2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS Class Review

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The Car Connection
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The Car Connection Expert Review

Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
January 3, 2012

Still a fashionista at heart, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS is cut from a more masculine pattern book these days--especially in powerful AMG trim.

Call it a coupe if you want. The 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS still has four doors, and at the brass-tacks level, it's still an E Class, albeit one with a new outlook on life.

But what a difference that outlook makes. The CLS has always had a beautiful silhouette--and now that it has more competition, from Europe and from Asia, it's steeled itself with some fascinating new angles and deep new dimples. In the process, it's gone from merely pretty to compelling, tense, and athletic, even inside, where the cabin walks a fine line between glamorous and busy.

The CLS' hallmark relaxed road manners are reined in a little bit, to match its aggressive new looks. The standard V-8 car, with 402 turbocharged horsepower, has a near-bottomless well of torque, and bristles with coupelike performance, though it's still a very comfortable cruiser in all but its most heightened states of electronic tune. It's in AMG-land where the CLS really takes on a new dimension, with up to 550 horsepower and some inspired moves that trim down the usual big-car dynamics into fighting shape. It's a lightsaber of a car that still manages 16/25 mpg on the EPA test cycle, on the same plane as a Porsche Panamera.

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Still tight in the back seat, the CLS has front passengers covered for plush accommodations and supportive seats. The gimmicky-sounding active seats are a new favorite, with airy bolsters that inflate as the car does deep knee bends into corners. It's a subtly reassuring detail--and in concert with the CLS' long list of safety equipment, some of which we think should be standard (blind-spot monitors, rearview camera) at its $72,000 base price.

If you thought the E Class was lavishly outfitted, the closely related 2012 CLS is even more lushly equipped. Even the base car has a sunroof and leather upholstery, as well as a navigation system and walnut trim, and an option for all-wheel drive. The ne plus ultra CLS? That's the $95,775 CLS 63 AMG, which comes with its own hellacious drivetrain, along with the same standard features. Want more? It can be had with 550 horsepower, a top speed of 186 mph, and for $12,265, exotic-grade carbon ceramic brakes.

The first version blurred the line between coupe and sedan. With performance like this, the new CLS makes it a moot point.

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2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS Class

Styling

Grafting big quads on a svelte set of bones sounds like metal malpractice, but the 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS just makes it work.

The whole Mercedes lineup in the midst of an unsubtle leap from feminine to masculine styling, the 2012 CLS sedan joins in this year with bold cues like the ones that now ring out on the E Class and S Class. Only here, it falls into place more neatly and succinctly. Of all the big Benz sedans, the CLS does the best job of melding an older silhouette with the new styling direction, especially from the rear.

The last time around the drafting table (okay, OLED screen), the CLS had spare, elegant sheetmetal that proved a pretty diversion from the upright E Class lurking underneath. Now it's gone in search of a little toughness. In front, the CLS cribs the pronounced horizontal and trapezoidal lines that also compartmentalize the E Class coupe and sedan. The wide grille and immense three-pointed star come off as a classy way to deal with the taller front end required to meet European crash standards. To us, the beltline that divides the grille from the air intakes makes the CLS look as if it's contemplating its own good looks in a narcissistic pond.

Mothballing the plainer doors and rear fenders it once wore, the CLS is now deeply sculpted down its flanks. Whether you think it harks back to ponton fender lines, or suggests a muscular set of haunches, the CLS' rear quarters just work--it's coiled and tensed, a slingshot of visual motion compared to the gentle arc of the roof.

The reinterpreted panels meet up with a reworked dash inside the CLS. The usual cut-tube gauges glimmer with white borders, a big LCD panel dominates the top of the dash, the center vents bulge outward from wood frames, and soft-brushed metallic trim runs rings around the interior. There's plenty for the eyes to digest on here, and like the other sexy German new on the block, it's almost to the point of overload. The wood trims mostly mute that--but the CLS 63 AMG's optional carbon-fiber trim glowers for attention.

