Mercedes-AMG CLS 53 review: The joy of six



The new Mercedes CLS is a head turner as always, but it’s the car’s new range of six-cylinder engines that has our hearts thumping

BARCELONA, SPAIN — It’s official: hard edges are out, and curves are back in. If you believe otherwise, a lingering look at the new Mercedes-Benz CLS ought to set you straight.

The third-generation of Mercedes’ groundbreaking “four-door coupe” is, like the latter-day cars adorned with a three-pointed star, a sleek and curvaceous thing.

There’s some aggression up front, where the slim light and shark nose of the AMG GT make up the face, but elsewhere the new CLS is just elegance personified.

 

Together, the low roofline and cigar-like shape form a silhouette that looks bound to stand the test of time. Just as old Mercedes coupes are quite valuable these days, I reckon this CLS will be held up as a classic a few decades from now.

FLESH AND BONES

I’ll admit it took me a while to buy into the idea of a coupe with four doors when the first CLS came out in 2005 (I actually called it a daft idea at the time), but of course my skepticism turned out to be simple, stubborn wrong-headedness.

The CLS itself is here to stay, of course, but since then we’ve had all manner of followers from BMW (with the 4 and 6 Series Gran Coupes), Audi (A5 and A7 Sportbacks) and Volkswagen (Passat CC, CC and now Arteon). Heck, even the Kia Stinger probably owes a line or two to the CLS.

As before, while the flesh is what everyone notices about the car, the bones are from a certain Mercedes workhorse known as the E-Class. That’s been the recipe for the CLS right from the start, but this time there have been some radical departures.

For one thing, it’s the first recipient of Mercedes’ new straight-six engine, along with the intriguing new EQ Boost mild hybrid system. The new car departs from the CLS norm, too, by offering five full seats instead of four.

That’s bound to unlock legions of sales for the car here, because who doesn’t want a sexier version of the E-Class with pretty much the practicality of one? And it’s properly usable for family duties, too — the boot offers 520-litres and is nicely-shaped.

Thanks to a traffic snarl outside Barcelona I spent a couple of hours in the back seat. I’m happy to report that it doesn’t feel like the naughty corner back there, with a decent amount of headroom and, surprisingly, enough light through the small windows to make the cabin feel airy. If your ticket to ride in a CLS is for Row 2, you won’t feel like life has been cruel to you.

Indeed, the CLS’ interior is a fine place to be overall. The general curvaceousness of the exterior carries through onto the dashboard, and there’s the same palatial quality to the cabin that you’ll find in the E-Class.

In terms of layout, it’s the same two-screen setup for the displays, with six air vents spread across the dash. There’s some playfulness here, with the vents not only shaped like jet turbines, but nicely backlit with LEDs. Fiddle with the air-con temp, and they change colour temporarily — red for hotter, and blue for colder.

Cabin lighting actually does plenty for the car’s ambience, so much so that it forms part of the optional Energizing Comfort Control system — a bit of tech from the S-Class that operates the (also optional) massage seats, cabin lights, climate control and fragrance systems to create a number wellness settings, such “Vitality” or “Joy”.

It all might sound a bit gimmicky, but what’s the point of buying a Mercedes if it doesn’t feel like something made to pamper you?

Besides, from the design of the car alone it’s clear the CLS was crafted to be a treat for the senses. Even the seat are unique to the car — they could have simply bunged in those from the E-Class and called it good — and they manage to look simultaneously sporty and plush.

By now you’ll be wondering what it’s like in the captain’s chair, so it’s worth noting that at launch there are two petrol variants: the range actually kicks off with a CLS 450 4Matic, and its topped by this, the Mercedes-AMG CLS 53 4Matic+. A 2.0-litre, four-cylinder is on the way, but at the car’s Barcelona launch it was only available to drive as a prototype.

Never heard of a “53” AMG before? That’s because it’s a new spec, based on an all-new in-line six cylinder engine family. It’s a fundamentally gorgeous engine, revving eagerly and creamily, and the sound it makes is just something you never expected from a Mercedes — it’s the kind of determined, focused, metallic growl that you used to buy BMWs for.

But if the basics are beautiful, the new engine’s extra tech is pretty mind-boggling. It’s paired with the new EQ Boost mild hybrid system, a switch to 48 volt architecture, and when Mercedes says the CLS 53 is a twin-turbo car, they mean it has a normal exhaust-driven turbo paired with an electric turbocharger.

SEAMLESS START

Where to start? How about with how the CLS 53 feels to drive. It’s fast, of course, and there’s enough raw brawn to launch what is a near-two-tonne car to 100km/h in only 4.5 seconds.

But it’s also super refined, the way an E-Class is but with a layer of velvet thrown over the proceedings. The experience begins with the start-up; the new engine has no starter motor, so instead the EQ Boost system simply powers the six-cylinder into motion.



The way current engines shudder to life at traffic lights with the start-stop system irritates customers, an engineer told us, so the EQ Boost start-up was designed to be seamless, like the way an iPad just wakes up instantly.

