Saturday 20 October 2018

Mercedes CLS: why good looks are not everything

Smart coupé design hampers entry and exit

Mercedes-Benz CLS
Mercedes-Benz CLS
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

Beauty may lie in the eye of the beholder - but it can blind us to other things, too. I first saw this week's review car, the Mercedes CLS 4dr coupé, at the Los Angeles show late last autumn as part of my World Car of the Year jury role - and was quite taken by it.

Such was the fervour around its unveiling, I had to wait half-an-hour to get a proper look.

I was slightly torn, to be honest. I loved, yes loved, the first, elegant CLS and liked the previous incarnation a lot as well. This brand new one continues with the bespoke crescent shape but comes with stronger flanks and a far more provocative (eye-catching) thrust of frontal design.

It's a Modern-by-Mercedes incarnation on many levels. The marque has excelled of late on design, inside and out.

So the new blend of curve and muscle grew on me over the drives, though I still think the graphite grey metallic paint does its latest contours scant justice.

Sorry for dwelling on the looks for longer than might seem reasonable, but I've done so for a good reason. They are critical to the car and what it is supposed to be about.

There isn't much else like it on the market (with the notable exception of the new, keen competitor Audi A7 and, at a push, the Porsche Panamera).

But there has to be, and is, more to the CLS than redefined looks. There has been a dimensional shift, for example. The previous one was a four-door, four-seater coupé. This is also a four-door, too, but they claim it is a FIVE-seater. Technically it is, but you'd want a super-narrow bum to sit comfortably on that middle (fifth) seat at the back. Let's call it four seats and a big fold-down armrest, okay? When in a Merc, let's travel in style.

Based on the E-Class platform and sharing a lot with the larger S-Class, the CLS brings a lot of new techies with it. Thankfully, the widescreen displays that let you control those elements are so appealing visually they (and the air vent styling) underline how a dashboard can be transformed from the functional to being an added dimension.

But I don't think there is anything out there to beat the two little black buttons on the steering wheel for another, simple way of getting you around the complex tech offerings. If I can work them (and they are on several Mercs now) anyone can; full marks for simplicity.

Worth mentioning in the cabin, too were the leather seats - the four we could use were so comfy. It felt good in my plush seat in a super cabin.

However, I only felt great after I got in. Getting in (or out) wasn't the easiest. Because of the way I like my seat positioned, especially its height, I had a smaller aperture of entrance and exit than I'd have liked. In other words I had to stoop a lot. Not nice with my ould back. It is part of the price you pay for that sloping roof. The front wasn't that bad, I suppose, and I put my discomfort down to my distinctly irritable and lugubrious frame.

But getting into the back was a heck of a job for a tall-ish passenger. Far too difficult, far too much stooping. It is a distinct, if inherited, drawback (I don't think current owners will be deterred).

Alright, I'll concede it is likely in the vast majority of cases that smaller bodies than mine will be slipping in and out of those back seats. But it is an inherent penalty and it would be remiss of me not to stress my misgivings.

Another area on which I must report some negativity was the engine. It was noisier than I'd have expected, which is unusual because at this level suppression of mechanical goings-on takes priority focus.

I felt the 2-litre diesel was otherwise nicely balanced with plenty of mid-range pulling power (torque) - the excellent autobox played a huge part in that.

I had a choice of driving modes and used Sport a fair bit as it gave tighter, tauter ride, handling and steering which otherwise felt a bit loose. It was at its best, as I expected, on the longer runs where it was comfortable and easy to manage. On less forgiving roads it didn't feel as dynamic - but that more or less goes with the territory for the CLS: it is a tourer rather than a tearaway.

One area that opened our eyes was the boot and the capacity to take a large amount of luggage with the bigger portion of the rear seats folded. Really impressed with that; loads of room for the old golf bags for sure.

I'd say the sight of that mega-load capacity will come as a thing of beauty to many.

Indeed the CLS is a bit like a golfer doing well on the drive and suffering a bit on the greens. It travels long and well but has a few flaws when you get up close. Overall though it's still a thing of some beauty in my eyes.

Facts & figures

Mercedes CLS 300d, 4dr, 5-seat coupé AMG-Line auto, 2-litre diesel (245bhp, 1,950cc), 142g/km, €390 road tax.

Price: from €64,800. Car tested: €71,990; with options: €85,528.

Equipment included: 19ins alloys, spread of safety, comfort, driver assistance items: active brake, lane-keep assist, ambient lighting, AMG Line touches throughout, Dynamic Select, multi-function steering wheel, 66-litre fuel tank, heated front seats, leather upholstery, parking package/reversing camera, satnav, speed-limit assist, sporty seats, widescreen cockpit.

Options included driving assistance/premium packages, anti-theft protection.

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