by Karl Furlong
The swoopy, ultra-luxurious four-door coupe concept owes much to the original CLS-Class introduced over 15 years ago. Now in its third generation, the sleek executive continues to occupy space between the more conservative E-Class and S-Class within the brand's lineup. With competitors like the pricier BMW 8 Series Gran Coupe and the Audi A7 Sportback also vying for top honors within this niche segment, the CLS isn't as novel a concept as it once was. Yet, the CLS continues to impress with its gorgeous lines, meticulously crafted interior, and a turbocharged six-cylinder engine with EQ Boost that provides effortlessly potent performance. More stiffly sprung than an E-Class, the CLS is also better to drive, and yet remains comfortable as a big Mercedes should. Expect less passenger space and a reduced trunk size than in Mercedes' more traditional large sedans, but if you value style and presence, the CLS is a polished option that should provide thousands of miles of satisfaction.
Besides a few improvements to the standard specification (for example, a hands-free trunk lid is now standard), the CLS range remains mostly unchanged for 2020.
The third-generation CLS is a definite improvement on its predecessor, adopting design elements from other new Mercedes models such as sharpened headlights that are similar to those on the sporty A-Class. The whole package remains long, wide, and sleek. Standard exterior features encompass 19-inch alloy wheels, all-LED lighting, and - even though this isn't an AMG model - sporty AMG body styling in the form of a deep front apron, large air intakes, and a rear valance outlining the dual tailpipes.
The CLS is a sizable executive and shares a 115.7-inch wheelbase with the E-Class. The CLS is the longer of the two, however, stretching to 196.4 inches (2.6 inches longer than the E-Class). Height is 56.3 inches (1.5 inches lower than the E-Class) and width including the side mirrors is 81.5 inches. At the time of writing, curb weight figures were not available for the CLS, but the 2019 CLS 450 weighed in at 4,134 pounds and the CLS 450 4Matic tipped the scales at 4,255 lbs - the 2020 equivalents are likely to weigh virtually the same.
Hop onto Mercedes' online configurator and you'll be able to specify your CLS in a choice of ten shades. The only two colors that don't cost extra are Polar White and Black. There are then five metallic shades at $720 each: Obsidian Black, Iridium Silver, Lunar Blue, Selenite Grey, and Graphite Grey. An especially fiery alternative is designo Cardinal Red metallic at $1,080. Moving further up the price scale, designo Diamond White metallic goes for $1,515 and designo Selenite Grey Magno in a matte finish will require you to part with $3,950. We'd have to say that a CLS in simple black somehow just works.
Both the CLS 450 and the CLS 450 4Matic are fitted with the same 3.0-liter inline-six turbocharged engine producing 362 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque. The rear-wheel-drive CLS 450 will hit 60 mph in a respectable 5.1 seconds, while the 4Matic all-wheel-drive model uses its extra traction to cut down that time to 4.8 seconds. An electronically limited top speed of 130 mph is achievable. These numbers are similar to what Audi quotes for its A7 Sportback. The BMW 840i Gran Coupe also provides comparable performance. Of course, the CLS' party trick is its integrated starter generator providing up to 21 horsepower and 184 lb-ft of twist - the mild-hybrid system serves up a welcome dollop of torque at lower speeds and, all in all, the CLS' powertrain is a model of power, efficiency, and refinement.
Even on its own (without the benefit of the EQ Boost system's extra torque), the Mercedes' 3.0-liter turbocharged six-cylinder is a peach of an engine. It produces peak outputs of 362 hp and 369 lb-ft, while the integrated starter generator adds up to 21 hp and 184 lb-ft. Both the CLS 450 and the CLS 450 4Matic use the brand's 9G-Tronic nine-speed automatic transmission with wheel-mounted shift paddles.
The 48-volt mild-hybrid system comprises an electric motor nestled between the engine and transmission. It can recoup energy when decelerating, provides an extra kick of torque at low speeds, and drives the engine's stop-start feature. The driver will be unaware that all of this is taking place because the CLS is always smooth and composed. Acceleration from a standing start is rapid and effortless and overtaking slower traffic is dealt with easily. Like many Mercedes-Benz models, cruising at higher speeds is one of this car's strengths. You never get the giant surge forward that you experience in an AMG, but you also don't need it here. The nine-speed automatic plays its part, too, shifting gears imperceptibly and contributing to the CLS' relaxed demeanor.
This is a car that you can get out of after hours on the long road and still feel fresh and alert. The CLS excels at higher speeds on the open road, thanks to an absorbent but controlled suspension setup with a standard selective damping system. Scarred road surfaces are serenely handled, the big Mercedes rarely ruffled by them. Refinement is also brilliant, with road and wind noise unable to disrupt the well-insulated cabin environment.
