It’s an age-old automotive-design problem: How do you fix what isn’ t broken? How do you update a timeless shape?
There are two possible answers: One, you tweak it a little, à la Mini Cooper, until your shape is neither new nor old. Or two, you start over, Jaguar XJ–style, throwing everything out the window and starting fresh. Best case, you end up with something revolutionary. Worst case, you get a hacked-up rehash that just reminds you of what you’ve lost.
Bigger and More Muscular
Well, there is a third possibility: somewhere in between, and that’s what we have here. When it was launched in the United States in 2005, the Mercedes-Benz CLS turned heads, and the “four-door coupe” oxymoron suddenly made some sense. Even though the car was little more than a rebodied E-class, 40, 000 examples whizzed out of American dealerships in five years. Now we have a new CLS for 2012.
Meet the new oxymoron, not quite the old. You will note that it looks different. Kind of. Also note that it’s still fundamentally an E-class. The wheelbase is up, from 112.4 inches to 113.2, and the overall length has jumped by nearly an inch. The height and the width increase, too, as do the front and rear tracks. The biggest difference is the lack of a naturally aspirated powerplant. In place of the previous car’s 5.5-liter V-8, the CLS550 now sports a 4.7-liter, direct-injection, twin-turbo V-8, the same engine used in the humongous 2011 CL550 4MATIC coupe and proliferating throughout the Merc lineup in the coming years.
Chassis behavior is predictable and entertaining but won’t surprise anyone. The standard Airmatic air suspension works well enough on winding pavement but doesn’t like being rushed; you spend a lot of time waiting for the nose to take a set, for the back end to settle down, for the rest of the car to make it through the corner. Grip on a smooth skidpad is a commendable 0.89 g, but truly crazed asphalt can bind things up to the point where the car simply gives up and throws in a stability-controlled brake application to yank everything back down again.
The brakes are simply unflappable, with short pedal travel and surprising fade resistance in hard street driving, and they turned in an impressive 163-foot stop from 70 mph to 0. The electric power steering is accurate and possessed of classic Mercedes heft. All in all, it’s a nice, quick package, if not an overly sporty or aggressive one.
Okay, so the styling occasionally seems forced, with too many angry-face fillips and none of the previous CLS’s elegance. But the 2012 CLS550 is still more stylish than the E-class sedan, and if you’re not enamored of the new sheetmetal, consider this: From the driver’s seat, all you see is the road.