Review: 2012 Mercedes CLS 550

Alex L. Dykes
by Alex L. Dykes

I appreciate the novelty of a new design as much as the next guy, but have never understood the four-door-coupé. I mean, aren’t these terms mutually exclusive? A coupé can’t have four doors and a car with four doors can’t be a coupé? Mercedes started this conundrum with the CLS back in 2004, and then Volkswagen decided to jump on the bandwagon to bolster Passat sales with the CC in 2008. It was only a matter of time before VAG decided to compete with the CLS head on with the A7. After all, Audi has had model envy for years, and if they are to stay on track with world domination, they need to attack the mainline Germans at every body style. Not one to rest on laurels, Mercedes has redesigned the CLS for 2011. Michael Karesh wrangled an A7 out of Audi back in July, and Mercedes let me take theirs for a week. Let’s see if the CLS has what it takes to reign supreme in this extremely small niche.

The new CLS, like the outgoing model is essentially a Mercedes E-Class styling exercise. From the outside, the new CLS is larger than its predecessor by an inch in almost every dimension. Mercedes’ new love of angles mixed with curves is an attractive blend of Bentley, Jaguar XJ and “a whole lot” of old CLS. When the old CLS was released back in 2004, I thought to myself “it looks like it was laid,” and I wasn’t thinking about eggs. The new Merc’s sheet metal strikes an aggressive pose from almost any angle but the rear end still looks a bit pinched-off. On the bright side, the all-LED headlamps look like they could pierce your soul; and that’s what I want in a German car. The Audi A7 on the other hand is almost boring in comparison. Sure, the A7 apes the R8’s haunches, but the front is decidedly pedestrian A3/A4/A5/A6/A8/A-insert-your-number-here.

Flamers, get your torches ready! Let’s dive into the interior. “Got headroom?” No, headroom in the rear is far from impressive, but who cares? This is a coupé after all, so the rear seats have little impact on my impression of the car. Please note that the primary mission of the four-door coupé is not to carry four in comfort, it is to carry four “when required”. As a result, both the A7 and CLS “suffer” from limited headroom in the back, but what are those seats really for? Not the kids. No, the seats are for business lunches where you jam someone in the back for a 5-minute trip to Il Forniao and wow them with your car’s acceleration. The CLS accomplishes this task with ease, the A7 however feels flustered. More on that in a bit.

Despite pricing the CLS above the E, the majority of the interior bits and pieces are pinched from the E rather than the more expensive S, including the E’s fairly small COMMAND screen and controls. Also lifted from the E are the steering wheel, seat controls and window switches. Thankfully Mercedes borrowed only the high-rent parts for use in the CLS. The snazzy switchgear conspires with the stitched dashboard to make the CLS interior a considerable improvement over the E’s haphazard fit and finish. The A7 on the other hand seems to borrow more heavily from the A8 than the A6 with an interior that is top-notch, decidedly more modern and perhaps even less German than the Mercedes..

About that flustered A7, here’s the reason: Audi may have decided to compete with the CLS head-on in terms of interior and exterior design, but (in the American market at least) the engine specs tilt the table heavily in Mercedes’ favor. This is because under the hood of the CLS550 beats the same all-new 4.6L twin-turbo V8 as the CL550 we reviewed back in September. The new M278 engine uses lightweight aluminum construction, direct-injection, variable valve timing and twin intercooled turbochargers (delivering up to 12.9psi of boost) to paradoxically increase horsepower by 5% to 402 HP, torque by 14% to 443 lb-ft while reducing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by some 20%. Not a bad trade statistically. The A7 on the other hand has yet to be blessed with the long rumored VAG turbo V8, making the only model currently available in the USA the 3.0TFSI trim which uses a 3.0L 90-degree V6 mated to a supercharger to yield an impressive (yet paling in comparison) 310 HP and 325 lb-ft. When you take into account the A7 Quattro’s heavier curb weight of 4,210lbs vs 4,158lbs for the RWD CLS, you would be right in thinking this big Benz is a rocket ship. (When equipped with 4Matic AWD, as was our tester, the weight increases to a not-too-crazy 4,268lbs.)

While the Audi A7 uses the latest ZF 8-speed transmission, Mercedes has stuck to their tried-and-true in house designed 7-speed automatic. We can be thankful of two things in regards to the 7-speed: it hunts far less than the ZF 8-speed unit, and Mercedes thankfully used a torque converter instead of a clutch ala some recent AMG products. If you opt for one of the AMG wheel packages Mercedes ($760 or $1,260) Mercedes will throw in a manual shift mode for your steering wheel paddles. Since the A7 comes only in Quattro guise on our shores, we requested the CLS in 4Matic to get the comparison as even as possible. Out on the drag strip the A7’s 5.4 second 0-60 time proved optimistic with the car actually yielding 5.5-5.6 second times. On paper this appears to compete well with the CLS550, however, our 4Matic tester delivered 4.3 second runs to 60 back-to-back with heat soak only knocking the times down to a maximum of 4.5 with repeated runs. We were unable to test the RWD CLS550’s 0-60 time ,but I don’t expect it to be much higher for most drivers despite the reduced weight and loss; with this much power, traction is your enemy. I should point out that 4.3 seconds is faster than a decent number of Mercedes’ late model AMG products. Speaking of AMG, because the CLS63 AMG is RWD only, I was unable to get much lower than 4.2 seconds during a brief flirt with a dealer provided vehicle. With Audi expected to release a turbo charged V8 S7 at some point, stay tuned for a rematch.

Coupés are supposed to be all about spirited driving on the windy roads of California’s central coast. This is where the differences in design between the A7 and CLS become more apparent. The A7, much like the A6 on which it is based, may now have a rear-biased Quattro system, but design is still front heavy. The combination of a heavy nose and a two-foot larger turning-circle make the A7 a chore to steer on the tight and questionably-cambered corners of Highway 1. The CLS on the other hand may deliver less road feel and a more compliant ride, but the tendency to “plow” less frequently leads to a decidedly reduced pucker-factor on roads where “plowing” is followed by a 400ft plunge into the Pacific ocean. How much does this really matter? Not much for 99% of drivers honestly. While the 1% may rave over the CLS’ road manners, the other 99% will probably find the CLS’s air suspension seals the deal.

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, quick off the line CLS loses to the Audi in a big way. Sure, the CLS550 has DistronicPlus cruise control, lane departure warning and a navigation system. The problem is COMMAND. It’s old, it’s slow, the screen is small and the graphics haven’t been updated in some time. It is the first generation Rio MP3 player to Apple’s iPod Touch. Audi on the other hand has stuffed the A8’s large 8-inch high resolution MMI system into the A7. While I have to say the MMI system is far harder to learn than iDrive, it is still miles ahead of COMMAND. If ease of use is not enough to sway you, it also has the CLS beat on the graphics front. Audi decided that the BMWesque 3D topographic maps weren’t fancy enough and teamed up with Google to put satellite imagery on their maps that is constantly updated via an embedded 3G cellular connection. Also on offer is the ability to use Google’s massive database to search for addresses and points of interest. The system works very well if you are in a 3G coverage area, “eventually” if you are in a 2G area, and not at all if you are out in the middle of nowhere (which is apparently where I live). Fear not however, it is backed up by a traditional hard drive based nav database. While this all sounds good, nobody was able to tell me how much this Google connectivity would cost me monthly and the MMI “finger gesture pad” is about as useful as Lexus’ mouse doohickey. Read: just give me some buttons.

Cargo capacity and rear seat accommodations are usually not a huge deal for two-door coupé shoppers, but the four-door buyer may want to take a quartet golfing someday. The CLS delivers a respectable 15.3 cu ft which can easily accommodate clubs for four. The A7, as a hatchback, was made with practicality in mind and offers 17.7cu ft with the cargo cover in place, 24 without, and thanks to standard folding rear seats and the hatchback design, it is possible to stuff a large BBQ from Home Depot in the trunk. (I didn’t say it would close however) The CLS’s rear thrones also fold (a $440 option), but the cargo “hole” created by their contortion is fairly small. Rear passenger room is more of a mixed bag than the trunk. Both the A7 and CLS deliver 36 inches of headroom out back but suffer from rear seats that are a hair more reclined than you would find in a sedan (this helps it seem bigger.) While the A7 does provide 2-inches more rear leg room, because of the head room is no larger than the CLS, it didn’t seem to help “normally-proportioned” tall people fit. If however your passengers are all-legs, the A7 is your better buy.

Buyers of $80,000 luxury cars still seem to care about fuel economy, so let’s talk numbers. My daily commute is 53 miles one-way and involves 30% rural mountain driving, 40% freeway at an average of 75MPH, 30% city streets and a 2,200ft mountain pass. The CLS550 4Matic over 641 miles averaged 22.2 on my daily commute and saw around 26MPG on a 40 mile trip on a level highway at the speed limit. The A7 in comparison averaged 26.3 MPG over 860 miles and 33MPG on that same level-highway trip. While the CLS doesn’t deliver the frugality of the A7, I can forgive it because of the extra hundred ponies under the hood.

Our CLS550 wore a base price of $71,300, however as ours was loaded with everything from 4Matic to LED headlamps, our tester’s out-the-door price was $82,765. A comparably equipped E550 sedan would cost $73,265 so the increase in style costs CLS shoppers about $9,500. The Audi A7 in comparison starts at $59,250 but lacks the standard equipment the base CLS posesses. Comparably equipped to our CLS tester, an A7 would have rung in at $78,605 or only about $4,000 cheaper. (As Michael Karesh pointed out, the A7’s fashion penalty over the A6 is $8,000.) Unless you are shopping for the value (at which point you’d have decided to just buy a regular sedan) the E550’s $4,000 premium over the A7 and ho-hum infotainment system seem a small price to pay for the CLS550’s performance.

You know the phrase: bigger is better, faster is better. Always. But is it? I’m the kind of shopper that a company like Mercedes loves: I option the car up to the gills when I buy, and I always get the fastest version available. Until now. With the CLS550’s twin-turbo monster under the hood, I do believe Mercedes has outdone themselves and in the process made their own AMG brand less relevant. The CLS is only a hair slower, and when shod with similar rubber handles almost as well as the AMG model for considerably less cash. Is the AMG faster? Yes. Nicer? Yes, but, is it enough to justify the premium? That’s a tough sell for me. On the other hand, the CLS550 is without a doubt the king of the four-door coupé market.

Mercedes provided the vehicle for our review, insurance and one tank of gas.

Statistics as tested

0-60: 4.32 Seconds

1/4 Mile: 12.7 Seconds @ 113 MPH

Fuel Economy: over 641 miles, 22.2MPG

Alex L. Dykes
Alex L. Dykes

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2 of 51 comments
  • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Dec 19, 2011

    I just drove the AMG version of this. Imagine a GT-R with four doors. I can't say I noticed the E vs. S class part. I did notice the huge brakes, the 550 hp turbo v-8, and the seats that squeeze you as you turn. I don't think that "value" is part of this deal. Over the top is. The best part is that the chassis was so well tuned that it felt like a Miata with some turbo lag on a tight 20-60 mph "reference road" nearby, and like a vette on the open highway. MB touts "direct steering" and yes, it makes a difference. Hit the AMG button (like the //M button for BMW) and the car tightens up suspension, trans shifting and throttle tip in...Woo Hoo. You don't notice the weight of this thing unless you are off boost (1/2 second, maybe) or countersteering the beast. Practical, not in any conventional sense of the word. Still, if you want unlimited power in a four door shell with every gadget they can devise, this is your ride. Makes me cry for those fated to live in Camrys.

  • JJ JJ on Dec 19, 2011

    In Germany the price difference is about 16K. CLS350 starts at 64,5K, CLS500 at 80,5K. The 500 (US 550) does have standard airmatic suspension whereas the 350 does not however (I think about 2K extra). Other than that I don't think there are major feature differences, so yeah...a good chunk of change.

  • Jimbo1126 Can't believe I'm the first to comment that I find the 4 window sedans much more interesting than the 6 window ones.
  • ToolGuy I was making especially gentle stops on my drive home today... because my brake booster is failing.
  • Tane94 I thought Hyundai was phasing out the 1.6 turbo?
  • Wjtinfwb Jeep could build Wrangler's in Russia and they'd still be a symbol of America. Can't say I thought about it before hand but our 3 Ford's were all built in America (Kentucky & Michigan) and our Subaru was built by Hoosier's in Indiana. We do have a Canada built MDX as well, at least their on the same continent.
  • ToolGuy Modified square wave inverters are a Communist plot.