2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG – Click above for high-res image gallerySometimes, luxury isn't about having more – it's about having less, albeit artfully architected. Just ask BMW, which lops off a heaping helping of headroom and cargo space to turn its well-conceived X5 into the costlier, less utile X6. Admittedly, the X6 isn't particularly artful, but its rival, the Land Rover Range Rover Sport is. Both vehicles are more indulgent – and more costly – despite offering reduced lebensraum and less exotic mechanicals.
Perhaps the originator and best practitioner of this less-is-more movement is Mercedes-Benz, whose designers adroitly took the last-generation E-Class, chopped off gobs of headroom and trunk space, added some CLS badges, and then proceeded to give the four-seater a much larger price tag. Given that luxury and practicality are nearly polar opposites, perhaps this trend shouldn't be that surprising. The ability to fritter away utility in favor of fashion is arguably the ultimate statement of luxury ("We could be rational, but why be so sensible, dahling?").
Of course, we needn't be so cynical – especially when the end result from Mercedes is so striking. The 2006 CLS wasn't simply a Stuttgart cut-and-shut job – any fool with a pair of working eyes could see that Benz had developed a voluptuous creature that looked downright otherworldly compared to the stodgy E-Class that sired it. Mercedes would go so far as to market the original CLS as a 'four-door coupe,' and while pedants broke out in hives upon hearing the term, the reality was that Benz had created something far sexier than an ordinary sedan. The CLS' sleekly beveled form wasn't for everyone, but it sparked a rash of imitators in nearly every segment of the industry, from fellow luxury players to workaday sedans. Clearly, Mercedes had no small job when it came to reinventing its style icon.
And this being our first drive of the new-for-2012 CLS family, what better way to start than with the Big Daddy CLS63 AMG range topper?
Photos copyright ©2011 Chris Paukert / AOL
You can see from our San Diego drive photos that Mercedes has succeeded at updating its rakish sedan. Looking far more stylish than any other Mercedes four-door, the 2012 model preserves the outgoing car's roofline while eschewing some of that car's tapered roundness – particularly in the nose, which receives a more SLS AMG-like grille. The profile has likewise been more deliberately developed, with far more prominent wheel arches, complex, deep-draw aluminum door skins and more character lines than the comparatively clean bodysides of the first-generation CLS. This isn't to say that the new design looks fussy – it just looks more muscular and sculpted. The CLS' rear overhang continues to be unusually long to allow for the stretched-out greenhouse, but the front appears significantly shorter than the original CLS.
Exterior changes to the AMG model include standard active LED headlamps set below a unique aluminum hood and a more aggressive lower fascia, along with a model-specific rear bumper cap with integrated diffuser element (and a lip spoiler that looks a bit tacked-on for our tastes). Other AMG telltales include the chrome twin exhaust treatments and V8 Biturbo badges.
About that last bit – as you'll likely recall, the departing CLS63 AMG relied on Affalterbach's normally aspirated 6.2-liter V8, an engine we came to love as much for its otherworldly guttural bark as we did for its prodigious output. Once again taking the 'less is more' approach, Mercedes has downsized, substituting a turbocharged version of its all-new 5.5-liter V8. Part of the company's bid to reduce emissions by 30 percent by 2012, the turbo, direct-injected M 157 AMG engine may be smaller, but it's also more powerful and efficient than its predecessor. The CLS63 AMG now produces a robust 518 horsepower at 5,250 rpm and 516 pound-feet of torque from 1,750-5,000 rpm. For comparison's sake, the 'standard' CLS 550 packs 402 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque, while the exiting AMG registered 507 hp and 465 lb-ft. If that's not enough largesse, Mercedes will happily spec out your car with its optional AMG Performance pack, which boosts turbo pressures from 14.5 pounds per square inch to 18.8, realizing 550 horsepower (at 5,750 rpm) and 590 lb-ft (from 2,000-4,500 rpm) in the process.
Officially, the added power drops the time it takes to reach 62 mph by an almighty tenth, from 4.4 seconds to 4.3. And bench racers, take note: plumping for the Performance pack also nets you a higher top speed – 186 mph instead of 155.
Bury the drilled metal accelerator until its rubber studs make nice with the carpet and you'll quickly begin to suspect that Mercedes' vehicle testers are a bunch of liars. We sampled models both with and without the optional Performance pack, and thanks to the seven-speed gearbox's quick shifts and a freight train's worth of torque, the CLS63 feels a good bit quicker than the official figures would have you believe. Better still, Mercedes has managed to preserve the lion's share of the 6.2's vocal characteristics, complete with a bit of brap and burble on overrun. It's not quite as stirring a soundtrack as the outgoing model, but it still sounds great.
