My statement “BMW is the new Mercedes” may have ruffled the most feathers, but the second thing that gets thrown in my face is: “what then has Mercedes become?” I’m sorry if the forum fanboys can’t adjust to the new normal that is a softer, more civilized, more luxurious BMW that puts comfort over balls-out performance. Sometimes you just have to let the ostrich keep its head in the hole. If you think the M6 is the best thing since sliced bread, read no further. This isn’t about BMW, this is about the German luxury company. What of them? To find out we were tossed the keys to a six-figure beast for a week.
The first generation CLS wasn’t my cup of tea. Perhaps it’s because I like the traditional profile of the E-Class with the high greenhouse and excellent rear headroom. Perhaps it’s because I’m a stickler and in my world a “coupé” can’t have four seats. Perhaps it’s that the first generation CLS looked like it had been laid, and I’m not referring to an egg. That’s probably it.
But that was then, this is now. Up front we get one of the more attractive and aggressive grilles I have seen lately. The side profile has ditched the “half-moon” character line that I disliked for one that I would call “American muscle,” especially those rear haunches. Out back we have a more traditionally shaped trunk lid which finally puts an end to any CLS vs suppository comparisons. Whew. That’s not to say the CLS has become more upright, quite the opposite, it just isn’t trying as hard as it used to.
Mercedes’ naming scheme needs to be explained. If you take an S and remove two doors, you get a CL. Yet the CLS is not created by adding two doors back. Instead you take an E, delete the fifth seat, squash the profile, remove the window sashes and add a whopping $20,200 to the price tag (base E vs base CLS). By having the CLS, Mercedes has been able to keep the E-Class’s upright profile while increasing profits by charging huge sums for a more stylish four-seat version. When it comes to the high performance models, the CLS is a slightly better value. Starting at $109,150 it is “only” $19,350 more than the E63 AMG. It’s good to be king.
There is a common problem with performance models: all the cash goes to making the car go faster, handle better and stop shorter. While there are some interior tweaks to the CLS’ interior for AMG duty, they boil down to AMG badging, a flat-bottomed steering wheel and unique AMG controls in the center console. There is another problem for the CLS in general; it shares a large portion of its design and components with the $51,900 E350. It’s not that the E-Class and CLS-Class parts are low rent by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just that they are a bit too popular. This doesn’t apply only to the Mercedes, the Audi A7, S7 and RS7 have the same thing going in inside with parts from the A6. The BMW 6 on the other hand has a much steeper base price of $74,900 (640i coupé) so your $113,000 M6 Gran Coupé won’t be sharing dash parts with the $599 lease special. Based on my personal likes and dislikes, the M6 Gran Coupé is the interior winner, but with a decently larger price tag, it should be.
Front seat comfort in the CLS63 is excellent thanks to a large range of motion in the seat bottom cushion, and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel that will practically telescope into the back of the seat if you wanted it to. As part of the $3,690 “Premium Package,” our CLS included MB’s “active multicontour” driver’s seat. This is what separates the CLS from the truly expensive Benz models which can have the same system applied to the passenger’s seat. The active throne massages your back, offers more adjustibility to the seat contour and has dynamic bolsters that inflate and deflate to keep you in your seat on winding roads. The active bolsters feel like someone is slowly groping you from behind as you drive, something I missed after the car left us.
No coupé, even a four-door model, is about rear seat comfort. They are about looking good while carrying a pair of people to the opera and masses of luggage to your vacation chateau. This point was proved when I repeated my role as “prom chauffeur” for my godson. I suggested that his 6’4 frame would fit better in my ginormous long wheelbase and decidedly upright Jaguar Super V8, but the angry face and demonic burble of the CLS stole his heart, so he and his date jammed themselves in the back. Legroom isn’t the problem, it’s headroom. The CLS isn’t alone here, headroom is a precious commodity in the A7 and 6 Gran Coupe as well. The 15.3 cubic foot trunk doesn’t sound terribly large at first, but when you consider it’s a trunk for two, and the rear seats fold the CLS turns into a fairly practical vehicle (oddly enough). The A7 sports more cargo room and the hatchback lid means you can jam a barbecue in there should you need to, but it also means more road noise coming from the rear. The BMW Gran Coupe has a hair more trunk space but the rear seats don’t fold as flat as those in the CLS and the integrated headrests made front-seat room a bit tighter when the seats were folded.