Using Dynamic Select, drivers can choose between four modes that influence throttle response, transmission shift points, and steering effort. These are ECO, Comfort, Sport, and Sport+. In Sport+, the CLS surprises with its ability to hustle through a series of tight curves. The steering is accurate although ultimately muted and, although it lacks the playfulness of a smaller coupe, the CLS is also an enjoyable steer when you're up for it. The 4Matic model is the one to have for owners residing in areas where snow and slippery conditions are commonplace. Large brakes bring the Mercedes to a stop in a controlled and predictable fashion. An air suspension is optional, which further improves comfort, but even in its standard setup, the CLS does very little wrong.
The EQ Boost system helps the CLS return excellent economy numbers for a luxury car. The CLS 450's EPA-rated numbers work out to 24/31/26 mpg city/highway/combined. On a 21.1-gallon tankful of premium unleaded gasoline, that's enough for a combined cruising range of about 548 miles. The CLS 450 4Matic has only slightly inferior numbers at 23/30/26 mpg. By comparison, the BMW 840i Gran Coupe (also fitted with a 3.0-liter six-cylinder turbo) has economy figures of 22/29/24 mpg.
The CLS cabin makes an immediately positive first impression. The seats are sumptuous, the quality superb, and design elements like the turbine-like air vents make it feel appropriately special. Although a five-seater, the rear seat is better for two, as long as the occupants back there aren't too tall. The driver gets a comfortable seating position and faces two expansive screens displaying all key information (although the digital instrument display is an option). As you'd expect, there are a host of standard features to make travel in the CLS as comfortable as possible. The attractive leather-trimmed seats are power-adjustable and heated in front, and you also get hands-free access, dual-zone climate control, and 64-color LED ambient lighting that can transform the ambiance from classy to something resembling a disco party.
While earlier CLS models only seated two passengers at the back, the current model is a full five-seater. That doesn't equate to E-Class standards of space, however. Although legroom is good, the major bugbear of the coupe-like design is reduced rear headroom - even some occupants at under six-feet tall will find their heads rubbing up against the roof. The slim windows also create a rather claustrophobic feel, especially in models with darker interior color treatments. Ingress and egress to the back are also hampered by the sloping roofline. The news is better in front, where the headroom is more usable. The driver also gets a comfy seat that adjusts enough to find an accommodating driving position. All other seats are similarly well-padded, although the center rear seat is narrow and better-suited to children. Overall, rear passenger seating is one of the major prices to pay for those arresting looks.
A big part of the interior's appeal is its quality. From the polished wood trim to the soft leather and the dashboard topstitched in MB-Tex trim, it all looks and feels wonderful. Only OCD-levels of poking around will reveal the odd spot of harder plastic, such as the surround for the rear center air vents.
A leather-trimmed steering wheel and leather seats are standard. Color choices include Black, Marsala Brown/Espresso, Macchiato Beige/Magma Grey, and Magma Grey/Espresso Brown. Nappa leather is an option at $1,370 and is available in the same selection of colors. For the true connoisseur, designo Nappa leather is a $4,900 option in either Black/Titanium Grey Pearl or Macchiato Beige/Titian Red. There are five trim options to choose from, including Brown Ash wood, Light Brown Sen wood, Natural Grain Light Brown Elm wood, and Natural Grain Grey Ash wood. Although it is a costly $1,300, the designo Black Piano Lacquer Flowing Lines wood is a truly spectacular option.
The CLS' trunk measures just 11.9 cubic feet, a disappointing number considering how large the car is, and is down on the Audi A7 Sportback's capacity. This will be a problem when loading a family's gear for an extended trip away, but it'll suffice for day-to-day needs. A set of golf clubs can also fit fairly comfortably. If you need more space, the 40/20/40-split rear seats can be folded down to increase total storage capacity.
Interior storage space is quite good thanks to large door bins, a deep center storage compartment, a well-sized glovebox, and covered cupholders for the front passengers.
In its standard form, the CLS is a well-equipped executive coupe with enough features to keep the driver and occupants comfortable and entertained. Of course, a vast options list can equip the CLS to a truly grand standard, but expect a whopping price premium. The CLS ships with power-adjustable and heated front seats (with four-way power lumbar support and a memory system), dual-zone automatic climate control, power-folding side mirrors, an electronic trunk closer, hands-free access, a power sunroof, HomeLink garage door opener, 64-color LED ambient lighting with illuminated vents, and keyless start. The safety specification is comprehensive, with technologies like blind-spot assist, attention assist, and Car-to-X communication. Available features include massaging front seats, three-zone climate control, a heated steering wheel, and even a cabin fragrance system such as the one you'll find in the S-Class.
