The 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS can accommodate drivers wanting finely honed performance or something a little more genteel, and it can do so, really, in any of its three versions.
We've been fairly enamored with the CLS since it was new back in 2006, and there's slightly more snap in the base CLS 550 now than before. The essentials no longer sound familiar, though. The entry-level engine's now a 4.6-liter, direct-injected, twin-turbocharged V-8 that nevertheless gets the "550" designation to indicate a performance equivalence, not a true engine displacement. Only, it's no longer equal--it's better than before. The new engine's as hushed as a normally aspirated engine as it pushes out 402 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque, and the CLS reels off mid-range passes with gusto.
Off the line it's a little sharp--quick throttle and all--but it settles into a relaxed pace quickly, as it shuffles through seven mostly invisible speeds of all-automatic gearchanging. Sport and comfort modes can speed up or slow down the shift patterns, and shift paddles are fitted for fingertip control. Mercedes quotes a 0-60 mph time of 5.1 seconds for the rear-drive CLS, and a tenth higher for the newly minted all-wheel-drive CLS 550 4MATIC--a concession to buyers in the northeast, one of Mercedes' longtime sales strongholds. Top speed on either is set to 130 mph.
A collection of reworked independent suspension bits, driver-selectable air shocks and newly electrified power steering changes the CLS' demeanor in mild but noticeable ways. The prior version's velvety ride feels a bit less billowy, and the slower steering of the first-generation car is swifter in feel, though feedback is typically lacking, as it is with most electric-steering systems. This isn't the CLS you want if you're into deeply explored communication with the road surface ahead and remaining tire treads, but the snappier response from the drivetrain and the lightly tightened road feel play out well with the more masculine edge applied to the sheetmetal.
The most noteworthy changes--the downsized and turbofied engine, the electric steering--do their part to boost fuel economy, which is now up to 17/26 mpg for the CLS 550, and 16/25 mpg for the AWD edition.
It's all impressive, until you've strapped into the scaldingly fast CLS 63 AMG and rocketed around California wine country in a four-door faster than most Aston Martin coupes. The AMG model's so thoroughly re-engineered, it's more visually than mechanically related to the CLS 550.
At nearly $100,000, the CLS 63 AMG piles on all sorts of parts upgrades: it's like a shopping spree at the Neiman-Marcus version of J.C. Whitney. The base turbo V-8 swaps out for the AMG 5.5-liter twin-turbo eight. The power rises to 518 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque, and the muted engine noises go raspy and insistent in the best way possible. Consider the ante upped: the CLS 63 AMG hits 60 mph in 4.4 seconds and pulls to a top end of 155 mph.
That's unless you add on the $7000-plus Performance Package. Along with AMG cosmetics, this package lifts total output to 550 hp and 590 lb-ft, dropping a tenth a second off the 0-60 mph times and lifting top speed to 186 mph. It's breathtaking performance almost rivaling the SLS AMG supercar's numbers.
Through its own paddle-shifted seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox--with comfort, sport, sport-plus, and manual modes for all your shifty needs--the CLS 63 AMG pounds out heartbreaking punishment on 19-inch rear tires. And though a car this long can't really feel agile, the revamped suspension, combined with an available locking rear differential, does a damn convincing imitation. The basic air suspension puts steel springs back in place up front, and widens the roll bars and control arms for a wider track in front. Engineers left AIRMATIC pieces in place in back, but stiffened up the surrounding subframes and added track rods for better, flatter handling. As with most current Benzes, the AMG's comfort mode really is that--not languid, but not at all brittle.
Flip the switches, set your sights on a light-and-dark California two-laner, and the AMG transforms into a switchblade, all fast steering and tightly controlled cornering motions. When there's an all-clear, you might even enable the AMG's race-start mode for the lowest accel times and a dynamic assessment of your driving skills on the LCD display. If you're that serious, you may be one of the few drivers who really will need the $12,000-plus carbon-ceramic braking system. Grabby at the feet and at the wallet, these brakes are a huge step out of the usability range of most every four-door driver we know.
What's most out of context here, but seemingly effective, is a stop-start system that shuts off fuel and optimizes how the engine restarts, at what point in the timing cycle, all to deliver gas mileage of 16/25 mpg--which means the CLS 63 AMG evades the gas-guzzler tax.