There’s 4Matic+ (the plus signifying the system’s rear drive bias and its ability to fully vary the drive between front and rear axles), so the CLS 53 musters supreme traction, and when you let the engine do its thing the Mercedes just gathers pace with imperious ease.

Oddly enough there isn’t the violence you’d expect of an AMG model. They’re probably saving that sort of hardcore experience for a full CLS 63, so what you get is a car that feels more built to conquer highways than the track.

Around corners is where to start to feel the weight of the CLS, and if you’re going like gangbusters you can feel the tyres work hard to keep it all on the tarmac and away from the ditch.

If you cross the limits you’ll get some gentle understeer, and if you belt it too hard out of a corner you might even get a wiggle from the tail end, before the stability control and 4Matic+ systems sort it all out.

Still, trying to wring the CLS 53’s neck feels a bit more like work than fun, and it’s more pleasurable to drive the car in a way that makes use of its high speed refinement.

The air suspension is astonishingly good at smothering the imperfections of the road, and the CLS is that rare car that can float over tarmac without feeling floaty. And in spite of the car’s frameless windows, there’s an absence of wind noise that extends right up to double our national speed limit.

Even the 9G-Tronic gearbox feels different in this car, acting much more decisively than in other Mercedes models and delivering crisper, smoother shifts.

I know AMG is traditionally about effortless performance, but the CLS 53 seems more built for effortless refinement and high speed cruising.

Much the same quality applies to the CLS 450 — simply subtract a bit of exhaust howl, a smidgen of pace and all the racy AMG bodykitting — so it’s clear that the new four-door coupe is fundamentally crafted to cross continents.

One caveat: the 2.0-litre model we drove had a noticeably noisier engine (though it felt the lightest on its feet and was actually the most fun around corners), but that could be why it was still a prototype.

As for the finished article, the CLS might not be in Singapore for another half a year, but it’s the kind of car that you can comfortably ascribe instant classic status to, so it’s bound to make a splash when it arrives. Curves have a habit of doing that.

Pictures Dirk Weyhenmeyer and Andreas Lindlahr

NEED TO KNOW Mercedes-AMG CLS 53 4Matic+
Engine 2,999cc, inline 6, twin turbo
Power 435hp at 6100rpm
Torque 520Nm at 1800 to 5800rpm
Gearbox 9-speed automatic
Top Speed 250km/h (limited)
0-100km/h 4.5 seconds
Fuel efficiency 8.7L/100km
Price To Be Announced
Agent Cycle & Carriage
Available October, 2018

EQ Boost — F1 tech meets the road

V6 engines have their advantages — shorter, for one thing, plus if you’re going to have a V8 in your range anyway you might as well just chop two cylinders off to save money, which is what Mercedes did when it rolled out its V6s.

But Mercedes moved back to an in-line format to reclaim real estate on either side of the engine. That’s where the power-boosting, emissions-cutting equipment lives under the bonnet of the CLS.

One of these is the electric turbo. The unit itself is pretty small (it could fit in one hand) but there’s lots of accompanying plumbing, so it resides on the left side of the engine bay (as seen from the driver’s seat) while the regular turbo is on the right, where the exhaust exits the engine.

The e-turbo is basically a 48V motor that drives a little compressor, and in the CLS 53 you can almost hear it in action, as a distant, high-pitched whirr.

It revs up to 70,000rpm in 0.3secs, and can pre-charge the intake system so there’s always a little bit of boost ready for when you hit the accelerator. Result? Instant response from the engine. When the main turbo is up to speed, a little spring-loaded valve closes off the airway to the electric turbo, so the latter is mostly there to provide low-rev boost.

But it’s the EQ Boost system that makes the most difference to the new engine family. It’s similar to the KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) set-up from Formula One racing, and works around a large, 22hp motor-generator that’s powered by a lithium-ion battery pack.

It’s a small one, about the size of a normal car battery (and Mercedes guarantees it for 10 years), but it’s capable of big things.

Waking the engine up instantly is one of those functions, but it can also provide a welcome bit of extra oomph. It feeds 250Nm of torque straight into the gearbox, which is why acceleration feels so instant in the CLS.

The lithium ion setup also brings 48V system with it, which powers the e-turbo as well as all the car’s pumps — water, oil, air-con compressor, and so on. It means there are no belts for the engine, and that all the ancillary needs are “on demand”, which saves you fuel.

It also means the air-con continues to provide cold air when the engine is shut down, which enables a zero rpm “sailing mode” on the fly; lift off the accelerator and the engine shuts off while the CLS glides along on momentum, only to wake up again seamlessly because of the brawny electric motor.

It’s darn clever, in other words. The brains behind EQ Boost are obviously pretty high IQ.

 

 

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Leow Ju-Len
Leow Ju-Len is a lot older than he behaves. He's been writing about cars for 23 years. Someday he might do it coherently. Ju-Len believes in world peace and V8s, but not necessarily in that order.