Dogs may be man’s best friend, but I’d take a snazzy infotainment system any day, so would many luxury shoppers by all accounts. This is where the sharp dressed CLS looses in a big way. Mercedes hasn’t rested on their laurels as some would suggest, COMAND has been updated continuously, you’d just be hard pressed to notice. COMAND still uses a 7-inch LCD set high in the dashboard surrounded by a plastic bezel seemingly designed to accentuate the small dimensions of the screen. Audi uses a large 8-inch screen that pops out of the dash and screams “look at ME!” while BMW has gone for a ginormous 10.2-inch wide screen system. While I find Audi’s MMI system frustrating to use and overly complicated, BMW’s iDrive has evolved into a relatively intuitive system that I have been able to get anyone off the street to figure out. COMAND lands somewhere in the middle being fairly simple to use but looking a little old school. Part of Mercede’s modernization efforts have gone into integrating smartphone apps and internet connectivity into COMAND, but the system’s processor seems to slow to take full advantage of the improvements. Voice commands are one thing this system has always done well and Mercedes has expanded the system to now offer SYNC-like voice control of your USB/iDevice. Notably, the system lacks the annoying “talk now” beep that most systems use making it more natural to interact with. For in-depth infotainment commentary, check out the video.
Ah, the section we’ve all been waiting for. For RS7 duty, Audi took the existing turbo V8 and punched up the boost. For M6 Gran Coupe duty BMW did the same thing to their 4.4L V8. (Yes, I know that there were a few other changes but my point is they are the same basic engine.) Based on the competition, AMG could have very easily done the same thing to their twin-turbo 4.6L “M278” V8 engine. Instead the AMG built a larger 5.5L V8 off the M278’s design and dubbed it the M157. No, I don’t know why they didn’t call it the M279 or just Thor’s Hammer. The RS7’s 560 horsepower and 516 lb-ft of torque and the M6’s 560 ponies and 500 twists sound impressive as do the CLS63’s base 518 horsepower and 516 lb-ft. But for $7,300 Mercedes will toss in a re-tuned (read: stiffer) suspension, sportier steering wheel, 186MPH top-speed limiter and bump the engine to 550 horses and 590 lb-ft of diesel-like pull. Still not enough? (Why should it be?) The engine puts down 664 lb-ft in a variant of the CL63 AMG and there are tuners that will happily flash your ride to get you there too. Why the big difference in torque? It’s all about displacement.
The difference in the way the Audi/BMW and the Mercedes engines behave is also quite different. Thanks to the large displacement, low end torque is much more pronounced than the smaller V8s. While there is still a bit of turbo lag, you’d be hard pressed to notice on your way to a 12 second 1/4 mile at 123 MPH. In a 4,300lb sedan. While burning unbelievable amounts of rubber. For the record, that’s the same speed we clocked in the M6 drop-top. With this much power, traction is the CLS’ Achilles heel, something Mercedes is planning to rectify in 2014 with the addition of AWD to the performance pack CLS63. I’d like to compare the Panamera to the CLS, but since Porsche won’t return my calls I have to rule the CLS superior.
Since every silver-lining is wrapped in a cloud, we need to talk about the AMG Speedshift MCT transmission. If you take a look at the cut-away above, you’ll notice something. What Mercedes calls a “multi-clutch” transmission isn’t the same as a “dual-clutch” unit. BMW’s M-DCT transmission is two robotically shifted manual transmissions inside the same casing. One does the odd gears, the other handles the even gears. The Mercedes unit is a variant of their regular 7-speed slushbox with a wet clutch replacing the torque converter. The MCT acronym refers to the multiple clutches and bands used in the planetary gearsets.
I haven’t been a huge fan of this transmission since it launched, because in some ways the MCT combines the “slow” shifts of an automatic and unrefined feel of clutches in one unit. Thankfully the 2013 software has made the transmission much more liveable but the way the transmission shifts is an issue for me. My complaint is simply software, Mercedes chose to not allow the car to “queue” shifts. So two pulls on the steering wheel paddle does not take you down/up two gears. You have to wait until the transmission shifts before commanding the next gear. Holding the “down” paddle will get the transmission to scoot to the lowest gear possible (except for first), but going down 5 gears takes an eternity compared to the BMW M-DCT. When the high-rev fun is over, you’ll find there is no command for going “up” to the highest gear possible. Mercedes has improved the speeds of the shifts which now come in around 170ms in “Comfort” and 100ms in “Manual” with Sport and Sport+ slotting in-between those times but the 20-80ms shifts of the BMW/Getrag DCT are lightning fast in comparison.
