2019 will be remembered as the year when Daimler fully embraced electrification. No longer reserved for low volume specials like an SLS AMG Electric or an EQ series concept car or even an AMG F1 car, electrification is now a standard feature in many new Mercedes-Benz models.
The only difference is whether it is an entry EQ Boost-badged mild-hybrid, a midway e-badged plug-in hybrid, or a fully electric EQ series car. Even the C200 now features a 48V mild-hybrid setup, which leads us to the all-new CLS-Class seen here.
It’s the third generation of E-Class sedan-based four-door coupes, and the biggest difference now is that it’s no longer strictly a four seater. It now seats five adults like a regular E-Class sedan, but with a menacing shark-nosed silhouette in front.
The CLS-Class is available in three variants, all imported from Sindelfingen, Germany.
Of the trio, the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder CLS 350 is the least recommended simply because apart from its looks, it doesn’t offer a different driving experience from an E350. Yes it’s the cheapest CLS but for anyone shopping past the half a million Ringgit mark, surely price differences are not a concern.
The CLS 450 seen here is the Edition 1 variant, so it gets additional goodies like the Copper Art interior with black nappa Edition 1 leather upholstery, copper coloured accents, and a unique diamond-effect grille.
What sets the CLS 450 and CLS 53 apart are their M256 3.0-litre turbocharged inline six-cylinder engines – the only ones of their kind in the segment since BMW no longer offers inline six-cylinder engines locally, special orders aside.
Available in two different states of tunes, in the CLS 450 it pushes out 367 hp/500 Nm while in the CLS 53 it makes 435 hp/520 Nm. Both are excluding the EQ Boost’s Integrated Start Generator’s (ISG) 22 hp/250 Nm. Oddly, Mercedes-Benz doesn’t provide figures for a combined system output. One can’t simply add the output of the motor and engine as the two power sources peak at different rotational speeds.
Being a mild hybrid, the CLS can’t drive off in electric power alone. The 48V mild hybrid is employed less as a fuel saving feature but a performance enhancing one. Of course there will be reductions in emissions and fuel consumption, but it won’t be as noticeable as the added performance it brings.
48V battery is within the engine bay, hidden from view (12V battery remains in use, installed separately in the boot)
Both the CLS 450 and CLS 53 have 4Matic all-wheel drive, offering a slightly rear-biased torque split of 45:55 front and rear. Both engines are paired to a 9-speed torque converter automatic transmission. The CLS 450 gets a regular 9G-Tronic while the CLS 53 gets an AMG-tuned SpeedShift TCT 9G.
An inline 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine with its ideal 500cc per cylinder capacity already makes for an almost perfectly firing engine. Add the EQ Boost’s ISG and it becomes a gem of an engine.
On the move, both engines exhibit a level of refinement only a six-cylinder can offer. Power delivery is so effortless even by the standards of a turbocharged Mercedes-Benz.
Where a regular turbocharged petrol engine builds up torque early but tapers off at the upper end of the rev range, the EQ Boost assisted engines use a motor to fill the torque gaps throughout the engine’s rev range, thus greatly expanding the engine’s drivability.
Even when accelerating from standstill, the mild hybrid CLS pulls ahead with the kind of immediacy that’s closer to an electric/plug-in hybrid. The intense push continues unabated all the way until the 6,000 plus rpm redline.
The steering rack is also sharper and the car feels a lot more agile than a regular E-Class. It’s what the E-Class should have been, in our opinion at least. The sharper handling chassis gives the car a more focussed driver-oriented character while the larger six-cylinder engine offers a much wider breadth of talent.
Despite wearing an AMG badge, the difference in drivability between the CLS 450 and CLS 53 is not a great deal, and we mean that in a good way. Unlike a 63 series AMG that is perpetually on the edge, like an over eager teenager that just can’t shut up, the 53 series AMG cars are lot more refined while still packing a lot of firepower. Business or pleasure or both, showing off included, the CLS 53 plays along very well, changing its character at will.
On paper, the CLS 53 makes 68 more horsepower but in the more important metric of torque, it makes just 20 Nm more than the CLS 450’s 500 Nm, which is already more than what most drivers can realistically handle.
In other words, the CLS 450 is more than enough to impress. So is there any point to go all the way to a CLS 53? There’s of course the added prestige of the AMG badge and the associated fireworks - the signature AMG exhaust pops and crackles during over runs; there’s one more tangible reason to choose the CLS 53: air suspension.
Like the V6 configuration 43 series cars, the inline six-cylinder 53 series cars don't get hand assembled engines, so there's no signature plaque on the engine cover.
The E-Class sedan, despite wearing the Mercedes-Benz badge, is no longer the byword for comfort, or even handling. Likewise for this CLS-Class. A BMW 5 Series and Volvo S90 are doing better in that aspect these days. Air suspension – which the CLS 53 has - is a must if you care about a comfortable ride but still want the style and associated image of a Mercedes-Benz.
With Airmatic, the difference in ride and handling is quite significant, making the CLS 53 easier to live with despite it being an AMG car. The CLS 450 rides on lowered Comfort Suspension (formerly known as Agility Control), which in Mercedes-Benz’s confusing terminology, refers to steel springs with adaptive but non-selectable dampers. The AMG Dynamic Select switch has Comfort, Sport, Sport+, and Individual modes, but it controls only the steering, powertrain, and exhaust flaps - not the suspension.
This is not to say that the CLS 450 ride is harsh, but it’s not as cossetting as what traditional buyers will expect from a Mercedes-Benz.
Despite being a mild hybrid, the CLS 450 and CLS 53 use an electrically operated air-conditioning compressor so rest assured that the air-conditioning will continue to work even if the engine is cut off. The four-cylinder CLS 350, however, still relies on a belt driven compressor, which runs off the engine’s power and thus will cut off if the engine stops.
The CLS 53 also gets a colour heads-up display, which is not available in the CLS 450.
Downsides? The advance driving assistance features sound good on paper but don't work very well in our local driving conditions. There were instances when Active Brake Assist applied unnecessary braking during an otherwise typical rush hour traffic maneuver, but the most annoying function had to be the Active Blind Spot Assist, which can get fidgety whenever a lane splitting motorcycle rides too close alongside the car, causing it to apply the brakes and tightening the seat belts.
After one too many unnecessary interventions, we disabled the feature. Our experience with similarly capable Honda Sensing (CR-V) or Toyota Safety Sense (Camry), nevermind the recent Volvos, were a lot less eventful.
The difficult to operate (compared to BMW’s iDrive) COMAND is a common complaint in every non-MBUX Mercedes-Benz so the CLS is no different. It’s slow to respond and the menu structure is unnecessarily complicated.
In conclusion, the CLS-Class is the E-Class your heart always wanted but was rejected by your rational self. For the select few who can indulge, there are few cars that offer a better blend of style and driving pleasure. Audi Malaysia no longer offer the A7 Sportback (which is long past its prime anyway), while the BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe is no more. The next closest alternative is the Porsche Panamera but it's priced much further up - from RM890,000 - but don't expect decent specifications for anything less than a million Ringgit.
The CLS-Class is thus, the last one standing, and rightly so. It was the originator, the one that started the trend. Today, it's still the only one that stayed true to its principles while its imitators withered away when the going got tough.