The history of the Mercedes-Benz CLS is a short one in terms of automotive years but nonetheless notable. For one thing, like it or not, the 4-door “coupe” has grown to become its own standalone segment—and we can thank the CLS for that.
When the vehicle first launched for 2004, there were few gray areas between automotive classes. If a car had four doors, it was irrevocably a sedan. If a car had two doors, it was undoubtedly a coupe. No ifs, ands, or buts. Then Mercedes-Benz came along and masterfully fit a round peg into a square hole.
But don’t call it a comeback as the fastback design has been here for years. In fact, according to Merriam-Webster, the automotive term was coined in 1954, whereas the more commonplace hatchback phrase didn’t enter our vernacular until 1970. Regardless, it’s all about style. And in this segment, it’s either going to be sloppy or sexy.
As the reigning number one luxury brand in the U.S., Mercedes-Benz has rather expansive portfolio compared to its competitors, and that unmistakable three-pointed star is hardly affixed to vehicle development and design that isn’t sleek, functional, and/or performance oriented. The all-new CLS lineup slides into all of the above.
Entering its third generation, the 2019 CLS continues its platform-sharing with the best-selling E-Class sedan, which was all-new for 2017. However, the CLS is positioned in the space above the E-Class and below the industry benchmark that is the S-Class. So, what’s a middle child to do? Its own thing, of course.
The CLS is distinctively a CLS, but for 2019 wears subtler sheet metal with its primary character line so muted it’s nearly drowning within the body panels. Don’t get me wrong. The design remains handsome, thanks in part to its AMG body styling, but also humbled.
In the CLS’s cabin, new seat designs offer supportive front seat bolsters, even for my narrow frame. And, for the first time ever, the CLS now has room for five. But even with a half-inch more legroom, the rear seats should still be reserved for occupants who are not of a tall and lanky disposition, thanks to that sloping yet stylish C-pillar.
And if the CLS isn’t cozy enough, there’s Energizing Comfort, which is as gimmicky as it sounds. The intention is good, but the execution is distracting. Based on which program is selected, adjustments are made to the climate control, cabin lighting, and infotainment display, as well as temperature settings for the seats, steering wheel, and other surfaces.
The names of these programs? Refresh, Warmth, Vitality, Joy, Comfort, and Training.
To be fair, Refresh was rather nice, bumping up the ventilated seats and releasing a pleasantly clean fragrance into the cabin. Warmth legitimately heated things up, even projecting flames onto the large 12.3-inch touchscreen display. Depending on your mood, you’ve either arrived in hell or were merely driving a fireplace.
But Training proved a bit too literal with actual in-car, hands-on-the-wheel exercises with voice prompts and how-to imagery. Perhaps it makes sense on long stretches of Middle America interstate driving, but anywhere else and it’s just bonkers.
Underneath the hood is where the CLS gets bold, featuring a return of the inline 6-cylinder engine. Once a mainstay of the brand, an inline six hasn’t been used in a Mercedes-Benz in 20 years, last appearing in the S-Class.
New for the U.S. (Europe received the first taste of nostalgia in the updated 2018 S-Class), the turbocharged, 3.0-liter I6 engine in the CLS450 offers 362 horsepower and 369 lb.-ft. of torque. By contrast, the 3.0-liter biturbo V6 of the outgoing CLS400 had an output of 329 hp and 354 lb.-ft. of torque.
Also new and a Mercedes-Benz first is the incorporation of an integrated starter generator (ISG) known as EQ Boost. Utilizing a 48-volt battery, the system assists the internal combustion engine during acceleration, coasting, and energy recovery while braking. EQ Boost adds 21 hp and a “significant amount” of torque for short spurts. So, yeah, the new CLS is basically a mild hybrid. Which is not a complaint.
The start-stop system doesn’t stagger and, when in the proper drive mode (anything but Eco), turbo lag is essentially eliminated. Although there is no discerning growl like that which emanates from a V6, the I6 purrs enough to please those who do occasionally scroll into Sport mode.
But complete satisfaction remains elusive.
The 2019 CLS450’s powertrain is more than competent and pairs well with a smooth 9-speed automatic transmission. And the vehicle’s performance is as capable as they come; its zero-to-60-mph hustle is as quick as segment rivals. But for all its steering precision (of which the CLS is quite good), the connection was rather indifferent. And call me clingy but driving enthusiasts don’t like feeling detached.
The drive route for this review had me escaping Hell’s Kitchen for the rolling farmlands of Warren County, New Jersey. The sporadic deluge during my commute kept things mostly slow and steady but with enough mileage to test out the CLS450’s new safety tech.
Referred to as Intelligent Drive, Mercedes-Benz’s suite of safety features for the CLS is largely sourced from the refreshed S-Class. Standard equipment includes active brake assist, driver fatigue alerts, automatic emergency braking, and the new Pre-Safe Sound, which initiates a specifically tuned noise that triggers a reflex within the inner ear. This reaction acts like a noise-cancelling headset and can help protect the ear from the after effects of loud crashes. Yeah, you heard that right.
But it’s the optional Driver Assistance Package that will be music to your well-preserved auditory lobes. All the goodies are in there, from blind-spot monitoring and lane keep assist to adaptive cruise control (ACC) and Pre-Safe Impulse Side, which adjusts the seat to position occupants away from the door if a possible side-impact collision is detected.
Pre-Safe seems pretty overbearing, but perhaps some like being coddled by the electro-nannies. However, with the early-production model I tested, the safety systems were overly aggressive.
For example, with no vehicles ahead, the ACC actually started to brake firmly on a downhill, quickly slowing the car to 68 mph from a 74-mph setting. It was alarming. Perhaps it’s merely a glitch, but when it happened again, I promptly deactivated the ACC and did not use it again.
Systems that did perform as expected were the selectable driving modes (Eco, Comfort, Sport, Sport+, and Individual). I found Sport best suited to my motoring habits. Sport+ was great for that quick, on-demand torque, like for freeway merging and passing, but beyond that, the CLS just felt heavy. Like a literal drag.
When I wasn’t driving in heavy rain, the route seemed heavy with deer. Sport mode proved to be fun when the roads offered a bit of curve and the hilt of a hill, but with hoofed critters grazing in broad daylight along shoulder-less byways, Comfort helped maintain caution and the status quo.
Returning to Manhattan, Eco so meticulously played its part that when I needed to make a quick, get-around-traffic maneuver at an intersection, acceleration was pulled back so extensively that the pause lasted a green-to-yellow cycle before the oomph kicked in, propelling me through what had now become a red light. In front of an NYPD unit. Thankfully, my fuel savings-inspired stomp was either ignored or unseen. #Blessed.
The full range of 2019 CLS models will arrive in dealerships sometime in the fall. This includes the CLS450, CLS450 4Matic, and AMG CLS53. An enhanced engine gives the latter 429 hp and 384 lb.-ft. of torque, plus an additional 21 hp courtesy of EQ Boost. The 4Matic all-wheel-drive system will be standard as well.
Due to its end-of-the-year launch, final pricing and fuel economy ratings for the 2019 CLS are not yet available. For reference, the 2018 CLS550 starts at $76,145 (including $995 destination). The 4Matic version starts at $78,645, while the CLS63 S comes in at $109,895 before add-ons. It’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, though, largely due to the different engines and varying outputs.
Although not a clear knockout, the CLS does remain an easy pour for those who enjoy a glass of Mercedes-Benz sensibilities with robust hints of sportiness and heavy notes of technology. While I can do without the fanciful “wellness” functions, a modernized throwback of the engine makes for an enjoyable drive.
Like some things, the CLS just gets better with age.
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