Mercedes-Benz $123,000 Wild Thing Howls, Buzzes, Says ‘Please’

Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG
The 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 AMG. Source: Mercedes-Benz USA via Bloomberg

The navigation system in the latest Mercedes-Benz CLS AMG uses the word “please.” Perhaps other turn-by-turn systems also use niceties, but I’ve never noticed.

It caught my attention because the cheery female voice sounds so polite against the furious maelstrom of the 550-hp engine at full tilt.

The CLS63 is a civilized beast.

When Benz released the first-generation CLS in 2004, it caused a fuss. A design breakaway, it was a four-door with the streamlined ceiling of a two-door sports car. The stylized ride filled an imaginary hole between two other large Mercedes: the two-door CL and the E-Class sedan. Really, it was just darn cool.

Mercedes decided to brand it a “four-door coupe,” a wrongheaded conjunction of words and a general assault upon vehicular vocabulary. It was such a beautiful creation that I forgave it.

This second generation is less showy. The bravura silhouette has been reined in, looking more like a traditional four-door. After driving it, I can forgive that too.

The 2012 models come in three versions: the $72,175 CLS550, $74,675 all-wheel-drive 4MATIC and $95,775 CLS63 AMG.

The engine on the 550 model has plenty of pop. It gets a new 4.6-liter, direct-injection, twin-turbo V-8 good for 402 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque. The company says it is also 26 percent more fuel efficient than the outgoing, for 16 city, 24 highway.

Animal Power

Believe unbridled power is the only way to go? The AMG model’s 5.5-liter V-8 comes in two blow-your-face-off variations, producing either 518 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque or 550 hp and 590 lb-ft. Positively animalistic.

As tested, my CLS63 with the AMG performance package (which adds the extra power), came to $123,525. That’s a price with a nasty bite. Mileage is 15 city and 22 highway.

During the first half of a long day’s drive around that grassy place known as Connecticut, I left the sports stuff alone. With the suspension and drive select in comfort modes, the engine was quiet, the ride cosseting, the cabin quiet.

It gave me time to assess the interior. It fits four, though backseat occupants only moderately comfortably. Carbon-fiber accents are attractive, yet the Alcantara-covered steering wheel felt too slick in my hands.

Gadget Inspector

Mercedes is also due for a reinvention of its nav system (that polite voice notwithstanding). The CLS still uses a scrolling system, operated by a dial, to pick your intended address. Benz seems worried it will alienate older brand loyalists with too many gee-whiz gadgets.

That’s in contrast to Audi, which updates its electronics as often as Steve Jobs reinvents Apple’s oeuvre. Noteworthy, the stylish A7 is a direct competitor to the CLS; some would say it’s a rip-off, even. The A7’s rear hatch has more storage, too.

My CLS beeped when it sensed itself hurtling toward another car’s bumper too quickly, and elicits an even more annoyed buzzer if you turn on a blinker with another car in your blind spot. Unlike several brands, these safety systems are integrated in a mostly harmonious way.

Passing through the tidy town of Kent, I spied a Porsche Carrera GT, a Porsche 911 Turbo and even a vintage Jaguar race car -- wild things in a bastion of civility. While they couldn’t hide their primal natures, my CLS63 indisputably could.

Mark of the Beast

Later, deep in the woods, I made a few modifications. Suspension into sport sharp. Traction control to sport. There’s also an AMG button which will turn everything to Def Con 1 in a single stroke.

Sloughing off civilization, I let the beast howl. From a stop sign, it leaned back hard onto rear tires and lunged, the phenomenal 590 pound-feet of torque somehow not overpowering traction to the 19-inch tires.

The performance speed raises the electronically-limited top speed to 186 mph, so no surprise that the CLS63 would be a pack leader on the autobahn. Yet it’s significantly surprising on back roads, too. It’s not a small car, but you know exactly where it fits into the lane, the mule-kicking power balanced by crisp steering and ideally-weighted brakes.

You can choose the AMG version of Mercedes models across the line, and the engines have always been chock-full of torque. Lately, however, the cars themselves have taken a leap forward, perhaps due to lessons learned on the SLS Gullwing supercar, which AMG created top to bottom.

Whatever the case, the AMG version of the CLS is a machine that is in harmony with both sides of its personality.

At a certain point a sport bike dropped into my wake, following my hard-driving path through the woods. When we finally came to a stop sign in the middle of nowhere, I waved him by. He shook his head. Negative. He was happy to stick behind.

The 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS63 At a Glance

Engine: 5.5-liter twin-turbo V-8 with 550 horsepower and

590 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Seven-speed automated.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 15 city; 22 highway.

Price as tested (with performance package): $123,525.

Best features: Ferocious performance, good manners.

Worst features: Seats only four; old navigation system.

Target buyer: The driver who wants a four door that can

stay in the hunt.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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