Review and road test of the Mercedes-Benz CLS (2011-2014)
SLEEK AND YE SHALL FIND
By Andy Enright
Conventional wisdom dictates that a coupe has two doors, occasionally three if you count a hatchback rear. Five doors, as boasted by the Mazda RX-8, is pushing things a bit but a quartet of doors is the one attribute that generally precludes entry to the coupe club. Possessed of four doors, you are usually a saloon. Saloons, as we all know, are often a bit staid, driven by middle management and chubby gentlemen the world over. The Mercedes CLS-Class broke that particular mould.
Call it brutish, muscular, whatever, but the MK2 model CLS isn't as distinctive as its Baroque predecessor. While it might not turn so many heads, it has become a massively improved car, helped in no small part by the amazing CLS 63 AMG at one end of the range and the diesel models at the other. This CLS is now a great used buy. Here's what to look for.
4dr coupe, 5dr estate (2.1, 3.0 diesel, 1.8, 3.0, 3.5, 5.5, 6.2 petrol)
The Frankfurt Motor Show usually throws up a few original concepts and we got exactly that back in 2003 when Mercedes unveiled their Vision CLS Concept. It looked amazing, all baroque curves and bold surfacing. A four-door coupe, they called it. How we chuckled. It would never make production. But it did, and quicker than anybody guessed, with cars arriving in dealers in 2005. That first-gen CLS was a soaraway success, spawning a whole legion of copycats.
It wasn't actually all that long for this world though. Mercedes ignoring the usual seven-year production cycle for a car in this class and announcing the CLS' replacement in 2010. The second generation CLS, the C218 in Merc-speak, wasn't as radical-looking as its predecessor. In fact, it struck many as a retrograde step, in styling terms at least. Yes, it looked bigger and more brutish, but where was the purity of line that so defined the initial CLS?
Gradually we've become a bit more used to this car and realised that there were other things to admire. Those muscular wheel arches, the well-appointed cabin and the fact that it was so much better to drive for a start. The CLS 63 AMG model was added to the range in pretty short order, packing a 525PS 5.5-litre twin-turbo V8 and a Shooting Brake estate version of the CLS was added in 2012. The 63 AMG was treated to a performance boost in 2013, with peak power rising to 557PS. The CLS was eventually facelifted in 2014.
What You Get
There was a certain delicacy to the styling of the first CLS. It was almost as if a basic shape was decided on early in the design process and then all the details and extraneous gewgaws were pared back. Less really was more. The second generation model decides that more is, after all, more. The styling is busier with a more muscular bulge to its wheel arches and a front end that is more pit bull than its slightly feline predecessor. Mercedes should be commended for trying something new and different instead of merely trying to rehash the original.
The same story goes for the interior. No, it's not as bold and minimalist as the original CLS, that car's 'plank across the dash'-style interior look being unlike any Mercedes model before, but functionality in the MK2 model car has improved no end. The driving position is lower as well, the driver feeling seated in rather than on the big seats. The rear doors are longer than before, which makes getting into the back a little easier. It isn't as spacious as an E-Class inside, but Mercedes claims useful gains in head, shoulder and legroom over the old MK1 CLS and the boot is 15-litres bigger than before at 520-litres.
Duck your head and drop into the back of this four-door coupe and you'll find a pair of rear seats. You get room for three in the back of the estate version, although it has to be said that that Shooting Brake derivative is rather narrow and its shapeless middle seat will soon highlight family pecking orders. You wouldn't want to go too far perched on it. With a load volume of between 590 and 1550-litres, the Shooting Brake's cargo bay offers a lot of room, despite the flat, sporty lines of the roof. There's more room in the luggage compartment with the rear seats in position than you get in a 5 Series Touring for example. It's easy to use thanks to the automatically opening tailgate fitted as standard.
From new, most CLS Shooting Brake customers chose a carpeted load bay with brushed aluminium rails inset, but those new car buyers also had a wonderfully extravagant and quite beautiful option available to them - the designo wooden luggage compartment floor. Here you got a cherry tree wood finish that contrasted with inlaid smoked oak and aluminium rails. Mercedes claimed that if offered the sort of elegance most associated with yachts. While wildly impractical, it's certainly a real eye catcher.
What to Look For
Insist on a full Mercedes dealer service history, especially for the most recent models whose lengthy warranty - effectively for the life of the car - is dependent on proper servicing by an authorised agent. Check that all the accessories work and watch out for cosmetic damage which can be expensive to correct. If you're buying a Shooting Brake, check for wear and tear in the rear. The designo wood floor is ridiculously easy to scratch. Also look for the usual signs of wheel kerbing and poorly repaired accident damage. Mercedes experienced problems with the piezo electric injectors on the CLS 250 CDI and replacing them within factory tolerances seems to be a problem for many dealerships, resulting in sub-par economy.
(approx. based on CLS 250 CDI model) Allow around £90 for a set of front brake pads and £75 for the rear and about £375 (excluding catalyst) for a factory exhaust system. A full clutch replacement would cost around £295, a radiator is about £245 whilst a starter motor can be up to £250. A new alternator would be in the region of £500.
On the Road
Mercedes offer quite a choice of engines for the CLS, whether you opt for the coupe or the Shooting Brake. There was the CLS 350 petrol engine, which didn't shift too many units in the UK, and the bonkers CLS 63 AMG. That car featured the wonderful (but sadly these days discontinued) AMG-tuned 6.2-litre V8 - one of the world's great engines. Even in standard output it's enough to give the CLS 63 AMG acceleration as if it's been hit from behind by a wrecking ball, the sprint to 60mph detaining it for a mere 4.1s.
As good as that car is to drive, we happen to think that the best engine in the CLS line-up is the volume diesel unit most new buyers chose. It might not have the sheer drama of the AMG powerplant but for sheer day to day versatility and refinement, you can't better the CLS 350 CDI model. Yes, it's a diesel but it's a one of the good ones; smooth and muscular with plenty of overtaking power. It's a 3.0-litre V6 that generates 265bhp and is capable of dispatching the sprint to 62mph in a mere 5.9 seconds.
New model buyers got a choice between Airmatic front suspension or conventional springs and dampers up front. Don't worry about choosing a car with the standard set up because it gives the CLS a much more natural-feeling front end with better body control. Gearchanging duties are taken care of by Mercedes' own column shift seven-speed automatic transmission. It's called 7G-Tronic Plus and features a revised torque converter.
There is another engine in the range to consider, a 2.1-litre diesel that powers the CLS 250 CDI. It's a good pick if you're looking to reduce your tax bill but in a car of this size, we're not sure if it's got enough about it. On paper the 204bhp and 7.5 seconds to 62mph seems more than enough, but in order to achieve meaningful acceleration, you need to pedal it quite hard and the four-cylinder engine isn't the most melodious. We reckon it would be just fine in a C-Class but this car deserves something a bit smoother - which is why we prefer the six-cylinder CLS 350 CDI. Give it a try though. You might well get along with it just fine.
Although the CLS's styling was toned down in MK2 model guise, everything else about the second generation design was amped up. It's by far the better car and the CLS 63 AMG is going to be remembered for a very long time. The best car in the range is probably the CLS 350 CDI, with its smooth 3.0-litre six diesel. Take your time choosing and look for a car that's been serviced on the nose and has been used as a second or third family vehicle. Yes, the CLS is capable of soaking up big mileages and we wouldn't turn down a bargain car with some sizeable numbers on the clock, but it's a buyer's market. Look for the best and bargain hard.
Mercedes-Benz CLS (2011-2014) review by Andy Enright