Does the original premium four-door coupé still have what it takes to battle the talented competition?
Unveiled at the 2003 Frankfurt International Motor Show, the Vision CLS concept previewed a Mercedes-Benz for the future, marrying the sleek roofline of a two-door coupé to the classic and sophisticated body of a Benz sedan. Just a year later, that concept became a reality and the CLS was born. Many weren’t convinced by the styling, yet plenty of people loved the swoopy Benz and over 170 000 well-heeled customers signed on the dotted line. Now in its third generation, the CLS no longer has this niche market all to itself. BMW, Porsche and Audi all offer equally capable alternatives to the Benz. So, is the original four-door coupé still worth a look in a class of accomplished imitators?
Well, from the outside, it seems so. Coated in Designo Diamond White Bright paintwork (a R30 900 option), the CLS cuts a stylish figure. The handsome body appears to be stretched over the optional 20-inch AMG multi-spoke alloy wheels giving the Mercedes a graceful yet muscular quality.
The snug interior is dominated by the widescreen MBUX instrumentation and infotainment screens and is similarly stylish. Metal switchgear lends an upmarket ambience to an already first-class cabin decorated with attractive detailing. When viewed in isolation, these items are eye-catching. As a whole, the interior is perhaps a touch too extravagant for some more conservative buyers (although more demure trim options are available) and the perceived quality, while generally of a lofty standard, isn’t quite on par with that of the Audi A7 Sportback.
Another peculiarity that had us scratching our heads is the meagre standard specification. Items such as fully electrically adjustable seats should be standard on a luxury car sporting a price tag north of R1,3 million. The Artico (Mercedes speak for human-made leather) and Alcantara-trimmed seats on this test vehicle are comfortable, offering high levels of support. Leather upholstery is a no-cost option.
Behind the wheel, there is ample space for those of average height. Taller testers did remark the driving position felt slightly compromised, mostly due to the intrusive transmission tunnel. That sloping roofline comes as a sacrifice to rear cabin space, where the CLS can feel rather cramped. While it presents slightly bigger rear quarters than the Audi A7, it is less spacious vertically than its smaller sibling, the C-Class. At least the boot is large with 384 litres of luggage space. With the optional rear bench folded down, that increases to a comparatively commodious 872 litres of cargo space.
Behind the diamond grille sits what is perhaps the highlight of the package. Producing 250 kW and a substantial 700 N.m of torque, the 2,9-litre inline-six (known internally as the OM656 D29TT SCR) propels the CLS400d at a rapid pace. On our test strip, the 1 938 kg test unit reached 100 km/h from standstill in a mere 5,41 seconds. Despite the surprising performance, the engine is at its happiest when cruising. Beautifully refined, the twin-turbo motor is barely audible at highway speeds. Keen on performing a hat-trick, the diesel Benz even sips fuel at a reasonable pace, using just 7,1 L/100 km on our mixed-use fuel route.
The 9G-tronic torque-converter automatic transmission is smooth and works through the gears seamlessly. Under hard acceleration, kickdown is quick and unobtrusive, eschewing the clunky action that has pestered past Mercedes-Benz autos.
Through corners, the CLS remains composed. It isn’t inherently sporty but it does provide an entertaining drive thanks to clean, uncorrupted steering and plenty of grip courtesy of the 4Matic system.
Still, the 400d is no sportscar and prefers wafting to apex-clipping. On smooth, unruffled surfaces, the CLS provides a wonderfully soft and comfortable ride. It copes less admirably when confronted with potholes and rough roads. Perhaps it’s the combination of low-profile run-flat tyres and coil-sprung suspension that sees the Mercedes occasionally fail to react quickly to road irregularities. This results in a rather sudden and unnerving jolt through the car, a criticism that can be levelled at its German rivals, too.
As a luxurious four-door coupé, the CLS400d has few peers. Its wonderful powertrain has an exceptional mix of performance, refinement and economy. The exterior is a visual treat and continues the restrained yet sinister look that the original pulled off so well. While some cabin trim items may not feel quite as solid as you’d expect at the price, overall the CLS has a beautifully designed interior that looks special.
Still, the sporadically troubled ride and insufficient standard specification cannot be ignored. For those reasons, we contend the richly equipped, less-expensive A7 Sportback 55 TFSI – should you not be set on a diesel-powered executive – makes a stronger case for itself.
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