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A slew of concept cars roll onto car show stands each year, but few earn the distinction of instant hit. The Mercedes-Benz "Vision CLS" prototype was just that kind of car. When it appeared at Frankfurt two years ago, it was one of those rare projects that evoke immediate public acclaim, and Mercedes had little choice but to respond to the clamor and turn it into a striking new addition to the stable of the three-pointed star: the CLS.
The Mercedes-Benz CLS is based on the E-Class platform, but only about 35 percent of the car's components are shared with other models. There's a little SL thrown in and the rest is pulled from the company's extensive parts bins, but this is no cobbled-together "special" conspired one late night by a desperate marketing department. The CLS is not only a prime example of the company's technical acumen, but it has the looks to elevate it onto any list of the most beguiling Mercedes-Benzes ever crafted.
Let's dispel, from the start, any dispute over the car's nomenclature: Sedan, coupe, who cares what a car is called as long as it's appealing and fulfills its promise? In those respects, the CLS allows no equivocation: This swoop-roofed four-door coupe might use its handsome face to draw the eye and inflame our passions, but don't imagine the good looks render moot the qualities that make the CLS a thoroughly modern motorcar. That's not the way Mercedes builds its vehicles, no matter how pretty the wrapping. The company uses every new model to widen the application of its technology, refining systems on the run so as to ensure that the element of "newness" reflects a better automotive experience.
This extends to every layer of the CLS. Even the paint is special. Using nano-technology, the clearcoat layer was impregnated with huge numbers of tiny ceramic particles, increasing resistance to scratches, says Mercedes, by 300 percent over conventional finishes. This virtually self-healing paint covers sheet steel (70 percent of which is galvanized) that includes high-strength alloys (47.5 percent by weight) and a so-called "dual-phase" steel, used around the bumpers and suspension mounts as well as various other areas of the underbody, that was developed for high dynamic strength and resistance to extreme load forces.
The car's structure follows the current Mercedes method for all of its passenger cars, attaching separate front and rear modules to the main body structure. This both simplifies the production process and allows most accident repairs to be completed without the need for such extreme measures as welding in new components or structures. Extensive use of lightweight aluminum alloys and complex plastics are used to help keep the overall weight just below 4,000 pounds. It's also an aerodynamically efficient car despite its size, boasting a coefficient of drag of just 0.31. Helping it slip more easily through the air is a new plastic-clad underbody in place of the former PVC underbody protection. This new approach is more resistant to damage and also reduces under-body turbulence for improved high-speed stability and a quieter ride.
Lower and sitting on a wider track, the chassis is suspended by a front four-link setup that borrows heavily from the E-Class, while the rear multi-link suspension owes its heritage to the SL's axle. Airmatic DC air suspension is standard, of course, along with Sensotronic brakes, ABS, Brake Assist and ESP. In this age of egregiously overpowered automobiles (Mercedes is not innocent of this wretchedly wonderful excess), the 5.0-liter V8 is not a rocket, but it can take the big coupe to 62 mph somewhere between six and seven seconds, depending on how much more expensive you want to make the next visit to the gas station.
A new, standard seven-speed automatic transmission was designed to improve acceleration and mid-range power, lower consumption (EPA figures: 16 City/22 Highway) and increases shift comfo
It seems a shame to dissect the CLS styling into a series of elements, but the words "sleek" and "cut" come to mind when your eyes sweep across the low-slung bodylines. Its "coupe-ness" emanates from the rapidly descending slope of the C-pillar, which blends into muscled flanks pulled taut by the pronounced shoulder line that sweeps back from the rounded form of the front wheel arch. Frameless side windows and large door surfaces give the car a tall-waisted stance that helps from a dynamic arch from front to rear, as though the car has been stretched by the wind. It's hard to believe that a tilt/sliding glass sunroof will fit within the arching roofline, but it does.
A variation on the distinctive noses of recent Mercedes, the front end of the CLS thrusts visually forward with prominent grille slats, a deeply wedged hood and fenders that dive steeply into the distinctive headlamp cluster. At the rear, the deep bumper forms a coupe's characteristically muscular butt, braced by two chromed exhaust pipes.
The CLS55 AMG can be identified by deeper front and rear aprons, sculpted door sills and staggered-width 19-inch AMG five-spoke wheels. Ride height of the CLS55 AMG is nearly a half-inch lower.
Climbing into the cockpit might have been an letdown after the visual pleasure of the exterior, but there's just more goodness inside. The CLS has probably the most inviting interior yet from Mercedes-Benz, looking like it was fashioned in the bespoke halls of its Maybach luxury line.
