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KYALAMI, Gauteng – You always have to question the logic behind hosting the launch of a new performance car at a racetrack. Sure, it looks like a perfect match but in the case of plying Mercedes-AMG’s new CLS53 on the Kyalami circuit, there’s the definite feeling that only half the story is actually being told.

Shift in the CLS scene

While the previous car’s model range was crowned by an S model, drawing a frankly barmy 430 kW from its 5,5-litre V8 twin-turbo, there’s little indication to suggest Mercedes will release another eight-cylinder model. This effectively means the CLS range will top out with this six-cylinder model, with the Mercedes-AMG GT4 picking up the baton as the entry point to AMG’s V8 fold. Even so, the folks at Mercedes are adamant the adoption of a new six-cylinder engine bristling with mild hybrid and electric boost technology will more than compensate for the AMG CLS shedding two cylinders.

Das boost

The technological highlight of the CLS53’s new inline-six engine is the inclusion of a 48V electrical architecture linked with a starter motor-alternator unit housed between the transmission and engine. Dubbed EQ Boost, this system supplements the petrol engine’s 320 kW and 520 N.m with a burst of 16 kW and 250 N.m for short accelerative episodes. Drag runs on Kyalami’s main straight showcased the system’s ability to pretty much eliminate any hint of turbo lag; rocketing the two-tonne CLS off the line and feeding in the power in an addictive billowing manner.

Formidable grip from the variable AWD system (capable of splitting power from 50/50 up to 100% rearward) ensures all that grunt doesn’t evaporate in a cloud of tyre smoke. This makes the CLS53 a veritable straight-line bullet, with the claimed 4,5-second 0-100 km/h sprint time feeling entirely plausible.

It's impressive stuff, but despite the chorus of puffs and crackles emanating from the tailpipes with the exhaust flaps their most vocal configuration, it just seems to lack the V8’s visceral charm.  

Less sharp, more forgiving

Those expecting performance and handling characteristics in the same bracket as the previous car will likely find the new CLS a touch too mild for their liking. It feels every bit the swift GT; its variable ratio steering is light and indirect, and even in its sportiest setting the throttle isn’t the hair trigger it was. Consequently, our slaloms and laps of Kyalami were a mixed bag. The CLS can certainly be weaved between closely spaced traffic cones without tripping over its tyres, but you never escape the feeling that it’s a big, heavy car that tolerates, instead of revelling, in such antics.

The CLS found its feet a little better on the faster, open sections of the Kayalami circuit. Smooth shifts and eager kickdowns under hard acceleration highlighted just how well the nine-speed auto ‘box gels with the new powerplant. As you’d expect from a heavy all-wheel drive GT, there’s plentiful grip, but barrelling into tight corners sees the nose washing wide. Attempts to provoke the tail out of line are quickly intercepted by a more tightly wound stability control system that permits just a hint of tail drift before chiming in. The same exercise in the previous car was more dramatic, and arguably less forgiving; a heavy boot on the throttle was more often than not met with the thrilling-but-disconcerting tendency for the tail to attempt overtaking the rest of the car.  

Still a stunner

The CLS has perennially traded on its good looks and if the new car is anything to go by, this looks firmly set to continue. The ability of the previous car’s arcing swage lines to trick the eye into lending its profile an almost crescent-shaped attitude has been carried over, albeit in a tauter, more form-fitting manner. Slim taillamps flow around the corners of the new car’s cinched tail, while an AMG-infused (read aggressively front-spoilered and ‘Panamerica’ grille-sporting) take on Mercedes’ predator face allows the car to neatly bridge the savage/sophisticate gap.

The interior is solidly crafted and about as awash in stitched leather and carbon-fibre trim as you’d hope. Mercedes has also attempted to lend the CLS a touch more practicality with the addition of a third rear seat and a recess in the headliner of that steep roof. Calling it practical is still a bit of a stretch, though.

Verdict

While it no longer has the roguish charm of its V8 predecessors, the CLS53’s balanced demeanour will no doubt endear it to a broader audience more drawn to stylish straight-line grunt, as opposed to the red-in-tooth-and-claw lunacy of the GT4. We’ll just have to reserve overall judgment until we sample it in its natural habitat; the open road. 

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