Turning water into wine, or lead into gold have been noble goals of alchemists throughout the ages. While they have yet to succeed in this enterprise, Mercedes-Benz has proven adept at turning two generations of their best selling E-Class saloon into four-door coupes with real head turning style since the first CLS of 2004.
An instant CLS fan base was the result, and Mercedes say that 375,000 people liked it enough to write a cheque for their own copy of the first and second-generation models. This is a big number for a relatively small volume niche market car.
Like its predecessors, the third generation CLS that bows in at Geneva this week is far more than just a pretty face. With the typical depth and breadth of concept, design and engineering prowess that Mercedes are known for, the new CLS is not just better looking than the E-Class on which it shares its platform, but is also considerably more engaging to drive.
Once you get past the lower overall height of the CLS package, which gives it a more advantageous centre of gravity, you come to the 15mm lower ride height and more sporting suspension arrangements that also contribute towards its impressive 0.26 drag coefficient. Thus, improved driving dynamics are a given.
As before the latest CLS shares most of its mechanicals with the ubiquitous E-Class, taking many of its engine options, while honing the character of its suspension settings to a finer point in line with its more sporting intent.
To further bolster driving dynamics the new CLS comes with three possible suspension variations - steel springs and conventional dampers, steel springs with adaptive damper, and finally the sophisticated multi-chamber Air Body Control air suspension. My four and six-cylinder test cars had the second and third of these options respectively.
The lower driving position and the high-tech dashboard seem more at home in the sleek CLS than its more square rigged sister. Nice touches in the cabin such as the back lighting for the air vents whose colour changes from cool blue to warm red with the temperature you dial into the system.
From behind the wheel the lower, more sports coupe like driving position gives you a completely different feeling from the E-Class, and the slightly clinical feeling you get in the otherwise excellent saloon becomes charged with emotion, the urge to explore its cabin details, and then just go out and drive. This is exactly what the designers and engineers had in mind, and is part of the alchemy at work.
Mercedes-AMG CLS53 4Matic+
Mercedes-AMG CLS53 4Matic+. That mouthful is the official designation of the latest ‘AMG Lite’ CLS model, and differentiates the latest six-cylinder cars from the full-blown V8 and V12 AMG models. No doubt everyone else will just call it the CLS53 AMG.
With their new ‘53’ line, which sits above the ’43’ line, AMG breaks free of both any relationship with engine capacity as well as any number they have used in the past.
So what exactly is a Mercedes-AMG CLS53 4Matic+? As the core of every AMG car is a powerful engine we will start there. Where Mercedes previous had a modular engine family of V6 and V8 engines with the four-cylinder models below and the V12 above, downsizing considerations now base the new modular family around straight four and six cylinder units, all turbocharged and electrified for improved efficiency.
The basic (M256) 2,999cc turbocharged and electrified straight six in the CLS450 4Matic comes with 367hp and 500Nm of torque. For the CLS53 4Matic+, rather than producing a tuned AMG version as with the C/E43 AMG versions, the 53 cars simply use the more powerful variant from the S500/L, which boasts 435hp at 5,900rpm, with 520Nm of torque between 1,500 and 5,500rpm. With 4WD traction the CLS53 4Matic+ rockets to 100km/h in just 4.5 seconds, with top speed electronically limited to 250km/h.
This i6 motor with EQ Boost starter generator delivers an additional 22hp and 250Nm under full throttle acceleration, making throttle response more instant and more seamless, while improving fuel efficiency. It is in effect a partial hybrid with none of the disadvantages of a hybrid.
So what does this mean from an engineering point of view? Amongst other things, the 48 V system takes the sting out of a conventional 12 V system when the fuel saving stop-start system is engaged. Stop-start is much more noticeable on four-cylinder engines, especially diesels, but the high torque and current capability of the 48 v system helps the engine restart as seamlessly as the pre-engaged starter on a V12 motor. And if you are in fuel saving mode, the Eco of the stop-start system now cuts the engine even before the car comes to a complete halt.
The engine’s water pump is electrically driven by the 48 V systems, which further reduces fuel sapping mechanical drag. Using this 48 V system offers many of the advantages of a hybrid, but without the weight and space penalties of lugging around over 300kg of batteries that often also encroach on boot space.
Naturally the engine and gearbox ECU mapping is revised for the lighter car and its more sporting AMG credentials, while the gearbox is the bespoke AMG Speedshift TCT 9G transmission.
I thought this new i6 engine was very smooth and punchy when I drove the S500L last year, but the CLS makes even more of its performance potential, its lower centre-of-gravity and seating position and sporting chassis set-up positively encouraging you to try harder on a twisty road than you would in the equivalent E or S-Class.
The AMG engineers have worked their magic on the suspension, using a raft of components such as bespoke steering knuckles, some unique suspension arms, more negative camber for better turn-in and AMG software for the multi-chamber air suspension. All this helps the 53 feel sharper and more alert, while hardly detracting from ride quality.
The Mercedes 4Matic system on the CLS450 has a 45/55 power split, which is more traction that performance led. It’s ESP system also never really goes away even when you apparently have deactivated it. Mercedes say this is to protect the normal driver who buys this type of car for its all-weather abilities.
However, the 4Matic+ system in the 53 AMG version delivers an infinitely variable torque split, which I was able to exploit on the mountain part of our test route, exiting some of the tighter bends with power oversteer in the lower gears when there was no other traffic around. Thus, I can say that this cars limit handling is both predictable and fun.
That said, the multi-chamber Air Body Control suspension is a big star of the 53 show. Although the AMG version of the basic Mercedes system is calibrated more towards performance, it manages to retain an impressively cossetting secondary ride around town despite the generous 8.0J and 9.0J x 19-inch alloys, shod with 245/40ZR19 and 275/35ZR19 tyres.
The counterpoint is iron fisted body control and low cornering roll at higher speeds, especially in Sport mode. In fact the ride and handling was so nicely balanced in Sport this ended up as my default mode.
The four-cylinder CLS I drove later was equipped with the middle option of steel springs with adaptive damping. Wearing the optional 19-inch wheels, it exhibited taut handling and an impressively comfortable ride that most customers will find to be 90% as good as the air suspension for a lot less money.