All four seats are covered in leather. The front seats are 10-way power adjustable with three-position memory. The view forward is dominated by an expanse of burr walnut that stretches almost from pillar to pillar. Finished in a silk matt to differentiate it from the high-gloss finish of the usual Mercedes interior trim, its surface is broken by recessed center air vents, the control panel for the standard Thermotronic automatic four-zone climate control and the main instrument cluster, which, along with each dial, was given a chrome surround. The gauges themselves were covered by a special mineral glass for optimum readability.
The fit and finish is impeccable and looks custom-tailored down to the arrangement of the breaklines indicating the modular assembly of the dashboard. Note how the front passenger airbag door's lines blend perfectly into the upward sweep of the walnut panel. Neat and elegant. Note how the center console carries the chrome and walnut design themes through to the rear compartment in the chrome rings surrounding the transmission shift lever and rear Thermotronic control/air vents and the walnut trim covering the rear console storage compartments. And note how the curve of the center rear console is reflected in the reverse curve of the outboard armrest.
If there's one quibble, it must be with the rear seats, which become unfriendly to those who are much more than six feet tall because of the slope of the roof. As part of our familiarization with the CLS, we were chaffeured across Rome so that we might see how the rich and famous do it. Our six-foot frame felt no discomfort on the winding city streets and would have tolerated a long run to the Amalfi Coast if the opportunity arose. Outward sightlines were, of course, compromised by the shallow quarter windows, but if you're pretending, as we did, that we were glitterati escaping a horde of paparazzi, this was a good thing.
It would be easy to sum up the new Mercedes-Benz CLS as an excellent handler, quiet around town, its air suspension scoffing at whatever the road has in mind. We haven't a problem summing up the driving experience in a few rosy cliches: works in the canyons as well as at the opera, or blends beauty and brawn like Angelina Jolie. That sort of stuff. But that would miss the point about owning a Mercedes. It would be blind to one of the many reasons they cost more than most other cars. And that is, the true beauty is in the details.
For instance, it wouldn't do for unpleasant noises to disturb the high speeds at which the CLS is so comfortable. So you'll find such touches as plastic elements in front of the front wheel arches to improve airflow across the front axle links, aerodynamic cladding on the rear axle spring links, and mini-spoilers in front of each wheel to reduce dynamic pressures at the tires and improve airflow around the wheels. Even the windshield wiper system received a dose of new technology. The dual-wiper arms were refined in the wind tunnel, are thus known as "aero wipers," and feature a new mounting system and integrated spoiler for better wiping and less noise.
The ultimate in comfort, however, is knowing you're likely to survive an accident in a new Mercedes-Benz. The technology offered in both passive and active safety systems is astounding in its complexity as well as in its application. The list goes on and on, but here goes: dual front airbags with multi-stage deployment; head protection curtains; roll-over sensor; front and rear side airbags; front seatbelts with pre-tensioners and seatbelt force limiters; electrohydraulic brake system with Brake Assist; Tele Aid emergency calling and communication system; low tire pressure warning system; Electronic Stability Program.
There are, arguably, two areas of driver/machine interface that could be sources of debate: brake feel and throttle sensitivity. Two systems that once relied on cables and levers and tubes of boiling fluid are now electronic agreements between sensors and servos, "optimizing" the driver's flex of ankle and stomp of foot. Pedal feel, for both brakes and throttle, is now tempered by computer, and the "feedback" from these pedals is governed by algorithm, permitting this, forbidding that. This wonderful technology leads to such good things as better fuel mileage and shorter stopping distances, but it also takes some getting used to in order to drive the CLS as smoothly as it looks.
We tried to expose the seven-speed automatic as maybe having one too many gears just to show up the guys down the autobahn, but it behaved more than acceptably, even in full automatic mode. Being empowered to explore the envelope, we got cozy with the manual shift program and the steering wheel-mounted shift buttons. In this mode, the gear is held from the lowest acceptable rpm all the way to redline or during kickdown, and this is the most irresponsible and fun way to reach the car's self-imposed limit of 250 km/h (just over 155 mph).
The Mercedes-Benz CLS is as pleasurable to drive as it is to gaze upon. It's at once a modern product of the wind tunnel and an evocation of the aero-inspired French school of automotive design from the 1930s. Mercedes says it should sell about 30,000 models wordwide, with the majority in America. Buyers might otherwise have opted for the Lexus GS 430, Jaguar XJ8, 5 and 6 Series BMWs, Audi A6, perhaps even Cadillac. A few final questions: Has Mercedes reversed the recent slide from the top of the quality surveys? Will this beauty be of the temperamental sort? Or will it be the fulfillment of every car lover's dreams?
New Car Test Drive correspondent Greg Brown is based in Southern California.
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