Thumbs Up: More power and more aggressive looks than the outgoing model.
Thumbs Down: Low roofline makes entry challenging.
Buy This Car If: You want a Mercedes coupe, but need the practicality of a sedan.
By the manufacturer’s description, the Mercedes-Benz CLS550 is a full-size, four door coupe. That may seem like an oxymoron, since coupes tend to be diminutive in size, with only two-door accommodations. The appeal of a coupe is it’s styling, which tends to be both more muscular and more elegant than a full size sedan. Still, many want the lines of a coupe with the practicality of the additional two doors for rear-seat passenger accommodation. Mercedes-Benz understands this, so they created the CLS coupe in 2004.
Like a traditional coupe, the CLS features a swept-back, flowing body style with a steeply raked windshield and a plunging rear roofline. It’s got seating for four, in a traditional 2+2 arrangement. Unlike most coupes, the extra doors of the CLS make rear passenger entry and exit much more convenient than climbing over and around the front seats. It’s got a sizable trunk, too, which means that four adults can journey in comfort, whether the trip is cross-town or across the continent.
Nothing in life is free, and you’d be correct in assuming there’s a price to pay for the CLS’ good looks. The car’s low roofline adds to its sleek appearance, but it makes entry a bit more difficult for drivers approaching six feet tall. The same applies to rear-seat passengers as well, and those much taller than six feet will find headroom to be less than ample. Legroom for rear seat passengers is good but not great, which means that tall passengers will be happiest in the copilot seat.
2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550
Mercedes-Benz has restyled the CLS550 for the 2012 model year, and the new car is much more aggressive than the CLS it replaces. Up front, the grille in now reminiscent of the SLS AMG, and the angular front fascia gives the new CLS550 an almost menacing appearance. Flared front fenders and an exaggerated rear quarter panel underline the car’s sporting intentions, and deep character lines across the front and rear doors only add to the effect. If the last generation CLS blended into the background, the new CLS does exactly the opposite: it’s styling ensures that you will definitely be noticed behind the wheel.
Backing that stance up is an improved V-8 engine, downsized to 4.6 liters but equipped with twin turbos and mated to Mercedes’ superb seven-speed automatic gearbox. Last year’s normally-aspirated, 5.5 liter V-8 was good for 382 horsepower and 391 lb-ft of torque, but the new engine cranks out 402 horsepower and 443 lb-ft of torque. The difference in acceleration is noticeable, and the 2012 CLS550 takes 5.1 seconds to get from zero to sixty miles per hour, shaving three-tenths of a second off the outgoing car’s time. It gets better fuel economy, too, with an EPA estimated 24 mpg highway (versus 21 mpg for the outgoing car). In a mix of city and highway driving, I saw an indicated 18.3 mpg, not bad considering that I spent far more time in “Sport” mode than in “Economy” mode.
One of Mercedes-Benz’s hallmarks has always been interior comfort, and the CLS550 doesn’t disappoint. The front seats are supremely comfortable and almost infinitely adjustable. Opt for the Premium Package 1, and you’ll also get heating and what Mercedes calls “active cooling”. Unlike cooled seats in most other cars, the front seats in the CLS550 never leave you feeling like you’re wearing a wet bathing suit, something that generally has me avoiding the use of cooled seats in other brands. My tester also came with Mercedes’ “Active Multicontour” driver’s seat, which includes adjustable lumbar support, massage and active side bolsters. The active bolsters (which inflate instantly to provide more lateral support while cornering) take some getting used to, but they certainly are effective at keeping you in place during spirited driving.
If you’re of average height, the rear seats of the CLS550 are a great place to spend time as well. Deep hip bolsters and reasonable shoulder bolstering ensure that you won’t be bounced around like a ping-pong ball when the road gets twisty. Storage abounds, as do cup holders (including one specially designed to accommodate coffee mugs). Unlike a traditional two-door coupe, rear seat entry doesn’t require the agility of an Olympic gymnast, but those of even modest height will need to mind the low roofline when climbing in.