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2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS Class

Performance

The 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS gives the well-heeled a choice of driving weapons: bow and arrow, or light saber.

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.

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2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS Class

Comfort & Quality

A tight back seat is still a hallmark of the Mercedes-Benz CLS, but front passengers and their carry-ons are well taken care of.

While the 2012 CLS is longer overall than before, the passenger space grows only a little better in some dimensions, while it loses fractions of inches elsewhere.

On the same 113.2-inch wheelbase, the CLS is almost the same size as in the first-generation car, and width is similar, while overall height is actually down by less than an inch. Mercedes has carved out almost an inch more of shoulder space in front by sculpting the door panels differently, and elbow room is up a third of an inch. That said, we're more impressed by the CLS' seats than by the attempts to boost its snug interior room. The front chairs on the CLS 550 are excellent, even the base ones, with 14 ways of power adjustment, firm bolstering with a bit of plushness, and memory controls. We're sold on the optional ventilation, which cools down the seat cushions and keeps air moving where air should probably move on a long trip.

On the CLS 63 AMG, a pair of front sport buckets are tailored in Nappa leather, and the rear seats get stitching to resemble the more firmly bolstered fronts. On either CLS, the front chairs can be upgraded to active control, which pumps up bolsters and bladders to increase support in moderate to hard cornering. It sounds gimmicky, but feels very reassuring, in a peripheral way, when the suspension's doing deep knee-bends into tight corners.

In the backseat, the CLS really hasn't made measurable progress. It unapologetically leaves people-toting to the more upright E Class; Mercedes cuts down the size of its rear doors and drops a seat from the back, all in the name of style. What's left is a tight fit for bigger adults, who will need to fold feet in and swing into the back buckets with some precision. There's not much headroom for six-footers in back, either--though medium-sized adults and anyone smaller will be perfectly comfortable in the rear seats. (And who wouldn't be, swaddled in this kind of leather and wood trim, and with optional heated seats?)

As for trunk room and other storage, it's down a half-cube in the back, but the trunk lid does have an option for power closing. Two large cupholders dominate the front edge of the center console between the front seats, and a covered bin that's further back is split down the middle, probably to keep big arms from snapping off a big single-piece lid.


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2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS Class

Safety

No crash-test data is available, but the 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS has an extraordinary set of available safety features--though we think some should be standard at the price.

The 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS doesn't have official crash-test scores yet, but it does have an overwhelming list of safety technology at its disposal, to keep passengers away from harm.

We've rated the CLS highly here, since the closely related E Class sedan has earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick honor. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn't performed any crash testing on the CLS as of yet.

The complete set of safety features offered on the CLS starts with the standard ones. They include dual front, side and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control; and active headrests. Also standard are active LED headlights, that auto-dim with oncoming traffic, and steer along with the car to provide a clearer field of view. Big LED taillamps are included as well, as are front and rear parking sensors.

Down on the options list you'll find a rearview camera, which seems as if it should be standard equipment. Mercedes also offers rear-seat side airbags, which should keep its side-impact test scores strong. There's also a suite of electronic helpers available for a price, including blind-spot monitors, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist that nudges the car back into its lane if it senses obstacles in the way, or if the car has crossed lane lines; and PRE-SAFE, which applies the brakes and sets seatbelt tensioners when an impact is judged to be imminent.

The e-assists culminate in active parking assist. Like the systems on some Lincolns and the new Ford Escape, this connects the CLS' electric power steering and its cameras and parking sensors to help the car steer itself into a parallel-parking spot, while the driver modulates the brake and gas.


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2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS Class

Features

If you thought the E Class was lavishly outfitted, the closely related 2012 CLS is even more lushly equipped.

Nearly every advanced technology feature offered by Mercedes-Benz pokes its way through panels of wood and leather inside the 2012 CLS sedan. It all makes perfect sense in the context of its triglyceride-raising opulence, too.

