The original Mercedes CLS caused something of a stir when it was first revealed way back in 2003. It looked like nothing else Stuttgart had ever made at that point, stuck out like a sore thumb in the range, and looked utterly classy. Hell, it still looks good 15 years on.
It effectively gave birth to the weird sub-segment of coupe-ish, mid-sized saloons now also populated by the Audi A7 Sportback and BMW 6-Series Gran Coupe, and even though the second-generation version was arguably a much more conservatively designed affair, it remained an interesting, stylish choice. It’s been usurped by the all-new ‘C257’ third-gen car, and the looks have been rather divisive. We’re currently on the fence, but we can’t help but find the placement of those headlights to be a bit off, while the rear-end does look a tad porky form some angles.
But we didn’t head to an snowy Barcelona (helpfully illustrated here by pictures taken on a different, considerably less treacherous day) to talk about looks. We went to drive the thing, specifically focusing on the quickest one in the current range. To give it its full name, it’s the Mercedes-AMG CLS53. And from the off, it’s a more impressive thing to pilot than the new A7 Sportback, which we sampled a few weeks prior.
The ride on the air suspension is incredibly smooth (non-53 models with air suspension are softer still), while laminated glass and masses of soundproofing materials help insulate you from the harshness of the outside world. You’re provided with a safe, leather and wood-festooned cocoon you’d genuinely contemplate living in.
The interior design is on the whole a success, with swoopy features and expensive-feeling materials, with only the odd small detail reminding you that Mercedes hasn’t quite matched Audi-levels of build quality. You won’t care about those, as in terms of refinement, this is a step above the A7.
That said, we’re not sold on the ‘Energising Comfort Control’. It has 10 minute programmes that alter the settings of things like the massage function, the fragrance dispenser (yes, it has one), the ambient lighting and more, all for the sake of your ‘wellness’. In reality, it just seems to result in the car smelling weird while you’re subjected to offensively generic music. It strikes us as a gimmick for the most part, although the ‘training’ programmes that deal with “muscle relaxation, muscle activation and balance” might actually be of genuine use to some.
When you start to press on, the CLS53 puts the relaxation stuff to one side, and offers up a generally satisfying drive. Body control is good, there’s a nice weight to the steering even if it feels a little aloof at times, and it’s generally up for being thrown around in a way that a near-two-tonne car shouldn’t.
The all-wheel drive system constantly switches between powering just the rear wheels or all four depending on how you drive, but the result is generally one of neutrality, occasionally giving a whiff of over or understeer. It’s all very safe and secure. But exciting? Not so much.
Granted, our test wasn’t under the best of circumstances, with those aforementioned weather conditions necessitating winter tyres which will have taken the edge off the handling a little. But even so, I’m pretty sure a dry hoon on summer tyres would yield another experience that’s satisfactory without being massively stimulating.
A big part of the problem is the CLS53’s engine, which isn’t really AMG-specific. Yes, it does get something called an EQ booster - an electric compressor that gives an extra 21bhp and 184lb ft kick for just under a second - which does make a noticeable difference to lag. But the 3.0-litre turbocharged straight-six itself is for the most part lifted straight from the CLS 450. In that version of the CLS it’s quiet, smooth and refined, but even with the 53’s ruder quad exhaust bolted on, it’s not the most raucous thing.
It makes a noise that’s best described as fine. Not terrible, but not inspiring either. The older V6 engines of the ‘43-badged AMGs have a gnarly attitude that’s missing here. The E43 (soon to be replaced by an E53, we expect) may have a similarly relaxed vibe to this CLS, but the C43 imparts an edginess that proves these ‘semi-skimmed’ AMG models can be properly exciting when done right.
The CLS53’s inline-six develops 429bhp and 384lb ft of torque, making for a 4.5 second 0-62mph time, so it’s not like the performance itself is the issue. It’s more about the way it’s delivered. It’s just never feels nor sounds all that fast.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised - Mercedes did describe the CLS53 and its E-Class coupe and cabriolet-based cousins as being for “an additional lifestyle-oriented customer group” when revealing the new 53 range. This all seems wrong for someone who grew up with the notion that AMGs should be powered by snarling V8s and have a generally mischievous disposition, but you can hardly blame Mercedes for wanting to expand the remit of its profitable sub-brand beyond rowdy tomfoolery.
If you do want a CLS, the 350d is probably going to be the one to go for, with the super-quiet petrol-powered 450 being a tempting option too. But despite this, the ‘sub-AMG’ CLS does still have a place. It possesses an intriguing blend of refinement and accessible performance, remaining utterly wafty despite the mild steroid injection. Just don’t go in expecting traditional AMG thrills.