What unalloyed pleasure it gives me to welcome TTAC’s august founder, Robert Farago, back to these pages. Robert’s a little too busy with what might be the biggest firearms news site in the world to give us much more than this review of Mercedes’ four-door-not-really-a-coupe, but to paraphrase John Mayer, it’s hard for me to take a stand when I will take his work any way I can. Go visit Mr. Farago at his new digs and say hello… and enjoy this review! — JB
When the heat breaks in Texas Hill Country the air is as dry as an Oxford grad’s sense of humor. And when my ML350 broke blasting across four lanes of trafﬁc my Mercedes dealer passed me the key to a CLS550. And so I found myself behind the squared-off wheel of Germany’s lowered limo on a starry Texas night, contemplating cats’ eyes roller-coastering into the distance. I felt an old yet welcome urge to press my luck with local LEOs.
So I stood on the CLS550’s accelerator, whose brand-faithful response brings to mind nothing so much as player piano pedals. With apologies to Johnny Lieberman, the acceleration was volcanic. Not like the business end of an eruption—a comparison that applies to various Ferraris and a Nissan GT-R that I’ve had the pleasure of surviving. The Merc’s forward urge was more like a fast-moving lava ﬂow: seamlessly unstoppable. Yes, I know: Princess Diana proved the limits of that particular Mercedes metaphor. But as the CLS550 passed 60mph—a 5.1 second sprint accompanied by a bad ass big bore bellow—I knew it was just a waypoint. This tank-like limo wants to hunker down, spool-up and unwind on an endless autobahn. It doesn’t much care for all the speeds between minimum and maximum velocity.
Don’t get me wrong: Mercedes’ E-Class chop-top isn’t just a straight line bahn burner. The portly sedan does an admirable job of staying on the road through the sinuous bits—although that’s not saying that much given Austin’s glassine pavement. Even so, the CLS550 is another ﬁne example of German engineers’ ongoing and surprisingly successful war on basic physics (cough rear-engined Porsche cough). In this case, a trick Airmatic suspension and super-sticky Pirelli P-Zeros tie down a 4425lbs automobile motivated by 4.6 liter bi-turbo V8 generating 406hp @ 5000 rpm and 443 lb-ft. of twist @ 1,800 rpm.
The CLS550‘s electronically-assisted steering helps best the beast. The more you ask of the helm the more heft the electronic brain adds to the equation. Initially, it feels as if someone’s placing a series of increasingly heavy stones on the chassis’ chest. Eventually, the CLS550 is as precise as you wanna be, with more on-center feel than Bill Clinton demonstrated in his second term. Whether that holds true when the car’s shod with Michelin all-season tires and weighed down with optional 4MATIC all-wheel drive is another question. What happens to the car’s handling in the wet is anyone’s guess (Austin hasn’t had sustained rainfall since the Cretaceous period). I suspect the $70k CLS has an app for that, involving a ﬂashing light and a sudden loss of power.
The CLS550‘s tri-mode transmission is no boon to the handling equation. Under hard acceleration, the seven-speed torque-converter automatic’s frantic, jarring hunt for an appropriate gear simulates conﬁdence-sapping turbo lag. Once that’s sorted out, ladies and gentlemen, lunge is served. Unless you put the seven-speed box into Sport. In which case lunge is served as well, only all day long, from any speed, without delay. Works for me.
Jack Baruth could make mince meat out of race track with this thing (TTAC’s founder-approved jefe tried, unsuccessfully, to buy an Indium Grey CLS63 AMG that had been used as a traveling on-track demo.). For me, cornering the CLS550 at its limit of adhesion is like asking Scarlett Johansson to direct a Brazzers video. Scary, exciting, pointless and, ultimately, self-defeating. Caning the car at seven-tenths? All day long. Why are we talking about this? As it was in the beginning so it is forevermore: the CLS550 leads the style-driven life. Despite the engine, chassis, brakes, suspension, transmission and tire upgrades to ye olde E, the CLS is no sports sedan. It remains an eye candy car for buyers who (rightly) consider the E-Class’s sheetmetal is bit too pedestrian, a bit too Eurotaxi. But don’t want to leave the German brand’s embrace. The kind of people who can spot the difference between an Armani and a Brioni suit. And know that most people can’t. And like that.
The CLS550‘s newly sculpted shark-nose, unnecessarily athletic haunches and low rooﬂine give these Ray Donovans both the uberholprestige and cut-and-thrust cachet they crave. The fact that the CLS550‘s rear end design is what the Brits call a dog’s breakfast is neither here nor there. They’re more interested in the toys: Active Lane Keeping Assist, PARKTRONIC with Active Parking Assist, Active Bling Sport Assist. I mean Blind Spot Assist. I mean, I love the thing that ratchets the seatbelt down on your shoulder before take-off. Who cares what it does? It feels hi-tech. While the big Merc’s cabin is as well screwed-together as anything Audi assembles the CLS550 suffers in comparison to Ingolstadt’s ergonomic excellence. The only snick you hear is the snickering of Audi’s interior design team as they contemplate the silver-effect plastic deployed for the CLS550‘s steering wheel and buttons.
Siri kicks Mercedes’ ass in the sat nav department. While the carcoon known as the rear passenger compartment now offers plenty o’ legroom there’s only slightly more side visibility than an M1 Abrams tank. Still. On the ﬂip side, holding the CLS550’s chunky steering wheel is like holding your father’s hand. And there’s a small, square, white, hugely anachronistic
analogue clock in the middle of the dash (a sign that Mercedes can’t best British design, either). The CLS’ bog-standard boom box beats all that audiophile stuff I shoehorned into various whips before I could afford a proper car. Which brings us to the CLS550’s trump card: the engine note.
The CLS550 doesn’t burble like an E39 BMW M5, the ﬁrst German car to ditch sonic reﬁnement for multi-decibel muscle car machismo. But it’s not unlike the V8 M5’s sonic signature either. And holy Bolivian blow Batman, is the latter day luxobarge’s engine note addictive! You can almost hear the guy in the tux announcing “Let’s get ready to rummmmmbbble!” And then you hear the rumble. All. The. Time. Can someone PLEASE ﬁre-up the AMG version of this thing for me? Wait! Don’t! My cash ﬂow can’t ﬂoat that boat. But tell me the engineers built-in that wind roar to enable the engine sound’s entry into the cabin. No? Just lucky I guess.
After using FM 2244 as a runway in a fun but fruitless attempt to reach rotation I rocked-up to my local pizza place to secure my customary glass of (What’s Up) Languedoc. I cruised the upmarket strip mall. Windows down, I clocked the big Merc’s burble bouncing off low-slung limestone walls. I swear the CLS550 was skulking through the parking lot. Shark nose indeed.
A woman of a certain age (and timeless beauty) occupying the terrace looked over her date’s shoulder and smiled. Whether she smiled at me, the car or simply because that’s what Texas women do on the ﬁrst crisp night after an oppressive summer doesn’t really matter. The CLS550‘s soundtrack had etched the moment into my memory. That’s what a great car can do. And some not so great ones too, as long as they have greatness in them. Which, strangely enough, this one does.
What was it that Enzo used to say? We sell them an engine and throw the car in for free. Like that.