When you get the CLS on the road, complaints about the MCT fade thanks to a positively devilish V8 burble that is 100% authentic rather than computer generated like in recent BMWs. The steering comparison is somewhat similar, with the CLS feeling light, but more accurate and transmitting more feel than the M6. The Audi on the other hand has that Quattro system to interfere with steering feel, something I notice many reviews fail to notice. I’m very torn about AWD in a high performance car. AWD’s ability to put power down more effectively is usually worth the steering feel penalty as long as it doesn’t change the car’s neutral handling characteristics. Next year you will be able to have this debate as 2014 brings standard 4MATIC to the CLS AMG. At 150lbs, 4MATIC adds less weight than Quattro and will have a nearly 70% rear bias. If however RWD shenanigans are more important than grip, snag a 2013 while you can/
When it comes to driving dynamics this becomes a two-way fight between the BMW and the Mercedes. Aside from the fact that the RS7 isn’t officially out yet so few have driven it, we have to keep Audi’s platform designs in mind. The A6/A7 platform was designed with FWD base models in mind and that cause some inherent compromises most namely the weight balance. Although Audi has not officially said, I doubt the RS7 has improved much upon the S7’s 54.5/45.5 percent weight distribution. I recently had the opportunity to drive the S6 and a number of BMW and Mercedes models on Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and the impact that Audi’s engine layout has on handling is obvious on a track. The S6 felt nose heavy and less willing to change direction than the other Germans. Some of that has to do with the AWD system but more has to do with where the weight is located. (And remember, Porsche wouldn’t lend us a Panamera which means it looses by default.) Weight balance is important with performance cars because big engines usually equal a heavy nose. This is the case with the 6-Series Gran Coupe in which the 640i model is a near perfect 50/50 but the M6 version bumps the numbers to 52.3/47.7 % and in the CLS as well with the CLS63 having a 52/48% distribution. You might think “there’s little difference between the S7 and CLS in distribution” which is true, but the difference combined with tire choices and suspension dynamics made the S6/S7 feel decidedly front heavy in comparison.
Our tester had the performance package suspension which turns the CLS63 into the best handling and the best feeling four door coupé. With precise steering, tenacious grip and excellent feel, the CLS is quite simply a willing dance partner. The M6 on the other hand comes off as a little artificial at times and a little less connected the rest of the time. That being said, I prefer the ride in the M6 because it’s not as punishing as the CLS63 with the stiffer springs. If you don’t get that $7,300 performance package, then the softer CLS63 gives a little away in performance to the M6 Gran Coupé, but has a ride more fitting of a Mercedes in my opinion. The performance package is without a doubt breathtaking, but in my mind it is at odds with the “mission” of a Mercedes-Benz.
While we’re talking options, if you plan on exercising your CLS63 on a regular basis, the $12,625 carbon ceramic brakes are a must. The stock brakes do a fine job keeping up under normal circumstances, but with this much power and 4,300lbs it is possible to overreach the ability of the stock stoppers. Also, the $2,030 limited slip differential is an absolute must have if you’re serious about applying this much power from a stop. That jacks up the price of the CLS63 to $127,247. If that price shocks you, just stick with the CLS550 since the RS7 and M6 are more expensive.
The CLS63 that Mercedes lent us is a serious performance machine, but it’s more than that, it’s the first AMG product I have driven lately that’s a better performance machine than BMW’s M line. I have long preferred AMGs to Ms because they were slightly softer, slightly more luxurious and easier to live with on a daily basis, but the CLS63 isn’t that Mercedes. While the 2014 AWD model might tame the beast, this 2013 model hustles with the M6 coupé, handles with greater precision than an M5 and the sense of urgency that 590lb-ft of torque bring to the party must be experienced to be believed. Is this the new Mercedes?
- Endless torque.
- Did I mention the torque? Yea, it’s that good.
- Impeccable road manners and the last stand against numb steering.
- Mercedes needs to snag someone’s dual-clutch transmission or swallow their pride and buy ZF’s 8-speed.
- COMAND needs to be replaced, stat.
Mercedes-Benz provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Specifications as tested
0-30: 2.0 Seconds
0-60: 4.1 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 12 Seconds @ 123 MPH
Average Observed Fuel Economy over 740 miles: 19MPG