Although arguably not as pretty as the original Mercedes-Benz CLS, this new AMG '53' hybrid version is a compelling high-performance GT.
In the metal
When is pretty not quite pretty enough? It seems unfair to body-shame the new Mercedes CLS, but there is a faint whiff of 'generically good looking' about it, as if it takes too many cues from other mainstream Mercedes models for its own good (especially, around the front, the new A-Class). By comparison, the 2004 original CLS was dramatically different to any other Mercedes, and all the better for it. Spot one on the road today (and there are plenty around) and it still looks striking. Will this new one, perhaps, age well, as Mercedes designs often do? Maybe so, but right now I think it's lacking a little for outright appeal.
You certainly can't say that of the cabin, which is basically the same as you get in an E-Class or S-Class. You get the same twin 12.3-inch digital displays for instruments and infotainment (a combo that currently leads the class, although Audi has some interesting ripostes on the way) and the same regiment of round air vents, meant to mimic the shape of a jet engine turbine, strewn across the dash. The woodwork is lustrous, the leather (or fake-leather Artico, depending on the model) sumptuous and thanks to a 2.9-metre wheelbase, the rear legroom surprisingly good for a car supposed to be a coupe. The only gripe? The cabin is more or less identical to that which you get in an E-Class, and when you're paying as much as you will do for a CLS, especially this AMG model, you might rightly expect something a little more distinctive.
Still, it's a well-equipped car. Check out the near-endless list of safety gizmos, which include an improved Distronic cruise control system that sees further ahead than before (up to 250 metres up the road), is smoother and more precise at keeping you in lane on the motorway and which can even change lanes for you if asked. It also uses the satnav to adjust the speed for any upcoming corners, if needed. Then there's the new active steering system, which can intervene to help you swerve around an unexpected obstacle, such as a heedless pedestrian who's wandered into your path. Basically, it's very, very safe, as you'd expect of a Mercedes-Benz.
It also has an impressive mechanical specification, as you'd expect of a car with an AMG badge. Here we have Merc's new 3.0-litre straight-six petrol engine, with both a turbocharger and 48-volt mild hybrid assist. To that, AMG adds an electrically driven turbocharger, which gives instant-on throttle response at low revs, and which also uses an extra pipe to puff air into the larger, exhaust-driven turbocharger, effectively acting as an anti-lag system. There's also a compact electric motor, badged EQ Boost (to link up with Mercedes' nascent electric car brand), built into the housing of the nine-speed 9G-Tronic automatic gearbox, which adds an extra 22hp and 250Nm of torque to fill in any other gaps in the engine's performance. It's AMG's first hybrid, and while its 200g/km CO2 figure won't bring any major tax benefits (it's still in the second-highest bracket in Ireland), it should help to save some fuel when cruising (it can 'sail' with the engine disconnected and switched off under light throttle openings) and when loafing around town.
The impressive mechanical spec is topped off by adaptive air suspension, which allows you to vary the ride height or let the car choose it for you, and 4Matic four-wheel drive, which Mercedes says is predominantly rear-wheel drive and which only powers up the front wheels when necessary.
The standard CLS suspension, multi-link front and rear, is augmented by air springs, new steering knuckles, speed-sensitive steering and retuned suspension geometry.
Clearly, just by looking at the badge, you'll work out that the CLS 53 slots between the entry-level AMG '43' V6 turbo versions and the full-fat, V8-engined AMG '63' cars. With this being AMG's first hybrid model, there's doubtless a temptation to assume that it will be the shy, retiring one that's all about saving fuel and lacking in the fireworks of the larger-engined models.
While that's at least partially true - clearly, it doesn't have the bombastic, boom-bastic performance of the 63 V8, the 53 straight-six is hardly what you'd call slow (4.5 seconds 0-100km/h) and definitely not what you'd call lacking in character.
We start gently, creeping through traffic in downtown Barcelona, allowing the torque to do the work and generally keeping a low profile (well as low as you can in a metallic-white CLS with a carbon-fibre body kit and AMG badging...). The ride is firm, but gentle. The engine clearly potent, but refined and distant, for now. It's a nice car for carving through Catalonian streets, well able to intimidate its way into a space, but relaxing and refined at the same time.
A short motorway run shows that the CLS makes an exquisite GT car. Its seats are wonderfully comfortable, its overall refinement so good that you could happily drive it from one side of any given continent to the other and not feel the strain in the slightest. The engine murmurs away quietly to itself, the Burmester stereo plays light jazz and even those in the rear seats aren't short-changed for comfort or space.
Then, finally, having been held up behind some slow-moving local traffic, we find some empty, twisting roads and let the CLS 53 have its head. Merc's engineers were right - the electric turbo really does mean that the engine is all-but lag-free, responding instantly, with the electric motor dumping its reserves of torque into the gearbox as needed. It doesn't quite lunge forward like the V8 does, all unhinged menace and barely-controlled bestiality, but instead builds up formidable speed in a very short space of time, pushing the CLS forward down the short straights with significant velocity and powering out of tight corners with ease. It also sounds lovely, a proper refined crackle, a classic straight-six noise. It may lack the sheer volume of the V8, but to my ears it sounds a hair more musical.
The CLS's chassis is more than up to the task asked of it and, even on very tight roads, the sort that give you repetitive strain from dealing with constant hairpins, this big, long, weighty (1,980kg) car just shrinks around you, becoming almost a leather-lined hot hatch in the process. It's not quite as touchy-feely as you'd like (some BMW products, for instance, feel more alive under you, and the old Jaguar XFR-S had sweeter steering with better feedback), but the CLS has deft weighting for all of its major controls (especially the steering) and never does anything bad. Despite giving away so much power to its bigger AMG brothers, it's still a staggeringly quick way to cross country, and more than sufficiently rewarding for most tastes.
And then, we came to the end of the twisty bits, and a larger, broader, less challenging road appeared in front. Instantly, the CLS went back into 'loaf' mode, still covering ground briskly, but in a far more relaxed fashion, the suspension soaking up everything aside from large expansion joints (which send a big 'whump' up through the air springs). The light jazz was back in the air and all inside was relaxed. The really impressive part? Since leaving the city centre car park, all along the motorway, up the twisty bit, and now onto the more relaxed home leg, the CLS's driving mode selector had been in Sport. We never changed it, yet the car felt perfectly suited to every situation. Not bad.
What you get for your money
Clearly, any car with an AMG badge, a high-performance engine and this much high-tech equipment, is not going to be cheap. Mercedes Ireland doesn't have prices for this version as yet, though the entry-level CLS 300 d is surprisingly good value at €64,805. Equipment levels throughout the CLS range are good, but the higher-end options are most definitely not cheap.
Despite its smaller number, the AMG 53 powertrain is not a lesser brother to its V8 stablemates. If anything, in some respects, it is even more impressive, and in the new Mercedes CLS creates a wonderfully balanced dynamic performance, able to thrill or cosset at the flick of a switch. Or even without flicking the switch at all. You can debate the relative good looks of the CLS, perhaps, but you sure can't deny that this AMG version is hugely impressive to drive.