Although the 2020 CLS misses out on Mercedes' latest MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) system and a touchscreen interface, it still has a modern infotainment setup that can initially overwhelm owners upgrading from an older model. While analog gauges are standard, a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster is optional. The standard central 12.3-inch color central display displays information controlled by the COMAND system's rotary knob, one-touch keys, and touchpad. The touchpad remains an acquired taste, however, and isn't as natural in its workings as BMW's iDrive. Navigation is standard along with map updates for three years, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a hands-free Bluetooth interface, Bluetooth audio streaming, HD radio, an SD card reader, dual USB audio ports, and three years of live traffic service. A FrontBass audio system utilizes an under-dash subwoofer, but you can also upgrade to one of two Burmester sound systems with 13 and 23 speakers respectively. Also available are inductive wireless charging, a head-up display, in-car Wi-Fi, and SiriusXM with a six-month all-access trial.
As the CLS is still quite a new model, it hasn't yet been rated by J.D. Power. Of greater concern is that the CLS has already been subject to seven recalls by the NHTSA, although all are for the 2019 model. The earliest of these was for a child seat that may not result in the deactivation of the passenger airbag, increasing the risk of injury in an accident. Further problems included a malfunctioning powertrain control unit, a steering rack lock nut which may fail, improperly adjusted headlights causing reduced visibility, active brake assist that may not engage, and a coolant pump electrical line which may chafe and lead to an engine stall. The most recent recall was for the safety system incorrectly detecting that seatbelts are unlatched, preventing the deployment of pre-safe and the seatbelt pretensioners. We can only hope that the teething troubles affecting the CLS range have been resolved.
Mercedes covers the CLS with its limited new-vehicle warranty of four years or 50,000 miles, whichever comes first. The powertrain warranty extends for the same duration/miles, as does roadside assistance.
Both the IIHS and the NHTSA have yet to test the CLS and, like many luxury cars, it's possible that they never will. Still, Mercedes has a squeaky clean reputation for building safe cars so the CLS is likely to hold up well in the unfortunate event of an accident.
Mercedes-Benz is an industry-leader for vehicle safety technologies and if the CLS doesn't already have it fitted as standard, you can get virtually every available safety feature as an option. You won't have to pay extra for seven airbags including a driver's knee bag, active brake assist, attention assist (to alert of driver drowsiness), a rearview camera, the pre-safe accident detection system, LED lighting, adaptive braking, crosswind assist, blind-spot assist, and electronic stability control. Car-to-X communication is also standard and makes it possible for one car to communicate impending hazards to another - although the technology is in its infancy and its benefits will only be fully realized following more mainstream adoption, this is an example of Mercedes' commitment to preparing its cars for safer motoring in the future. A host of driver aids can be specified individually or as part of a package - evasive steering assist, Distronic adaptive cruise control, active steering assist, and congestion emergency braking are all available.
Measurably, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class is better than the CLS and a good deal more affordable, too. But the first time you glide into your driveway in the CLS and see the neighbors crane their necks with just a little more urgency than they usually would, you'll understand what the CLS is all about. Inside and out, this is a beautiful car and one of the marque's most desirable with four doors. For shorter rear-seat occupants and owners not requiring a massive trunk, it's also fairly usable as a daily driver. Mercedes' implementation of a mild-hybrid system has been flawlessly executed - the CLS is not only more efficient, but provides strong performance, while the ride quality, refinement, and tasteful interior fixtures are all sublime. The Audi A7 Sportback is a similar left-field alternative to a traditional sedan and matches the CLS in most respects while having a much bigger trunk. If that matters, the A7 is the smarter choice. Otherwise, Mercedes loyalists are likely to succumb to the CLS's considerable charm.
Unlike the E-Class and the S-Class, there CLS has a much simpler range that begins with the CLS 450 at $69,950. This price excludes tax, licensing, registration, and a destination charge of $995. The CLS 450 4Matic costs $72,450 and is the priciest CLS if you discount the AMG model which we review separately. The Audi A7 Sportback starts at just under $1,000 less than the CLS at $69,000.
The CLS range comprises just two models: the rear-wheel-drive CLS 450 and the all-wheel-drive CLS 450 4Matic. Both are fitted with the same 3.0-liter six-pot turbocharged engine delivering 362 hp and 369 lb-ft, allied to a nine-speed automatic transmission. Equipment levels are the same for both variants, with the drivetrains being the main differentiator between each model.