The dash is everything you’d expect from Mercedes-Benz; think “understated elegance” and you get the picture. Burl walnut and black leather abound, but buyers can also opt for tan or gray leather and black ash wood. The wood trim crosses the face of the leather-topped dash, extends down the center console and carries over to the doors. Unlike many infotainment and navigation systems, the one used in the CLS550 is intuitive and features a dial-type interface. Controls for most audio functions and all HVAC functions are separate, which means that new owners won’t need to spend hours trying to program radio stations, audio settings or climate control preferences. The steering wheel on my tester was wood-trimmed, which (thankfully) is an option in the CLS550. I’d have much preferred the standard steering wheel, which is fully leather wrapped, since I find the difference in steering wheel textures to be distracting for high-speed cornering.
I was a big fan of the instrumentation in the CLS550, as it’s among the most stylish that I’ve seen. Gauges are dark gray, not the traditional black or white, and are trimmed in aluminum. The speedometer is the largest and occupies the center position. The speedometer needle sweeps from the outside edge of the gauge, which leaves the center open for a large driver information display. The left gauge is split between fuel level and water temperature (which is measured in Centigrade, not Fahrenheit), and the right gauge pod is taken up by the tachometer.
On the road, the CLS500’s ride quality is exemplary. Even in comfort mode, the pneumatic suspension exhibits little body roll in corners, but dialing up the sport suspension setting transforms the car. The CLS550 is a big car, but it’s surprisingly nimble in sport suspension mode. Steering feedback is better than you’d expect, and the wheel is well-weighted given the car’s luxury heritage. Step on the gas, and the car builds speed at a surprising rate; it’s not as mind-warpingly quick as Cadillac’s CTS-V, but it is more refined and it feels more sporting than Audi’s latest A8. I actually found myself thinking that the CLS550 (or it’s steroid-infused brother, the AMG-tuned CLS63) would be an entertaining car to use on One Lap of America. I got the impression that even the CLS550, if fitted with the proper tires and tuned to eliminate the 130 mph governed top speed, would be fairly capable on the track. It certainly would make light work of the often-painful transit legs between events. Neither car would be my very first choice, but I’d definitely list the CLS63 in my top ten list of candidates.
It’s impossible to write a review about a Mercedes-Benz automobile without referencing the safety systems included, since Mercedes has helped pioneer many safety systems over the years (such as the cockpit safety cell, traction control and automatic crash detection). If occupant safety is a concern, the CLS550 will absolutely not disappoint, and comes with features such as:
- Multiple airbags, including driver and passenger knee and pelvic airbags
- PRE SAFE predictive crash protection
- ATTENTION ASSIST to monitor driver alertness
- Available DISTRONIC PLUS adaptive cruise control
- Available Active Blind Spot detection
- Available Lane Keeping Assist
That’s not to say you can’t get similar features on cars from the competition, often at lower selling points, but the CLS550 somehow conveys a sense of security. Is it marketing? Perhaps, but it’s effective marketing.
My 2012 CLS550 tester had a base price of $72,175, including a destination charge of $875. Options on my tester included the $4,390 Premium Package 1 (iPod media interface, rearview camera, heated & ventilated front seats, power rear window shade, adaptive highbeam assist, full LED headlights, electronic trunk closer, keyless entry and push-button start), the $850 Lane Tracking Package (Blind Spot Assist, Lane Keeping Assist), the $970 Parktronic system, the $440 split folding rear seats, the $590 wood and leather steering wheel, the $420 rear side airbags, the $660 Active Multicontour driver’s seat and the $500 19-inch wheel package for a total sticker price of $80,995. By comparison, a similarly equipped Audi A8 4.2 quattro would list for $94,565 (but, in fairness, includes features such as AWD not found on the CLS550). Audi’s smaller and sportier A7 Premium, equipped comparably to the CLS 550 (but also with AWD) would sticker at $72,705. Jaguar’s XJ Supercharged sedan, perhaps the best equivalent to the CLS550 on the market today, would carry a list price of $92,300 when similarly equipped.