AMG models have never lacked for acceleration, but only recently has Mercedes' performance division begun to focus as much on handling dynamics and finesse as on brute force. The gullwinged SLS AMG stands as proof of this newfound total vehicle development methodology, and the CLS AMG takes lessons learned in the already swell E63 AMG to a new level. Where older AMGs adhered more closely to the Muscle Car School of Development (drop in a bigger engine, add wider meats and fiddle with the suspension a skosh), the new CLS63 benefits from a more holistic approach, with a wider track, unique front suspension and model-specific electromechanical power steering rack to deliver increased handling confidence at higher velocities.
Augmenting that confidence is the inclusion of the adaptive suspension's Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus settings, which helped us tailor the car's compliance to our liking whether we were chuntering along in San Diego traffic or barreling down the area's winding mountain roads at inadvisable speeds.
In fact, for a vehicle with a curb weight of over 4,100 pounds and a length of 197 inches, the CLS AMG test cars we sampled felt remarkably willing to change direction, with a front-strut suspension that proved willing to tuck the nose in when given more power and a rear air setup that avoided feeling floaty while delivering excellent ride quality – even on 19-inch watchstrap Continentals. Likewise, power was never in short supply, whether off the line or carpeting the pedal anew at triple-digit velocities.
When it came time to put a halt to the canyon-running festivities, our test car's upsized carbon ceramic brakes (15.8-inch discs up front supplant the standard car's 14.2-inch steel units) were spectacularly effective, offering fade-free performance and good feel. While Performance pack models receive red brake calipers, specifying carbon ceramic units brings with it a striking gold bullion finish on the grapplers – as well they should, because they're likely to cost about as much as a Chevy Aveo on year-end clearance (pricing has not yet been released, but figure on around $10k).
The seven-gear SpeedShift MCT is uncanny in its ability to select and hold the right gear, and rifling through the ratios with the paddleshifters provides a dual-clutch-like experience, complete with 100-millisecond changes in Manual mode. The AMG-exclusive gearbox does away with a torque converter in favor of a small multi-plate wet clutch to get the car rolling, and the gearbox's shift logic provides for automated double-declutching. Also not unlike many dual-clutch transmissions, we did observe some minor tractability issues at very low speeds under light throttle openings (as when inching up in line toward a stop sign), but this seemed to be confined to moments when we had the AMG Drive Unit in Sport or Sport Plus.
As you'd figure, the MCT offers a launch control mode, but more unexpected is the inclusion of a start/stop system. Benz executives tell us that even though the EPA's fuel economy testing cycles don't truly weigh the benefits of the technology, it's still good for a two or three percent gain in efficiency. Thankfully, this bit of wizardry works well and doesn't interfere with performance driving, as it is only active when the drivetrain is in Controlled Efficiency setting, a mode that also triggers lazier throttle responses, more second-gear starts and earlier shift points. If that sounds like a recipe for grating city driving, it isn't – there's so much power on tap with the 5.5 that even within these restrained parameters, there's no issue of efficacy. Of course, if you're in the mood for a spot of performance driving, you're better turning the AMG Drive Unit knob on the center console to Sport, Sport Plus or Manual modes on the drivetrain anyhow to optimize the suspension firmness, throttle, brake and gearbox responses for a more entertaining experience.
Thanks to a whole suite of drivetrain refinements, Mercedes says the CLS63 now avoids the Fed's dreaded gas guzzler tax. The new model is over 30 percent more fuel efficient than its predecessor, but even so, with estimated fuel economy figures of 16 miles per gallon city and 21 mpg on the highway, don't be surprised if your Prius-coveting teenager reacts to your purchase by being even frostier than usual.
The AMG's interior is better yet, with a thick, feel-good wheel featuring flattened top and bottom sections, more supportive sport seats and cold-to-the-touch aluminum shift paddles. As before, accessing the rear seat takes a bit of doing and headroom is limited, but trunk space is surprisingly generous and there's a nifty optional load organizer available that you can check out in the Autoblog Short Cuts video below.
There's the predictable spate of available gee-whiz options, too, including massaging seats with active bolsters that robotically grip you in corners (we'll pass, thanks), and Active Lane Keeping Assist that vibrates the steering wheel to get a wandering driver's attention. It'll even gently drag the brakes to stop the vehicle from crossing over a road's painted lines if he or she doesn't respond. The system works well, but we'd probably spend our money somewhere else, perhaps on the available limited-slip differential or our photo car's gorgeous Designo Light Oak Matte interior wood trim.
Despite its added power, higher-fidelity handling, additional equipment and improved efficiency, we've been told that the base MSRP on the 2012 CLS63 should come in right around where the current car sits when it reaches dealers this summer. That means it's a nearly $100,000 proposition (our highly optioned testers were probably closer to $120-125k), or about $10,000 more than an E63 AMG. Perhaps we've been seduced by its svelte wrapper, but despite the fact the CLS63 couples near-identical performance with less space than its square-rigged cousin, this is one time where this sort of less-is-more math doesn't trouble us in the least.
Photos copyright ©2011 Chris Paukert / AOL