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Story and photos by Laurance Yap
Rome, Italy – In a way, you could say that Mercedes-Benz is the most German of car companies. Over the years, the three-pointed star has stood for a stoic sort of conservatism, of lasting values of solidity and dependability and ruggedness that led to, well, lasting value. That reputation for a long time worked very well for Mercedes, but it’s not such a good fit in a fashion-conscious world that’s increasingly driven by intangible experiences rather than solid, sensible, quantifiable qualities.
And now we’re here in Rome to drive the latest Mercedes, the new CLS500. In one of the world’s most fashionable cities debuts what is arguably the most fashionable Mercedes yet: a four-door “coupe” built on an E-class platform that – please don’t get it in Standard Silver or Boring Black – out-swoops not only all of its major competition, but qualifies as one of the sleekest, most eye-popping designs to debut this year. Glance at the CLS’ profile and you’d be forgiven if you originally thought you were looking at a Jaguar or Alfa Romeo; the shape is low, fast, and elegant, qualities that one would, in the past, have hardly associated with any German car, never mind a Mercedes-Benz.
To call the CLS a coupe is a bit of a misnomer, because it not only has four doors, but also a perfectly roomy interior with four contoured seats and plenty of legroom, if not quite as much headroom as the E-class it is based on. The difference isn’t so much in the packaging, however, as it is in the general feel of the cabin. The small windows, the high, almost vertical, dashboard, and the deeply-contoured buckets of the CLS give it a much more intimate feel than an E-class, something that’s reinforced by the selection of materials.
Unlike other Mercedes-Benzes, which feature highly-polished wood and tough, perfectly-stitched leather panels that are so perfect they look like vinyl, the CLS is immediately warmer and more inviting. The wood on the dashboard is a matte finish, and you can imagine it gaining a wonderful patina after a few years of use; the leather is softer, more supple, with more visible imperfections that give it some real character. More than anything, though, it’s the smell that gets you: from the moment you step into the driver’s seat, you can tell that this car is something quite different.
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Despite the different looks, as an overall experience, the CLS is still reassuringly a Mercedes. The doors may be small and swoopy but they still close with that same expensive thunk. The interior feels solid and isolated from the travails of the world, and at low speeds, it’s eerily quiet, the big 302-horsepower V8 burbling away only in the background. Most of the switchgear and the gauges are standard E-class fare, repositioned cleanly into the new dashboard and they’re as easy (and difficult) to use as ever. The new-generation COMAND navigation system is DVD-based now, and much quicker to react; its user interface is better than it’s ever been, and now as easy to use as most of the one-knob systems out there, despite all of its buttons. As ever, the level of integration of the car’s electronics is superb: as an example, you can dock your cell phone in the armrest, and access your address book and features not only through COMAND, but also through the steering wheel controls and the display in the middle of the speedometer.
The CLS drives exactly how you would expect, too, like an E-class sedan that’s been tuned slightly more aggressively. The Airmatic Dual Control suspension allows has three settings, ranging from a super-supple ride that wouldn’t be out of place on a limo through to a stiff, jiggly setting that’s really only appropriate for billiard-smooth roads and super-aggressive driving. The middle setting is a fine compromise, rendering the big CLS – a fraction longer and lower than an E-class – surprisingly nimble and responsive on winding roads. While there’s a little bit of refining gloop in the steering, the 7-speed automatic transmission is quick to adapt to your driving style, and the electronically-actuated brakes are, unlike the first-generation Mercedes units, easy to modulate and linear in their response. As ever, a full array of electronic safeguards is there in case things go wrong, from a subtle and sophisticated stability-control system to brake assist to a battery of airbags in the dash, doors, and roof pillars.
Mercedes hasn’t yet decided exactly how much the CLS500 is going to cost yet, as it goes on sale in January. Right now, they’re only suggesting that it’ll be priced between an E500 4Matic (about $85,000) and an S430 4Matic (just over $100,000). Whether there’s really a niche to be found between those two price points in a luxury-car market the size of Canada’s is the real question, but the company believes that CLS buyers aren’t going to necessarily be people that would have thought of a Mercedes before. Instead, they’ll be drawn by the car’s styling, its panache, and the more – dare we say – Italian vibe it gives off. Such decisions aren’t governed by reason; so maybe it doesn’t make sense to judge Mercedes’ ambitions with this model in the same way.