FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE
BACK in 2004, Mercedes-Benz released a trendsetting cat called the CLS among unsuspecting pigeons. It was the original four-door coupe, and became a template for cars such as the Audi A7 Sportback and BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe – style-driven fastbacks commanding a price premium over the three-box sedans that provided their platforms.
Stuttgart’s niche CLS has never been a breakaway sales success, but Benz has used this exclusive E-Class alternative as an entry point for selected high-end technologies. The just-launched third-gen CLS duly presents a spread of firsts from the base model up, and is at its most innovative in flagship AMG guise.
The CLS53 is the debutant of an incoming range of entry-level 53-badged AMGs, all of which will feature Affalterbach’s first electrified powertrain based around a freshly minted 3.0-litre inline six that produces 320kW and 520Nm without battery assistance. A large, traditional turbocharger feeds boost from the mid-range up, while a small electric turbine fills in the gap from idle. Combined, the powertrain delivers its fulsome thump of peak torque from 1800 to 5800rpm.
A 48-volt electrical architecture provides power to the smaller turbine and to an Integrated Starter Generator (ISG) that sits in place of a flywheel between the engine and nine-speed automatic transmission, removing the need for a conventional starter motor and alternator. The ISG allows regenerative braking and can spin the crankshaft directly, adding up to 16kW/250Nm of drive at low revs, or restarting the engine from ‘Sailing’ mode. Mercedes calls the system EQ Boost (see Explained on p16), and it’s a fascinating technological concoction.
From a design perspective, CLS is the first Mercedes to enter the market with designer Gorden Wagener’s forward-tilting shark nose silhouette and triangular headlight design that will define the next A-Class, and others. The body is longer, lower and wider than the E-Class it shares underpinnings with, and has a more pronounced bonnet after moving the A-pillars and windscreen rearwards.
AMG has had a go once before at turning this large, sub-63 performance car into a sporty handler when creating the E43. Both sit on MRA foundations and a 2939mm wheelbase, though AMG says nothing has been carried over to the CLS53. Adaptive air suspension is standard, but the 140kg heavier CLS gets different mounting points, revised bushings and unique calibrations for each of its drive modes.
Ride quality errs on the firm side but never approaches E63 S levels of severity. This is a feeder car for the AMG brand, much like the halfway house E43. There’s a sporty demeanour to the way it goes about its business, yet across smooth Spanish roads the CLS proved itself a skilled cruiser, with space for five; not four like the last CLS. Only failure to slow sufficiently for speedbumps and driveways shoots a jolt through the struts and into the cabin.
Back-to-back with a CLS450 powered by the same inline six, sans AMG’s electric compressor, the CLS53 revealed itself as a markedly more confident car when driven into corners quickly. It is a heavy machine at 1905kg, but better tyres (in this case Yokohama Advans) make a significant difference to its willingness to turn in. The steering is sharper and more responsive with an AMG-specific tune, and the 53’s brakes are stronger and more fade resistant, despite being worked hard when you’re pushing on.
Unlike lesser models, the CLS53 has variable all-wheel drive called 4Matic+, and it does a fair impression of a rear-driver when encouraged. Power delivery, though, isn’t quite what we were expecting. The smooth six and its twin turbines deliver big torque low down, but it takes a split second to build up rather than firing out of the blocks with the immediate shove of a plug-in hybrid or full EV drivetrain. It feels quick and AMG claims 0-100km/h in a rapid 4.5sec to 100km/h, but the EQ Boost system’s biggest advantage may well be in delivering low realworld fuel consumption. The official economy is 8.7L/100km.
One major attraction of the inline-six layout is the note, but we’ll have to wait for the CLS53 to arrive in Australia with a standard bi-modal Performance exhaust before we can pass judgement. There’s a sonorous tone lurking in there, but the Euro test cars were fitted with particulate filters and a relatively quiet set of pipes, neither of which we will get. In the absence of shouty exhaust vocals AMG has added synthesised sound to bulk up the note via the cabin speakers, something company boss Tobias Moers once said he would never do.
Those speakers are everywhere, including the rooflining, in CLS53 models optioned with the premium Burmester audio. Much of what makes the E-Class coupe desirable inside features successfully in the CLS53, with a selection of original pieces like the AMG Performance steering wheel and coloured LEDs illuminating the turbine air vents. Seats with active bolsters that move to support occupants during cornering will be standard in Oz. Elsewhere, red stitching, carbon and Alcantara tick all the right AMG boxes.
Affalterbach has an interesting car on its hands. There is no CLS63 in the pipeline – that spot has been taken by AMG’s standalone GT 4-door – so the measured CLS53 is effectively the range flagship. It’s one of the most refined AMGs of recent times, and gives the brand another indulgence to offer customers when it arrives in Oz late this year, priced at $179,900. But who is it for? AMG says it’s not the customer looking for ultimate Nurburgring thrills. The CLS53 has to perform at a track day, but double as a grand tourer. It’s a progressive AMG that brings electricity to the party, but there’s traditional Mercedes-Benz flavour lurking beneath this one’s designer suit.
PLUS & MINUS
Clever tech for torque and economy; refinement; cabin quality; exclusivity
Muted engine note without bi-modal exhaust; hard on tyres and brakes
E-Class’s widescreen display and driver assistance tech is included in the CLS53, bringing Level 2 autonomous driver assistance functions best suited to highway conditions.
Mercedes-Benz will offer a three-tier CLS range in Australia by year’s end. The $155,900 CLS450 (270kW/500Nm) will arrive first, followed by the CLS53, and a $136,900 entry-level CLS350 (220kW/400Nm) powered by a 2.0-litre four from the same family as the CLS53 3.0-litre six. All three feature 48-volt mild hybrid technology. The sixes get the 16kW/250Nm ISG setup while the four-pot runs a 10kW/250Nm belt-driven system. For responsiveness the sixes feature short intake piping and a watertoair intercooler integrated in the manifold. With 48V electric ancillaries, this is the first Mercedes-Benz engine without a drive belt.
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The AMG’s closest rival is sonically gifted with a 4.0-litre V8 with turbos that take it to 331kW and 550Nm. High-tech in feel, despite its age, though similarly hampered by two-tonne heft.
Munich’s big, slinky four-door is getting on, yet still looks the part. But outputs of 235kW and 450Nm from a 3.0-litre inline six look meagre in comparison, making the AMG seem a bargain.