The Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG is an Olympic decathlete wearing a hand-tailored tuxedo – its well-rounded performance is every bit as impressive as its physical appearance. Such talent and charm is often acknowledged by the automotive press, but such accolades don't always guarantee a winning combination in the showroom.
But Mercedes-Benz knows its AMG customers, understands what stirs them and realizes how to pry open their checkbooks. The automaker is aware that its affluent clientele don't purchase objectively. Rather, they gaze at the styling, take a deep whiff of the leather interior, grasp and hold the thick steering wheel and absorb the raucous note of the exhaust. A sale isn't far behind.
The sound of signed checks fluttering to the table may be common at the Mercedes-Benz dealership, but how does the CLS63 AMG perform out in the real world? What separates it from its CLS550 sibling? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Most importantly, what makes this iconic seven-year-old four-door coupe unique? We recently spent a week with the CLS63 AMG to figure it out.
Launched in 2004 as an E-Class (W211) platform knock-off, the first-generation CLS-Class (W219) is credited with starting the whole "four-door coupe" segment. The second-generation model (W218) was launched in 2010, still sharing the same platform but with a slew of upgrades and a fresh new appearance. While there are many engine choices worldwide, in the States we are offered just two variants: CLS550 and CLS63 AMG.
With the Performance Package, the factory claims that 60 mph falls in 4.3 seconds and the top speed governor is raised to 186 mph.
The CLS550 is fitted with a twin-turbocharged 4.6-liter V8 rated at 402 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque. The four-door features a seven-speed automatic transmission sending power to the two rear wheels (the automaker's 4Matic all-wheel-drive system is offered as an option). Hardly a slouch, the standard CLS will sprint to 60 miles per hour in just 5.1 seconds with a top speed governed at 130 mph. However, and despite its valid reputation as a true driver's car, the CLS550 lost out to an Audi A7 3.0T in our comparison last year – blame its age, despite its refresh.
The CLS63 AMG turns things up significantly. Under the hood is a twin-turbocharged 5.5-liter V8 rated at 518 horsepower and 519 pound-feet of torque in standard trim, or 550 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque when optioned with the AMG Performance Package (as our test car was). To handle the additional torque, and deliver a sporty driving feel, the traditional automatic is replaced by an AMG Speedshift seven-speed MCT gearbox with launch control. The standard CLS63 AMG will hit 60 mph in 4.4 seconds with a governed top speed of 155 mph. With the Performance Package, the factory claims that 60 mph falls in 4.3 seconds and the top speed governor is raised to 186 mph. (Consider those numbers conservative as Car and Driver recently tested the 2012 CLS63 AMG at 3.8 seconds with a quarter mile of 12.0 seconds at 121 mph. Motor Trend got 3.9 seconds.)
But there is much more to the AMG model than just a powertrain upgrade. The standard CLS550's independent Airmatic suspension is replaced with an AMG Adaptive Suspension with electronically controlled gas-filled struts up front, Airmatic electronically controlled damping in the rear, and the electro-hydraulic steering rack is replaced with an AMG-tuned unit. Braking capacity is increased with the fitment of six-piston calipers in the front and four-piston calipers in the rear (both are 14.2-inches, internally ventilated, drilled and slotted discs, but the fronts are thicker) – carbon-ceramic brakes are optional. Wheels grow from 18- to 19-inch units, now wearing 255/35R19 tires in the front and 285/30R19 in the back. Despite the mechanical upgrades, its curb weight of 4,277 pounds is less than 100 pounds greater than the CLS550.
Despite the mechanical upgrades, its curb weight is less than 100 pounds greater than the CLS550.
The CLS63 AMG cabin is also enhanced for its performance role. In addition to the premium leather, the primary instrument cluster receives an AMG face, complete with performance-specific gauges, and its color is reversed (now white on black). The electronic transmission lever moves from the tree down to the center console (PRND, but with C, S, S+ and M modes) and there is new switchgear. Wood trim gives way to other sporty finishes, and AMG sport bucket seats replace the stock units. Our tester was also optioned with a simply gorgeous thick-rimmed flat-bottomed steering wheel with proper paddle shifters.
