 ways, using Mercedes' patented seat-shaped switches. There are three memory storage settings, and they can be matched to the remote key fob. Most switches are conveniently placed. A color display screen incorporates audio controls, navigation system and most other functions into a single set of switches. It takes time to learn, but I prefer it to the point-and-click devices in many luxury cars.
The standard harman/kardon Logic 7 stereo sends 480 watts of audio through 10 speakers, including two in the rear self. Digital processing allows the driver to tailor sound to his or her taste, or to create a surround effect for any seating position. The CLS stereo sounds good. If it doesn't match the best currently available, it's light years better than those in Mercedes-Benzes just 10 years ago.
In the rear seats, the sexy exterior styling results in a decrease in headroom, compared to a Mercedes E-Class. As part of our familiarization with the CLS, we were chauffeured across Rome so that we might see how the rich and famous do it. Tough job. My six-foot frame was comfortable on winding city streets, but passengers much taller may step out of the CLS with a crick in the neck.
There's no problem with trunk space, however. With 15.9 cubic feet of volume, the CLS trunk offers exactly the same space as the E-Class sedan, and not much less than the larger S-Class sedan.
In terms of interior comfort, the CLS makes for a great four-passenger sedan.
The Mercedes CLS550 is generally a joy to drive. Its 382-horsepower V8 delivers a wad of acceleration-producing torque at any speed. Its computer-managed air suspension scoffs at whatever the road serves up, delivering that classic Mercedes balance of ride comfort and predictable handling. This car is rock steady and inspires confidence at speeds that could earn you a nice set of handcuffs, courtesy of the highway patrol.
The CLS is loaded with technologies, but they can be a double-edge sword. Two drive-by-wire systems, the throttle/accelerator and brake controls, work to different effect. Both use sensors and servo motors in place of cables, virtually eliminating mechanical parts. The electronic throttle control is fantastic. It delivers instant engine response and integrates with the transmission and cruise-control system for smooth shifts and seamless operation, and it can actually improve fuel economy.
The drive-by-wire brakes, on the other hand, are not so satisfying. They will stop the CLS right now, and repeatedly, with no noticeable degradation in performance. Yet the engineers haven't quite figured out how to make these brakes more pleasing to the senses. The electronic brakes lack the steady pedal feel of the best mechanical systems. It's more difficult to modulate the pedal consistently, and smooth stops befitting a car of such grace can be a challenge.
Electronics aside, the CLS63 AMG stops like a sports car, and goes with almost as much enthusiasm as a race car. Its 6.2-liter V8 is a welcome improvement. Previously powered by AMG's supercharged 5.5-liter V8, this car with was fast. With the new 6.2-liter V8, it's blindingly quick but it's also super smooth. With 507 horsepower, the naturally aspirated 6.2-liter V8 delivers slightly more power than the supercharged engine it replaces. The 6.2-liter engine gets racing-style features such as dry sump lubrication, which ensures proper oiling under extreme g-forces.
This is the first AMG engine matched with the Mercedes seven-speed automatic transmission. Called, the AMG Speedshift 7G-Tronic, it pairs with the 6.2-liter V8 to form one of the most impressive powertrain combinations from Mercedes in years. Throttle response is instantaneous, automatic downshifts nearly so. The manual control electronics, which allow a driver to shift the transmission like a manual using either the shift lever or paddles on the steering wheel, are excellent. Speedshift allows the driver to hold a gear right at the 6.2 V8's 7200-rpm redline, where it's much silkier than the previous supercharged engine. There's a nice burbly exhaust tone at part throttle, and something more like a rebel yell when you floor it.
In the CLS63, the air suspension is tuned with a bias toward the handling side of the equation, or more firmly than some owners might like. It's also fitted with larger, Z-rated tires. In our view, it's not uncomfortable, and the payoff in improved response is worth it. Most Mercedes-Benz cars will go along for the ride when pushed, behaving predictably. The CLS63 AMG likes to be pushed. Think of it as a more willing participant in a spirited drive. SCCA Trans-Am champion Tommy Kendall gave took us on a couple of laps around the fast 2.5-mile Willow Springs International Raceway and quickly showed that that CLS63 worked at the limit of its tires very well at high speeds. Kendall had little trouble changing direction with a quick lift of the throttle while sliding the CLS63 through the turns.
The Mercedes-Benz CLS is beautiful to look at and almost as pleasing to drive. It gives up one seat in passenger capacity to most luxury sedans, but its visual impact is undeniable. There's plenty of power from the CLS550 with its new V8, and the CLS63 AMG is a real screamer.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Greg Brown filed this report from Rome.
Mercedes-Benz CLS550 ($66,900); Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG ($92,200).
Options As Tested
Keyless Go ($1,090).
Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG ($92,200).
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