Small changes can have a major impact. Remember Jennifer Grey, the female lead in the film “Dirty Dancing?” Her fine proboscis lent her an air of distinction. Then she had reductive rhinoplasty and dropped out of sight. Although Audi's Auto Union-inspired snout seems to be going for the reverse effect, Mercedes is wise to the law of incremental effect. In the case of the CLS550, small changes have transformed a wannabe into a gotta have.
When the CLS500 first appeared on the scene nearly two years ago, I was intrigued. Architecturally, it was as if Mercedes had grabbed the E-Class at both ends and pulled, compressing the passenger cabin and elongating the design. When I got up close and personal, I discovered that the resulting interior spaces were wide yet useless, with limited head and legroom. The car’s curvaceous roofline and tiny windows also restricted rear visibility, while huge side mirrors hampered the view at eight o’ clock and two o’ clock. And without the optional electronic parking assist, backing into a parking space was an expensive game of blind man’s bluff.
I was also distanced by the pretentiousness of its monniker: "four door coupe” (it’s still listed as such on Mercedes’ website). The fact that the CLS borrowed liberally from the cheaper E-Class’ mechanical underpinnings heightened my sense that the car was a triumph of packaging over character. My wife, however, was smitten by the “German Jaguar’s” bodacious exterior; she insisted that a CLS500 find its way into our garage. I never warmed to its fluffy brakes, handling and steering. Even the styling lost its allure; I felt like a poseur driving the beast.
For the CLS’ first major refresh, Mercedes slotted their 5.5-liter 382 horsepower V8 underhood, euthanized the electronic SBC braking system and tightened-up the steering rack. For an extra five G’s (on top of 75 large), the CLS550 gains a sport package. Although it’s a no-cost option in the E-Class, a CLS550 so equipped comes complete with AMG labeled wheels and big, fat (plastic) paddles behind the steering wheel. My tester was painted the same color as the launch edition, Indium Grey. The interior was suitably black, with more metal accents than a blinged-up bouncer.
The CLS’ cabin distinguishes itself from its E-Class cousin with a huge swath of burled wood across the dash. Along with its higher door and dash panels, the design delivers a dramatic cocooning effect, magnified by the car’s machine gun slit windows. The Mercmeisters have dressed the cabin in acres of sumptuous leather, including the top of the dash. Overall, the CLS offers more of a sense of occasion than the E, albeit with more than little arrogance. And now…
I love driving this car. For one thing, the CLS550’s steering has gained much-needed heft and driver communication. The rack-and-pinion set-up integrates speed-sensitive power assistance and hydraulic dampers. It leapfrogs BMW’s Novocained tiller, returning to the gold standard set by the previous generation BMW 5-Series (go figure). The wheel itself is as addictively caressable as a baby’s head.
The CLS550’s Adaptive Damping System II does a Mad Max, proving that a sequel can be better than the original. Combined with Airmatic semi-active suspension, the CLS550’s does the near impossible: eliminates body dive, roll and squat; smoothes out all but the most vicious potholes and delivers outstanding road feel. The two-ton Teuton won’t give a Porsche Cayman any trouble, but the CLS550 is as fast and nimble a luxobarge as money can buy. In terms of acceleration, the CLS550 is a velvet hammer; it accelerates to ridiculous speeds with imperious ease. Equally important, the new, non-newfangled stoppers shed speed with genuine authority and perfectly modulated feel.
The CLS550’s driving experience is worlds away from the E550. In fact, almost everything I didn’t like about the E550 feels spot on in the CLS550. The CLS’ Harmon Kardon sound system sounds livelier than the E’s equivalent unit. The bigger car’s interior is more modern and contemporary than its mid-sized cousin. The CLS’ seat comfort is beyond reproach, and includes the “comfort” headrests found in the E. The CLS’ seven speed transmission is transparent and seamless, with none of the awkward downshifts that bedeviled the E550. As a rule, as a driver, I prefer a smaller car to a bigger one. But the E’s price and sun visors are its only apparent advantages over the new, improved CLS.
Incredibly, modest changes to the 2007 CLS550 have catapulted the chop-top four door to the top of my lust list, whereas the 2000 changes incorporated into the E-Class do nothing for me. Obviously, I still have issues with the CLS’ design and visibility. But now, once I’m behind the wheel, all is forgiven. The new CLS is one of those rare brutes that loses weight as it gains speed, and gains balance as it loses your license. This Baby just got a whole lot better.