Speaking specifically about our test vehicle, the 2012 CLS63 AMG with black over black premium leather carried a base MSRP of $94,900 (plus $875 destination and delivery). It was configured with the P01 Package for $3,690 (iPod/MP3 interface, rearview camera, heated and active front seats, active multicontour driver seat, adaptive highbeam assist, full LED headlamps, electronic trunk closer and Keyless Go), Driver Assist Package for $2,950 (Distronic plus with Pre-Safe braking, active blind spot assist and active Lane Keep assist), AMG Performance package for $6,990 (carbon fiber trunk lid spoiler, carbon fiber engine cover red brake calipers, increased top speed, AMG performance steering wheel, sport suspension and power boost), Parktronic for $970, rear side airbags for $420 and forged 19-inch AMG twin five-spoke alloy wheels for $1,790. Add it up, and the bottom line on our car was $115,435.
Regardless of who the CLS63 AMG is competing against, it will most likely win.
It is difficult to put a finger on the CLS's competition, especially at that price. The new Audi S7 ($78,800) seems like a natural enemy, but it is significantly down on power when compared to the torque-heavy AMG. The Porsche Panamera GTS ($111,000) is also an interesting foe, but one needs to step up to the Panamera Turbo ($138,650) to match the AMG's straight-line performance. Will shoppers also consider the Maserati Quattroporte Sport GTS (base price $135,200), or will it also be dismissed as a second-string athlete too? Regardless of who the CLS63 AMG is competing against, it will most likely win.
We spent one full week with the well-toned four-door, driving it so much that its engine never completely cooled. Few vehicles in our garage warrant this much affection. Rather than gush over the engine, brakes and handling in traditional linear manner, it is best to recall a few significant excursions.
With the gearshift in "D" and the selector on "Sport +", it is in full attack setting.
On its third day under our watch, we headed up the famed Mulholland highway. Cruising through the canyons at a very good clip, the CLS63 AMG handled the corners effortlessly. The tires stuck tenaciously and the stock iron brakes never gave up an inch to fade (ceramics are optional, but we didn't ever get close to needing them). It was a real hoot to drive spiritedly, hearing the deep exhaust boom off the canyon walls, and we opened the sunroof and dropped the windows in celebration. The only time the sleek coupe seemed to hesitate was when the corners became really tight (on windy Decker Canyon Road) and its size and weight (4,275 pounds) got in the way. Drive it really hard – too hard – and the four-door won't let you forget that it has a very comfortable second row of seats behind you.
The only time the sleek coupe seemed to hesitate was when the corners became really tight and its size and weight got in the way.
On its fifth day in our possession, we pointed the four-passenger Benz towards California Speedway. We figured the 200-mile jaunt would afford us some meaningful highway time. Despite a very firm suspension, which never bothered us but did raise more than a few of our passenger's eyebrows, we found it to be an excellent long-distance sled. The CLS63 tracked like an arrow at high speed, there was always plenty of power on tap, and the automaker's Distronic Plus cruise control worked miracles in steady and stop-and-go traffic. We've come to regard it as the best autonomous cruise control on the market (unfortunately, its extended-wave radar operating at 77 GHz and 24 GHz does very annoying things to radar detectors). We arrived at the event (a Porsche Owners Club race), parked up front, and had to wipe dozens of fingerprints off the glass. The big coupe was a big hit.
The day of reckoning always comes at the end of the week, just before a car is picked up. It's the time when we pull out the window sticker, take a second look at a few of the small details, and then try to figure out who its primary competitor is. While that last part isn't usually difficult, this particular CLS had us a bit stumped. After a bit of chin rubbing, we settled on the Porsche Panamera S.
Our guess is that the engineering team at Mercedes-Benz never envisioned that its CLS-Class would be compared to a Porsche (the Panamera didn't arrive until 2009, five years later), but the correlation is a solid compliment to both parties. Some will argue that the Porsche is underpowered compared to the burly Benz, and it is. But this isn't so much about power as it is about driving dynamics. More specifically, rear-wheel-drive vehicle dynamics. Unlike the many all-wheel-drive competitors, delivering all-season grip at the expense of driving pleasure, the Panamera S and CLS63 may be tossed and caught with the throttle on all types of pavement. They are both fabulous, and thoroughly engaging, drivers' cars – and there is no clear gold medalist.
The CLS63 AMG is worth every penny of its $115,000 sticker price, and that isn't something we say very often.
As you have figured out by now, the original high-performance four-door sports coupe has really impressed us. As it does to affluent buyers each day in the showroom, it tickled our enthusiast soul. We won't suggest that it is a perfect match for all drivers, but we will boldly proclaim that the Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG is worth every penny of its $115,000 sticker price, and that isn't something we say very often.