By on March 28, 2005

A stunning car-- in the sense that throwing a stick of dynamite into a lake is a stunning way to catch fish.If cars were subject to truth in labeling laws, the Mercedes Benz CLS would be called the Mercedes Benz WTF. Nothing can quite prepare the casual viewer for the chop top Merc's initial impact. Whether you see the sedan as a bold and beautiful move by an adventurous carmaker, or a hideous repudiation of a famous marque's dignified brand values, the CLS' delivers the kind of aesthetic jolt normally reserved for concept cars and George Barris creations.

Quite how this show stopper infiltrated Mercedes' lineup is anybody's guess. Did Chrysler parachute 300C designer Ralph Gilles into the main corporate HQ? Did Mercedes boss Dr. Eckhard Cordes fall in love with the reveal on 'Pimp My Mini-Maybach'? In any case, the CLS accomplishes at a single stroke what BMW's Bangle failed to do with an entire model range: transform a German carmaker's image from stodgy establishment lackey to cutting-edge automotive artist. It's that wild.

The CLS' best viewing angle.  Bold and beautiful or a travesty of Mercedes' design language? Still, I'm not joining the chorus of pundits hailing the CLS' loveliness. From the rear doors backwards, the CLS is too stubby. The transition from S-Class-sized front end to small, radical rear makes the CLS look like a high class cut and shunt. There's also an unsettling disparity between the gun-slit side glass and enormous front and rear windows. Despite the startling combination of hot rod aggression and feminine swoopiness, the CLS fascinates rather than delights.

For another, I've driven enough 70's supercars to know that even the most sublime sheet metal looks a lot less attractive after the car it's draped over has roasted your flesh, damaged your hearing, exhausted your muscles and enriched your chiropractor. Make no mistake: the CLS' visual drama comes at a price. Luckily enough for fashion-conscious CLS buyers– especially the ones who don't need a family car– the rear passengers are the ones who pay.

The end of Mercedes' design language as we know it?As you might expect from a car with a roofline that's more severely raked than a Japanese rock garden, the CLS' back seat is height restricted. Any rear seat passenger over 5'10' is, by necessity, a slouch. In fact, it's best to be both short and short-sighted; the CLS' rear pillars, high waistline and wedge-shaped windows virtually eliminate peripheral vision, while the front headrests block the view forward. On the positive side, the contoured rear seats are a comfortable place in which to turn inwards, leg room is surprisingly generous and inmates get their own climate control system.

Again, it's no skin off the driver's pate. The CLS is based on the Mercedes E-Class platform. Though slightly longer and wider than its sibling, the front cabins are nearly identical. Status conscious MB fetishists (are there any other kind?) will notice that the CLS' upper dashboard sports a huge plank of burled hardwood in place of the E-Class' soft touch plastic. Given that the usual E-Class controls are in the usual places, doing the usual things, the wood insert is an old-fashioned, half-hearted and, let's face it, inexpensive attempt to differentiate the CLS from its stable mate.

The CLS500 is no slouch, but rear seat passengers are.Dynamically, Mercedes tweaked the CLS to suit its positioning as a sporting 'four-door coupe' sitting somewhere between the E and S-Class. To that end, the Sultans of Stuttgart widened the E-Class' track, lowered its center of gravity, fitted larger wheels (18") and brakes, and gave the CLS' variable assistance rack and pinion steering system a faster ratio.

Airmatic DC suspension also comes standard. While Dr. Seuss himself would struggle to discern the difference between Sport 1 and Sport 2, either setting is sufficient for drivers intent on throwing a two-two German luxobarge around. Even in comfort mode, the CLS refuses to be ruffled by the sharpest turns, taken at the greatest speeds.

The only difference between the E-Class and interior and the CLS': a plank of burled wood.The CLS500's engine stumps-up enough horsepower power to make ample use of its well-sorted chassis, brakes and helm. Mercs' 5.0-liter V8 may be getting on a bit, but it still delivers the goods: 305hp and a torque curve flatter than steamrolled gum. Mated to the company's seamless seven-speed slushbox, the powerplant is both user and abuser-friendly.

Taken as a whole, the CLS could well be Mercedes' best-ever sports sedan: an ideal blend of two-finger wafting and two-fisted athleticism. Whether it's Mercedes' most beautiful-ever automobile is an entirely subjective question– to which the only possible answer is "no".

The best Mercedes designs have always been endlessly seductive, rather than drop-dead gorgeous. The current SL will never go out of style, whereas the CLS is so much a car of its time that it's time is, by definition, limited. If you disagree, fine. Considering the CLS' dynamic abilities and potential resale value, my advice is to trust your own artistic judgment, ignore your rear passengers' whining and enjoy.

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