2005 Mercedes-Benz CLS
2005 Mercedes-Benz CLS. Photo: Mercedes-Benz. Click image to enlarge

by Tony Whitney

Decades ago, it was a fairly simple process to choose a new vehicle. Nameplates apart, it just came down to sedan, coupe/convertible, station wagon or pickup. There were no SUVs or minivans to make your decision too difficult and the various vehicle segments weren’t split up into too many sub-categories like they are today. Nowadays, buyers have a bewildering variety of vehicles to choose from and the job isn’t getting any easier, and that’s part of what makes selecting a new vehicle such fun – even if it can be quite a challenge.

The announcement by Mercedes-Benz that it’s about to launch what it describes as a four-door coupe – the CLS – is bound to arouse interest and perhaps break new barriers when it comes to categorizing vehicle types.

The company admits that the very idea of a coupe with four doors will “polarize opinion” and earn the admiration of many and the disdain of others. Many car fans say that coupes have two doors and that’s that – mere styling doesn’t necessarily make a car a coupe. But is that really so? We already have products in the marketplace that offer four doors, but are still categorized as sports coupes. Nobody would call the Mazda RX-8 or Saturn Ion Quad Coupe “sedans” by any stretch of the imagination. Of course, both have quite small rear doors for ease of rear passenger access while the CLS has full-size doors, but does that factor exclude the CLS from coupe classification? Probably not.

There are one or two products on the world market right now that could already be classified as “four-door coupes.” One that springs to mind is the sleek Jaguar S-Type and another is the Alfa Romeo 156, not sold on this side of the pond, sad to say. The 156 breaks into the four-door coupe class not only by its looks, but thanks to a clever styling trick in which the rear door handles are hidden in the rear window trim and don’t in any way match the chromed front pair. The car looks like a two-door until you give it a careful once-over.

2005 Jaguar S-Type 3.0
2005 Jaguar S-Type 3.0. Photo: Jaguar

2002 Alfa Romeo 156
2002 Alfa Romeo 156. Photo: Alfa Romeo
Click image to enlarge

Interestingly, the process is aided these days by the accuracy with which automakers produce panels. Look closely at most modern vehicles and you’ll notice that the gap around the doors, trunk lid and hood are very narrow and even. A few years back, there were cars on the market that had a gap on one side of the panel you could get your fingers into and one on the other that would hardly take a credit card.

The CLS is a large car, but styling is unmistakably coupe-like. It’s a highly attractive vehicle and a very clever styling job. Few observers would deny that it’s a head-turner of the first rank. In profile, it could be judged more coupe-like than Mercedes’ “real” coupes – the big CL and smaller CLK. Since Mercedes-Benz has probably the widest range of products in the luxury segment, it’s interesting to learn why it decided to create what it believes is a new vehicle category.

The CLS made its debut as a concept car in the fall of 2003 at the big Frankfurt auto show. It was well received by both media and public and there wasn’t too much talk about whether or not it was a “real” coupe. People certainly seemed ready to accept a new type of vehicle and the company responded by putting the car into production (it’ll arrive in Canada early next year). The platform is lower and wider than M-B’s E-Class and this helps to give the CLS its sleek, almost predatory look. If ever a car looked as though it was doing 200 km/h standing still, this is it.

This is, of course, a luxury car with a big V-8 and all the trappings of opulence and will be quite expensive. As far as rear seat room, the car feels much like a big S-Class in the back, but with a little less headroom. If you’re over six feet, your hair might stick to the headlining with static, but nobody (including Mercedes) said that this is classified as a large sedan.

Perhaps some of the target markets for this car are worth mentioning to give an idea of just where it will fit in, Mercedes-Benz names products like the BMW 645Ci coupe, the aforementioned Jaguar S-Type sedan, Audi A6, BMW 5-Series and even the Maserati coupe. Mercedes hopes to “capture” buyers of cars like this, but will probably convert a few existing customers from its own models too.

It will be interesting to see whether this new Mercedes gains favour in the marketplace, or whether buyers will reject a product that doesn’t really fall into any existing category. My guess is that the market will welcome the car and probably demand others like it – buyers do like to have lots of choices when it comes to a new car. After all, when the time comes for a luxury two-door owner to demand more space, it’s nice not to have to sacrifice anything on the styling front. Watch for other luxury automakers to follow M-B’s lead if CLS sales are anything close to strong.

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