Now, two-door sedans are a reality. Pretty much every BMW 3-Series two-door still qualifies as a sedan, by EPA measurements. But anything with four doors is plainly a sedan. Right?
Not by the yardstick applied by a growing number of car companies, who can identify those of you who still want four-door practicality but the sleeker silhouette of a vehicle with fewer orifices. Audi’s new A6 is one of these animals, but possibly the most hotly intent on selling the idea is Mercedes-Benz via its new CLS.
The CLS, Mercedes vows, offers up the “elegance and dynamism of a coupé with the comfort and practicality of a saloon.” Translation: you don’t lose the room or trunk space of a typical four-door, even though the body is styled to look more like a coupe. And in the case of the CLS, which shares roughly 35 percent of its body structure with the conventional E-Class four-door, most of the functional goodness is retained beneath an intriguing new skin.
2006 Mercedes-Benz CLS 500
It’s appropriate, because in many ways it’s as if Mercedes set out to build a French car, soft and forgiving (even to us Americans!) and prepossessed not by speed but by comfort. The evidence is copious: the instrument panel morphs from the E-Class’ Teutonic rigor into Monet softness, empanelled in your choice of dark or light wood, in matte or gloss finish. Wait, are we ordering a car or lipstick? Wood and leather ring the steering wheel as well, and the seats are padded in creamy leather.
2006 Mercedes-Benz CLS 500
We know the intentions are good. But with all the buttons and switches and even with voice-activated help, controlling the secondary systems at a roll can be confusing as playing whack-a-mole while piloting a 737. Set and forget before you engage, please.
Rev it up, monsieur
With the available Keyless Go system, there’s no need to even pull the key from your man purse. (Call us surprised, too — Benz says the percentage of men buying the CLS will be even higher than in the E-Class.) Just clamber in — watch those Abboud slacks, you just got them out of the dry cleaners — and press the Start/Stop button domed atop the gear selector. The 5.0-liter V-8 awakens and the seven-speed automatic gearbox awaits further instruction.
Set out apace and the lovely V-8 canto will encourage you to explore the CLS’s talents. It’s a marvelous engine, and though we didn’t care for the seven-speed in the sporty Boxster-baiting SLK, here it’s perfectly suited for duty. Upshifts are undetectable, downshifts of two or three gears are nearly as smooth, and as the best transmissions are, the seven-speed’s action is a complement to the CLS’ character, not an off-note. Coupled to the 302-hp V-8, it assists the CLS to 60 mph in about six seconds on its way to a top speed of 155 mph.
The powertrain feels as similar to the E-Class as any fraternal twin would to their wombmate, but the CLS’s steering and suspension are set noticeably apart from the standard E. There’s more play on center with the Active Steering option, and cornering forces build artificially, though the interplay is far from sloppy. The Airmatic suspension, which lowers the CLS six-tenths of an inch at speed, tends to allow body impacts to shudder through the car’s structure in a way we don’t recall in the E-Class. Three settings allow drivers to choose the softness or stiffness of the Airmatic setup, and both my co-driver and I thought it was best in the stiffest setting.
The electronic parade washes the CLS’ cabin in safety gear. There are dual front airbags, side thorax and side curtain airbags, a tire-pressure monitor, and stability control, all standard.
But we ingress
If the dynamics of the CLS show the softer side of Mercedes-Benz, the rear seat sets the tone for the notion of the “four-door coupe” and the compromises it entails. Officially, the line is that the CLS’ sloping roofline allows rear passengers to enter and exit the car in comfort. We’d agree for people shorter than six feet; as in other cars with radical rooflines and lots of side-profile slope (tumblehome), it’s easy for heighty types to clock our heads against the roof on the way into the twin buckets in the rear. The elbow room in back is fine, since there’s no pretense of a fifth passenger riding on the transmission tunnel, but the headliner encroaches on the noggins of the taller riders.
The trunk has been spared too much cutting. The drop-off decklid leaves behind a usable 17.8 cubic feet of trunk space, and Benz adds on a motorized lid in case you’re too infirm — or important — to close it manually.
In front, it’s a better story, though the lower roofline can have the same hair-pulling effect. So can the new buckets available on the CLS — multiadjustable units that have inflatable bladders that offer literally thousands of potentially comfortable seating positions. Customize it, play with the settings or turn on the massage function and save yourself a trip to the Tokyo Spa out by the rest area. Base buckets have power functions, and can be ordered with seat-cushion ventilation (“butt conditioning”? "Asstronic"?).
The CLS is an unusual vehicle for any
automaker not headquartered in
2006 Mercedes-Benz CLS500
Base price: $62,500 (est.)
Engine: 5.0-liter V-8, 302 hp/339 lb-ft
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 193.4 x 73.7 x 54.4 in
Wheelbase: 112.4 in
Curb weight: 3750 lb (est.)
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 18/26 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, front-seat side airbags, side curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability control
Major standard equipment: Air suspension, automatic climate control, 18-inch alloy wheels, AM/FM/CD player, power locks/windows/mirrors, leather seating, anti-theft system
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles