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2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 - First Drive

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author photo by Autotrader May 2011

The Mercedes-Benz CLS has just entered its second generation. The car that sparked off the whole "four-door coupe" trend – prompting several "me too" attempts, like the Porsche Panamera, Audi A7 Sportback and rumored BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe – now hits the showrooms with a greater presence. There is plenty of substance beneath this new, more charismatic skin, but the CLS continues to be as much a statement as a means of transport.

This creation was styled in the company's California studios, but it incorporates elements from other current Benz cars. Strong haunches above the rear wheels bring to mind the E-Class, the grille (more upright than the previous model) evokes the SLS AMG supercar, which in turn pays homage to old SL models. The jazzy aspect of the side mirrors is also found on both other vehicles. Even so, these features blend with more pronounced lines along the flanks to give the new CLS more attitude, making the original seem somewhat tentative by comparison.

The 2012 CLS signals a new design language for Mercedes-Benz; most forthcoming machines wearing the three-pointed star are going to look a lot like this one, which also sports LED headlamps (all the rage these days). There is another happy combination of elements for Mercedes, because not only is the company releasing a new-look car, it has next-generation hardware to go with it.

Americans are offered just one engine in the regular CLS, (although a 500+ horsepower CLS63 AMG version is also available). For the CLS550, a twin-turbo 4.6-liter V8 develops 402 hp and 443 pound-feet of torque. This energy goes spinning through a slick seven-speed automatic transmission driving the rear wheels (all-wheel drive will be available in the fall of 2011), kept in check by electronic stability control. Translating those numbers into pavement performance, there's more than ample muscle for almost any situation: overtaking, building up speed to join highway traffic, cruising and corner-carving... the CLS goes far beyond "competent" to enter the realms of "talented."

It's a description that applies to the chassis as well. With air springs at each wheel, the car can keep its occupants unflustered in comfort mode, or it will exert even more body control in sport mode, activated by a button near the gear lever. About the only downside in respect to driving dynamics is the artificial feel of the electronically-assisted steering, but since similar systems are being adopted by almost every carmaker – because they are more advantageous from a fuel economy point of view – we are all just going to have to get used to it.

A calm cabin is, at least, a good place to get over any disappointment with the steering, where only a whisper of wind noise is detected at highway speeds. When not looking through glass or checking the mirrors, the eyes take in a classy dashboard completely in tune with a luxury brand, while the hands fall on substantial switchgear or fine leather on the wheel, gearshift and seats. Just one thing about the chairs, though: if anyone is really serious about laying out $72,175 (including destination charges) for a 2012 CLS550, they should make sure the test drive is long enough to get a proper feel for the front seats. For this adult male of average height and build, with no back problems, they don't seem that comfortable or particularly well shaped.

Concerning the rear seats – this where the coupe part of the "four-door coupe" description comes into play. Both leg and headroom are limited, while a constricted doorway (that's the price of a swooping roof line) only emphasizes a general suitability for the younger, shorter and more pliable.

It wouldn't be a Mercedes-Benz if the new CLS didn't have a valley full of silicon-based tech features, with navigation as part of the standard equipment. An excerpt from the options list includes driver attention assist, lane departure warnings, blind spot monitoring and intelligent cruise control. What might be more surprising is that the 2012 model is $2,700 cheaper than the version it replaces and the excellent new engine – more powerful yet less thirsty than its predecessor – consumes 18 mpg in the city or 26 mpg on the highway, which allows it to elude the gas guzzler tax.

For any Benz enthusiasts concerned about boyish metrics such as how long it takes to sprint from standstill to 60 mph or maximum speed, the answers are: 5.3 seconds and 130 mph (limited electronically). Despite its dynamics and depth, chances are that CLS buyers will be more inclined to choose this car because an E-Class sedan doesn't possess the same visual impact.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 - First Drive - Autotrader