First Drive: 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 and CLS63 AMG [Review]

Mercedes-Benz's CLS returns with a more serious, performance-oriented bent than before. Let's check it out!

Mercedes-Benz, like a shark, never remains motionless for long. Constantly trying to improve the breed, they revise, renew and reinvent their latest and greatest. That is why we traveled to Napa Valley to drive the marque's newest, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 and CLS63 AMG. Otherwise we would still be driving the original Benz Patent-Motorwagen from 1886... or at least a big '80s 560SEL.

As one of the originators of the four-door coupe style championed back in 2004, Mercedes-Benz was not content to sit on their hands as others, including some Korean upstarts, approached the playing field. Figuring two can play at that game, M-B enlisted the talents of Korean-American designer Hubert Lee and his team to pen a new look to this already classic vehicle.

Rolling sculpture
We think it's one of the most alluring designs on the road. The 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS is the bee's knees and even has what the designer has called knees. It's a four-door, four passenger sedan-there is no room for a fifth passenger with the center console equipped versions. How's that for family planning?

The new CLS is available as the CLS550, the CLS550 4Matic (think all-wheel-drive), and the CLS63 AMG (think "holy mackerel!"). New direct injection V8 engines power all models. The CLS550s utilize the 4.6-liter twin-turbo engine, while the CLS63 AMG's heart beats under the hood in the form of a 5.5-liter biturbo engine.

It used to be, for those in this segment, that fuel economy was not an issue. Now that gasoline prices are skirting along the edge of four bucks a gallon, that's no longer the case. To that end, the new CLS incorporates an engine in the 550 model that, while smaller than the outgoing version, gets 26 percent better fuel economy and 13 percent more power.

In the CLS63 AMG, an Eco-mode allows for auto stop/start functions, which occur when the driver puts his foot on the brake, when stopped. As soon as the brake is released, and the accelerator is depressed, the engine re-fires and is ready to go. Multi-spark and multi- squirt technologies help to deliver more powerful and energy-saving efficiencies under the hood.

A secondary function in Sport, Sport+ and Manual modes offer quicker shifts by cutting fuel flow to the cylinders, which assists in quicker shifts. An aggressive popping noise lets you know this is occurring, which can be music to an enthusiast's ears.

Distronic cruise control watches the distance between you and other cars in front of you and pre-charges the brakes should the system anticipate a shunt. Adjustable ride controls make their way to the center console in the AMG, and allow the driver to remap the engine, the transmission and suspension systems to various degrees for a personalized ride characteristic. This can be instantly recalled by pushing the so-called AMG button located next to the shift controller. These functions are all part of the AMG Speedshift MCT7-speed sport transmission's operations.

Despite all the other innovations, our favorite feature is the available Drive-Dynamic function in the multi-contour seats. Dive into a turn, and the outside bolsters of the front seats inflate to keep their occupants in place.

Deceiving looks
Evolving from the original segment-creating original of 2003, the new CLS is at once a combination of familiar and unknown. A pair of strakes flanks the front air intake with the performance-Star in the center of the grille. The grille's look is reminiscent of the SLS AMG supercar that is at the pinnacle of modern Mercedes-Benz performance. New LED running lights, and taillights complete the high-tech transformation.

A hockey stick-like stamping in the side panel gives a line of visual interest that doesn't exist on the myriad of slab-sided vehicles available today. The "paddle" of the hockey stick gives way to what designer Lee has termed the vehicle's "knees." Overall, we don't get the feeling of swoopiness that we were first so enamored with in the original CLS. Instead we see a more mature and more refined looking sedan. Perhaps more conventional is the adjective we are looking for.

The CLS550 starts with standard M-B flair inside. A three-spoke steering wheel takes the tiller position with choice wood accents and a standard stem-on-the-stalk gear selector. Matching wood trim carries the theme throughout the rest of the cabin. A pair of cupholders populates the center console.

Order the CLS63 AMG, and you get a black stitched leather interior with flat-bottomed three-spoke steering wheel. Carbon fiber trim inserts carry forth the high-tech effect. In place of the cupholders found in the more sedate model, look for dynamic ride controllers as well as the gear selector and the user programmable AMG button.

Does it throw down?
Can we get a hell yeah? The CLS550 and its 4.6 twin-turbocharged direct injection V8 is no wallflower by any stretch. Producing 402 horsepower and 443 lb-ft. of torque, with all of that coming on at 1,800 rpm and holding steady up to 4,750 rpm, you end up with an impressively flat power band. The EPA says to look for 18 city and 26 highway mpg. Zero to 60 happens in 5.1 secs, which is impressive for a 4,158 lbs. vehicle. Look for a 130 mph top end.

Order the CLS63 AMG and you find yourself in a whole different realm. A 5.5-liter direct injection engine with twin turbochargers pushing through 14.5 lbs of boost, the net result is a whopping 518 horsepower and 516 lb-ft. of torque. But that's for the mildly tuned version, which is good only up to 155 mph. Order the available AMG performance package and you'll instantly find 550 horsepower and 590 lb-ft. underfoot. Not a ride for poseurs, 0-60 mph with this setup occurs in 4.3-seconds. Maximum speed tops out at 186 mph.

Riding on Airmatic suspensions, the cars are not quite Jekyll and Hyde but enough to let you know the difference. While the CLS550 is tossable to a large degree, the CLS63 AMG dials itself in (with driver input) to fully personalize the ride. The end result, which we experienced on a route from Northern California's Napa to Sonoma counties showed just how agile a car this really is. Power was arrived at via a mere tap. But what a piece of ear candy it is. The sound emanating from under hood was the automotive equivalent of bourbon to a twelve-stepper.

Cornering was impressive and the Drive Dynamic automatic bolsters were more than capable of keeping you planted squarely behind wheel. Get in over your head, and two pairs of 14.2-inch ventilated and perforated disc brakes pull you back from the edge. That's if you have left the traction control in an active state. The CLS63 AMG's lane departure warning and prevention system was handy but also tended to impose while negotiating the twisties on the way to Heraldsburg in Sonoma County.

Using torque vectoring, the CLS63 gave us haptic feedback through the wheel and also caused braking to occur on the inside wheels when crossing the line, both literally and figuratively. In the situation of the winding roads, it was a welcome addition. If a turn indicator was engaged, the warning cancels itself when it realizes that crossing the line was the intention.

Leftlane's bottom line
Mercedes-Benz and their AMG performance division have revitalized what was one of the more innovative designs on the road, and pushed it a lot farther in the process.

Perfect for those who think the S-Class too large, and the E-class too small, the CLS is the middle child that never seems to put a foot wrong.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 base price, $72,175.
2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG base price, 96,775.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.