Every CLS four-door totes an immense set of standard features. The basics--automatic climate control, power features, a sunroof, and leather upholstery--are complemented by an integrated suite of voice- and controller-driven functions, all bundled under the Benz COMAND system. COMAND connects Bluetooth and a knob on the center console to run all the audio functions, among them HD and satellite radio, USB connectivity, and a 10GB music hard drive. It also governs the navigation system, which stores maps on a 40GB hard drive, and taps real-time traffic information as well as a Zagat restaurant database--just in case Thomas Keller's latest effort is solidly overbooked, we suppose. COMAND runs your telephone as well, and grants access to your smartphone's database of numbers.

It does all this visibly on a pretty seven-inch LCD display on the center stack, and a smaller one between the gauges. Steering-wheel switches and buttons give a third option for steering your way through the infotainment options while you cruise safely down the road. COMAND may not be the clearest, most intuitive interface on the planet, but none of them are at this stage of the user-interface game--though we tend to prefer touchscreens in a parked car, given our choice.

The CLS' audio system also incorporates an SD card slot for portable music, and a six-DVD changer for...what? We're not sure. All the sounds produced are rendered through 14 beautifully optimized harmon/kardon speakers, given the surround-sound treatment, of course.

We're a little puzzled by some of the options on this pricey sedan. An iPod cable is part of a package with a rearview camera, ventilated and heated front seats, adaptive LED headlamps, and an electronic trunk closer, all priced at nearly $4400. (The iPod cable is also available as an accessory, but at these prices?) Blind-spot monitors and lane-keeping assist are options on the CLS 550 as well, as is an auto-braking safety package. An AMG-lookalike set of wheels, with a sport transmission mode, is a must at about $800--but the 19-inchers aren't much more at about $1300.

Other stand-alone options include the rearview camera and automatic parallel-parking assistance; fold-down rear seats; rear side airbags; active front seats, which have inflatable bladders that stiffen when the car corners for better support; a heated steering wheel; night vision; heated rear seats; and special dark ash interior trim.

Upgrading to the CLS 63 AMG brings a new set of interior trim, with an Alcantara headliner and dash stitching, and a power-telescoping steering wheel. It also adds a performance screen to the GPS display, where you can measure acceleration and grip, even time laps. Most of the base model's option packages are offered here as well, but if you're already in for $100,000 or more, why not spend $7300 on the Performance Package? The steering wheel alone is worth it, but you may be slightly more interested in the new 186-mph top speed, the 550 net horsepower, sport suspension, and red-dipped brake calipers.

Unique options on the AMG include piano-black interior trim, a carbon-fiber spoiler and interior trim, a limited-slip differential, and a breathtaking $12,625 carbon-ceramic braking package that applies some SLS AMG-style stopping ability to this fine four-door.

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2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS Class

Fuel Economy

Gas mileage is better with the 2012 edition of the Mercedes-Benz CLS, and the AMG edition no longer draws a gas-guzzler penalty from the EPA refs.

Gas mileage in this latest generation of CLS sedans is improved, and it no longer gets taxed for excessive consumption, but it's still at the low end of economy for bix, sexy sedans.

In base trim, the 2012 CLS 550 is rated by the EPA at 17 miles per gallon on the city cycle, and 25 mpg on the highway cycle. That's markedly better than the 2011 edition. The efficiency news is even better in versions with all-wheel drive or the magnificent AMG-tuned V-8: both the CLS 550 AWD and CLS 63 AMG are rated at 16/25 mpg.

For the AMG model, that means no more gas-guzzler tax. Still, Mercedes offers some of its exceptional BlueTEC diesels in the CLS in other markets--and we'd imagine a 30-mpg highway rating would look just as good here as it does over there.

The CLS also has a new "controlled efficiency" mode programmed into its automatic transmission. By switching into that mode, drivers can launch the CLS from a stop in second gear, and can stretch and smooth out shifts for slight increases in fuel economy. Mostly, we noticed this mode does best at eliminating some shift shock in urban driving.

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Styling 8
Performance 8
Comfort & Quality 8
Safety 9
Features 9
Fuel Economy 5
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