Outside, the stylish CLS gets all-LED exterior lighting, a power sunroof, a chrome diamond-block grille, 19-inch alloy wheels, and frameless door windows in typical coupe style. Dual tailpipes with a chrome surround add some aggression to the rear styling. The cocooning cabin features fine leather and appealing wood trim. Both front seats are power-adjustable, heated, and have memory settings. Dual-zone automatic climate control keeps everyone comfortable, and you can upgrade to a tri-zone system optionally. Also included are an electronic trunk closer, 64-color LED ambient lighting, keyless start and go, remote start via the Mercedes Me mobile app, and power-folding mirrors. Infotainment comprises the COMAND system with a 12.3-inch color screen, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, navigation, and a FrontBass audio system. Among the many standard safety items are seven airbags, pre-safe, blind-spot assist, crosswind assist, and a rearview camera.
You won't find many Mercedes-Benz CLS models rolling around without at least one or two optional packages added on. For even more visual punch there are three exterior packages to choose from: the $900 Exterior Lighting package with adaptive high-beam assist, the $970 AMG Line package highlighted by 19-inch AMG wheels, and the $2,620 AMG Line with Night Package that packs in gloss black exterior accents, 20-inch AMG wheels in black, and a sport steering wheel.
The Warmth and Comfort package costs $1,050 and adds rapid front-seat heating, heated front armrests, and a heated steering wheel (or you can go for the heated steering wheel on its own for $250). Mercedes' Energizing Comfort package coordinates the vehicle's climate control, lighting, and audio systems depending on your mood. It also adds a cabin fragrance system. The $2,300 Premium Package is more useful and introduces a welcome tech upgrade thanks to a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, a 13-speaker Burmester surround sound system, SiriusXM, near-field communication (NFC) technology, and inductive wireless charging.
On the safety front, the Parking Assist package goes for $1,200 and encompasses a surround-view system, active parking assist, and rear cross-traffic alert. The Driver Assistance package costs $2,250 and turns the CLS into one of the most advanced semi-autonomous cars on the road with features like active steering assist, evasive steering assist, active lane-keeping assist, active lane change assist, and congestion emergency braking.
Standalone options, which are likely to prove most desirable to shoppers, are the air suspension ($1,900), ventilated front seats ($450), active multi-contour front seats with massage ($1,320), a head-up display ($1,100), and the Burmester high-end 3D surround-sound system for $4,550 (although this sound system requires adding the Premium Package as well).
Because the CLS 450 isn't as demonically powerful as some AMG Mercs, the rear-wheel-drive model will suffice for most and represents an appealing $2,500 saving over the 4Matic version. We'd steer clear of the exterior packages with bigger wheels as they negatively impact the ride quality. The Premium Package is a must with its digital instrument cluster and 13-speaker Burmester sound system, plus we'd add the Driver Assistance Package for its raft of high-tech driver aids. The total for our CLS 450 excluding destination is $74,500.
Starting at $69,000, the Audi A7 is the brand's own take on a sleeker, more stylish sedan alternative, although the A7's striking body style is closer to a hatchback than the CLS. With a 335-horsepower 3.0-liter V6 under the hood and standard quattro all-wheel-drive, the A7 takes 5.2 seconds to hit 60 mph, four-tenths of a second off the pace of the CLS 450 4Matic. Both have beautifully constructed interiors, the Mercedes having the warmer ambiance but the Audi with the edge for quality. The A7 has more space for rear-seat passengers, though, and a considerably larger trunk (24.9 cubic feet relative to the CLS' paltry 11.9 cubes). Despite the A7's much better practicality, it also rides serenely and corners flatly with brilliant body control. Your choice will likely come down to your affinity for one brand over the other, but either way, you can't go wrong with these two exemplary cars.
The Mercedes-Benz E-Class doesn't need to flaunt its capabilities. It's the same quiet, focused, restrained, and quality executive sedan it's always been. Even though the CLS is more of a looker, the current E-Class is far from stodgy with flowing, contemporary lines, and a similarly gorgeous interior. There's far more space in the back of the E-Class and three passengers abreast can be comfortably accommodated, plus the trunk is a bigger size. At $61,550, the E450 4Matic sedan has the same engine as the equivalent CLS, is nearly as quick, and comes in at over $10,000 less expensive - that means a lot more room to play around with the extensive options list. The E-Class is the more sensible choice by far, but if you're the type who prefers to make an entrance, the CLS has got to be your car.