With the 2012 CLS550, Mercedes-Benz attempts to do something not easy to pull off: kick up styling without offending the brand.
Indeed, MBZ takes the four-door oh-so-close to the border of brashness, with its boldly sculptured scooping and side angles. The truncated rear-end and taillights could polarize a bit, but that's yet to be seen. But this is still a Mercedes, make no mistake, and overall this is a package of refinement and class.
Now—about the drive.
On our test drive, winding around, into and through all manner of mountains, the CLS consistently responded in a collegially present, accommodating way. Thanks to its responsiveness, steering and direction were completely up to us; we decided, we pointed, the CLS went. (Good thing too, there’s scant room for error up in them thar hills). Nicely balanced, with no understeer to speak of, a little blip of the throttle propelled us nicely off the apex and out of curves.
The ride emits a pleasing growl, one befitting the 4.6-liter, direct-injection twin-turbo V-8’s 402 horses and 443 pound-feet of sledgehammer slamming torque. And yes, we put that to good use on straightaways. And while I wouldn't call the cornering sports car agile—it's more plush than anything else, thanks in large part to the AIRMATIC suspension’s adaptive damping system—it's nimble enough.
The rear-wheel drive CLS550 has a nicely calibrated seven-speed driver-adaptive transmission with sport and economy shift modes and steering wheel shift paddles—plus power-assisted, speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering. Braking is about right; assertive, but not overly sensitive. Mileage is an estimated 18/26—not bad overall. MBZ plans an all-wheel drive version later this year.
The CLS550’s interior—a little larger than its predecessor's—bespeaks quality fit and finish (pricing starts at $71,550). The best leather, lots of good metal, and board-feet of beautiful burl walnut. There's comfortable seating for four—14-way power-adjustable front seats—and a good-sized trunk. Standards include the fairly intuitive COMAND system w/GPS navigation, Bluetooth interface, 14-speaker harman/kardon LOGIC7 surround sound, HD digital radio, Zagat restaurant guide, SIRIUS satellite radio and real-time traffic, leather sport steering wheel, multi-color ambient lighting, 18-inch wheels and headlamp cleaning system.
There are a few optional packages offering such niceties as a rearview camera, heated and ventilated front seats, highbeam assist, electronic trunk closer, blind spot assist, lane-keeping assist and manual mode for transmission. A la carte options include PARKTRONIC parking assist, split-folding rear seats, wood/leather and heated steering wheel, and night view assist PLUS with pedestrian detection.
Have to also give Mercedes proper respect for the bevy of safety and security features, including the ATTENTION ASSIST drowsiness monitor; steel-reinforced cabin with front and rear crumple zones; front dual stage, side, pelvic and knee airbags; front and rear side window airbags; NECK-PRO active head restraints; Electronic Stability Program; and roll-over sensor.
Ultimately, yes, the automaker is taking a few risks styling-wise. But at day's end, the CLS550 deserves to proudly sport the Mercedes-Benz tri-tipped star.