It doesn’t take an auto historian or car buff to rationalize that Mercedes-Benz has not only created some of the greatest vehicles on the road, but also the specific categorical segments they fall under. I was on-hand when the Vision CLS concept debuted at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 2003. Ostensibly, it was to become the industry’s first four-door sports coupe. But a coupe has only two doors. How would it succeed? Let’s take a stroll down memory lane.
Have you heard of the “Blitzen Benz” of 1911 that broke a land speed record at 142.6 mph with its 200 horsepower 4-cylinder engine? How about the 1954 300 SL “Gullwing” reincarnated today as the SLS AMG super car? We can’t forget about the indomitable S-Class that has been the gold standard for large, luxury touring sedans and defines achievement for any proud owner. Then there is today’s retractable hardtop SL convertible and the big-body, pillarless CL-Class which both have attracted new blood to the brand. One after another, the German automaker has filled in the gaps and created vehicles for every type of driver in addition to new products that you would never have imagined coming to fruition. After all, Mercedes-Benz built the world’s first automobile 125 years ago; so this phenomenon didn’t suddenly manifest by chance. Currently, there are 17 Mercedes-Benz model lines with over 110 variations. Hence, you can say Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler were the founding members of the adjustment bureau, where causation is predetermined by prior experiences.
“Our job is to create the taste of tomorrow,” stated Mercedes-Benz Designer Hubert Lee. And the CLS is just that. After 170,000 (44,500 in the U.S.) worldwide sales and dominating the 4-door coupe field singularly for years, Mercedes thought it was time to unleash the second generation CLS. “This iteration incorporates everything the first model didn’t,” said ardent CLS owner and CSI Miami star Omar Miller. True indeed, it’s now more progressive, has stronger character lines, is more efficient, and has a roomier cabin and an amazing V8. It will go by three monikers for now: CLS 550, CLS 63 AMG, and CLS 550 4MATIC all-wheel drive. No V6 or diesel are in the plans right now. Mercedes feels the gasoline V8 is the true heart for this vehicle.
To understand what the 2012 CLS-Class was all about, team Automotive Rhythms ventured to the Bardessono Hotel in Yountville in Napa Valley, California where the Sun is happy, the wine endearing, the vineyards majestic and the vehicles unforgettable. For the drive, I choose a Storm Red CLS 550 and journeyed on the full-day test drive in the geothermally active Napa region. The curvilinear switchbacks and sometimes long vineyard roads were true testaments to the vehicle’s dynamism. I was especially enamored with the 4.6-liter biturbo V8 with its 402 horsepower and 443 lb-ft of torque from 1,800 rpm. This is a direct-injection powerplant that delivers 100% of torque 1,000 rpm lower than its predecessor, while still achieving 18 city and 26 hwy mpg (estimated). Impressive right? This is the interdisciplinary engineering -- performance vs efficiency -- Mercedes infuses in all of its vehicles.
I like using the steering wheel mounted paddle shifters on today’s performance cars so as to self control the vehicle’s rpms. Especially in “Sport” mode where each gear is held until redline before another quick upshift is needed. A 7G-Tronic Plus 7-speed automatic transmission handles the power transitions and comes with the aforementioned “Sport” mode for advanced driving and doubles the maintenance interval to 80,000 miles. In route to De La Montanya Estate Vineyards & Winery for lunch, there were a few instances when I was turning left and right within seconds as the road meandered like rattle snakes in sand. The electro mechanical speed-sensitive steering unit allowed me to keep both hands firmly on the wheel while focusing on the view ahead.
Mercedes-Benz ascertained that the new CLS-Class was everything everyone conceived it would be. It’s sleeker, with an SLS AMG reminiscent front end, has very powerful rear arches, sexy wheels and is branded with the AMG Sport Package. I don’t think there was one journalist on the press trip that was not enamored with the enhanced silhouette of the CLS. When I lifted the hood to scope the new V8, I was astonished at how light it was. Of course its aluminum I thought, along with the doors, front fenders and trunk deck. The rear LED wraparound taillights connect the sloping rear, to the side panel, to the bumper and into the trunk deck. The upright radiator grille is separated from the hood so it will be a bit odd to you at first. This has to do with the new frontal crash requirements from NHTSA and also for pedestrian protection.
The 4-door coupe’s fully active LED high-performance headlamps engenders something special and something the Germans do well. The CLS features 71 total LED bulbs in each cluster: 2 for the cornering lights, 16 for low beams, 8 for high beams, 10 for Night View, 13 for the turn signal, and 22 for the parking lights. Active curve and cornering illumination add to this incredible technology. LED lamps are the closest approximation you can get to daylight. As well, power consumption is only 20% of a typical headlamp and service life is longer.
Other active driver assistance systems in the CLS-Class are Active Lane Keeping Assist (ALKA) which uses radar to warn and steer vehicle back into its lane by braking the front outside wheel. Active Blind Spot Assist helps prevent you from moving into a pre-occupied lane. I did experience ALKA inadvertently and was tickled by its self adjustments.
The cockpit is business as usual for Mercedes. Satin finishes and gloss metal surfaces mix with lacquered woods and premium leather, of which the leather dashboard and covers for the multi-contour seat are hand stitched. COMAND, Mercedes’ intuitive control unit, is operated within the dash-embedded LCD screen. I do think there are too many steps and separate buttons needed to perform one simple task such as changing the navigation’s direction of travel to North or selecting a playlist on my iPod. Also, the turn signal lever and windshield wiper switch are close together as I kept mistaking one for the other.
Of course the brevity of our drive didn’t give us nearly as much time and experience to exploit all of the CLS 550’s attributes, but Mercedes is giving you a lot of car for the money. Expect to see the $71,300 CLS 550 in dealerships next month. Oh, and there is no $1,300 gas guzzler tax as on first generation model!