Our jaws collectively dropped at the 2003 Frankfurt Motor Show when the Vision CLS concept debuted. Had Mercedes-Benz decided not to build it, there might have been hell to pay. But build the W219 CLS-Class starting in April of 2004 it did, and the accolades never ceased for that first-generation model until it was replaced in the summer of 2010.
The W218 second-generation model is still loved, though seemingly much less so than the groundbreaking original, And, as though it knew this reaction was coming, Mercedes showed us all the Concept Fascination at the Paris Motor Show in September 2008, which was ultimately massaged into the Concept Shooting Brake shown at the Beijing Motor Show in April 2010.
Mercedes couldn't do just another wagon with the CLS; it had to be something that echoed of pure styling exercises, and perhaps excess. Eyeing up this production version of the Mercedes CLS Shooting Brake built in Sindelfingen, we remain largely pleased, even when our professional objectivity changes to cold subjectivity. Keeping in mind the point of this lower volume lifestyle hauler, there are only two tangible bits on the car that we're not in love with, and that's not bad at all.
Whereas on the CLS coupe – *a-hem* – we would have loved to see a real two-door happen, for this new wagon style (sorry... shooting brake), Mercedes could never do a true shooting brake with just two forward doors; that would have been silly and might have sold in similar numbers as many a shooting brake in history has sold – frequently in single digits. No, it had to be a more useful wagon but with a lot of impractical swoosh.
Deliveries of the CLS Shooting Brake start in Western Europe in early October, in the United Kingdom in December, and then all other markets by late January of 2013. There were five engine trims of the X218 shooting brake available for our drive around central Italy, and we managed to have an easygoing tour in what would be a 402-horsepower CLS550 Shooting Brake trim if it were to make it to North America. And that was nice enough, but our holy grail came in the guise of the thoroughly distinctive 528-horsepower bi-turbo CLS63 AMG Shooting Brake.
Of course, the thing goes like stink, getting to 60 miles per hour from a stop in just 4.3 seconds thanks in no small part to the total torque of 516 pound-feet between 1,750 and 5,250 rpm. Not surprisingly, a CLS63 AMG Shooting Brake feels a lot like a $92,400 E63 AMG Wagon, only better when the demanding curves start to show up beneath the tires. Going by the 8.4-percent average price increase between the cars on the German price list, the CLS63 AMG Shooting Brake would start at about $100,150 if it were meant for American roads.
A CLS63 AMG Shooting Brake feels a lot like a $92,400 E63 AMG Wagon, only better.
The various physical reasons for the better dynamics of the CLS power hauler versus the E63 wagon start at its size and weight. Whereas the wheelbases are the same, the CLS is a more aerodynamic 4.1 inches longer, an inch wider, and 4.1 inches lower at the rooftop than its potent E63 cousin. The CLS63 is also about 25 pounds lighter and the standard wheels worldwide are the 19-inch ten-spoke alloys that are standard on the E63 wagon only in North America. And rather than calling the hotter performance option either the Performance Pack or Driver's Package, this is called a classier Edition 1 on the CLS Shooting Brake in all markets. (Except in the United Kingdom, where it will go by Performance Pack. Go and figure.) As with the E63 wagon, this takes power to 550 hp, torque to 590 lb-ft., and acceleration to 60 mph gets one tenth of a second quicker.
So everything mechanically on the CLS63 AMG Shooting Brake is literally identical to the E63 AMG Wagon, only that the size/aero/weight alterations altogether have their desired effect. Ride and cabin noises are intoxicatingly sophisticated when the console rheostat is set at C for Controlled Efficiency (formerly Comfort) and the standard AMG Ride Control suspension is on the most civil calibration. We were breezing along – well, more like gusting along, it being an AMG – and on the CD changer there was waif-y Norah Jones as co-pilot singing breathily over the optional Bang & Olufsen sound system. It was all very sweet and sturdy and meditative.
Then with the rheostat knob indicating either Sport+ or Manual and the suspension dialed to the sportiest rigidity and lowest stance, we effectively had a whole new car. Aside from the substantive momentum of a 4,310-pound quoted curb weight, another slight issue governing exactly how precisely the car handles itself is the latest generation electro-mechanical steering system. Versus the really poorly calibrated version of this steering on the new SL-Class, we are able to live with it here although the entrance and mid-section of curves are still pretty numb affairs. The standard Continental ContiSportContact 5P tires – 255/35 ZR19 96Y front, 285/30 ZR19 98Y rear – hold things very nicely as they must, but there remains a less than satisfying disconnect between the asphalt and our hands at the wheel. As we've said prior to this on the newer AMG models, however, for everyday driving this criticism just doesn't apply and all is well enough.
The AMG Speedshift MCT 7-speed sports transmission with steering wheel paddles and console lever for shifting sequentially is a love/not love situation for us. It weighs a good amount versus other units, errs frequently on the slow side for shifts, and will deny downshifts exactly when you need them. The latter bit is to protect the gearbox from over stressing and the fluid from getting too hot when entering a lower gear at revs too close to the 6,400 indicated redline, but it is at times a frustrating aspect of this transmission as coupled to the lower revving bi-turbo 5.5-liter V8. The only solution is to trust the pulling power of a higher gear with lower revs while exiting favorite corners. Once you get that groove going and give up your preconceptions, though, it is supremely satisfying.
The quad-tip exhaust does what it does on all AMG cars: gargle in bass tones.
Our 63 AMG test unit did not have the $12,625 carbon ceramic brake discs and we have enjoyed this new generation of fancy discs that are more finely tuned, less grindy and don't shriek at low speeds. As it was, the standard lead-aluminum compound discs were fine albeit occasionally lacking the big bite for later braking. We did have the $2,030 sport limited-slip differential, and this added the usual very enjoyable liberty with the tail end of the car. Finally, the quad-tip exhaust does what it does on all AMG cars: gargle in bass tones. Yet here, the cabin isolation from that sports thunder is particularly effective.
The two things on the design that do not really work for us are the now always present E-Class coupe haunches and the very pinched rear limit of the long side glass. The first-generation CLS disguised its sharing with the E-Class so well that this was never even brought up in conversation. This new generation of the CLS, however, hides nothing in this regard and it feels like something key has been lost. As to the rearmost side windows getting pinched, the shape looks out of joint with the taller rear portion of the body work around it. In addition, the resulting wide rear pillars create mega blind spots in certain driving situations.
All in all, however, this is a brilliant niche execution created in a part of the Mercedes lineup that can justify such a non-vital car getting the green light. With the rear seat backs up, cargo room of 20.8 cubic feet in the CLS shooting brake is down 18 percent versus the E-Class wagon. Rear seats dropped forward, the CLS shooting brake's 54.7 cubic feet is down 26 percent against the E-Class wagon. Not only is that a healthy sacrifice, but the very curvy nature of the shooting brake tail that makes it so sexy also puts into question just how useful that cargo space can be. (There's that "u" word again.)
The car you see here has been ordered up with a full Designo personalized interior, full luxo leather over optional heated and ventilated front seats, has the rear cargo floor in American Cherry Wood, brightens the night and curves with full-LED adaptive headlights, and has the carbon fiber effect interior detail bits. The notion of the CLS Shooting Brake not coming almost de rigueur with most of these interior touches is an odd one, but you can get your shooting brake as standard issue as you please even at this pricey AMG level.
There are categorically zero current plans for the CLS Shooting Brake to make the swim across the Atlantic.
But in North America we needn't worry anyway, since there are categorically zero current plans for the CLS Shooting Brake to make the swim across the Atlantic to us. Guess we'll need to satisfy our fast and big Merc desires with a taller E63 Wagon.