Review: 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550

Up Front

Mercedes-Benz’s redesigned CLS550 is a natural for luxury car shoppers willing to pay a premium for distinctive styling. It’s a beautiful car that combines the swooping curves and radically sloped roofline of a two-door coupe with the convenience of a four-door sedan. It’s also bigger, cheaper, faster, and gets better gas mileage than the model it’s replacing.

Keep in mind, however, that Mercedes, which is a unit of Daimler, has inspired imitators since it created the “four-door coupe” segment by introducing the CLS back in the 2006 model year. The 2012 CLS550 faces stiff new competition, notably from the BMW 550i GT and the new A7 from Audi, as well as from Mercedes’s own less expensive (and less good-looking) E550 sedan.

The most important improvement in the CLS is a new engine, a marvelous 4.7-liter, twin-turbo V8 that delivers 402 horsepower and an incredible 443 lb.-ft. of torque. That’s up from 382 hp and 391 lb.-ft. of torque for the engine in the previous CLS550. (If you’re into speed you can always pay extra for the CLS63 AMG, which is powered by a 5.5-liter V8 rated at 510 hp, rising to 550 hp if you opt for the $6,990 AMG performance package.)

The CLS550 is plenty fast for most people: It accelerates from 0 to 60 in just 5.1 seconds, 0.3 seconds faster than the previous CLS. Remarkably, fuel economy has improved, too. The rear-wheel-drive 2012 CLS550 is rated to get 17 miles-per-gallon in the city and 26 on the highway (17/25 with all-wheel-drive), compared with 14/21 in the 2011 CLS550. During 312 miles of hard mixed driving in the CLS550, I got 21.5 mpg.

Like other Mercedes models, the CLS550 comes jam-packed with standard safety equipment that includes stability and traction control, active head restraints, the PreSafe accident avoidance system, and nine airbags (among them front-seat side, knee, and pelvic airbags, as well as cabin-length head-protecting bags). Options include rear side bags ($420), night-vision assist ($1,780), and a blind-spot/lane departure warning system ($850).

Mercedes charges a premium for this combination of beauty, performance, and safety. The 2012 CLS has a $2,700 lower base price than the 2011 model, but still starts at a relatively hefty $72,175, rising to $74,675 with all-wheel drive and $95,775 for the CLS63 AMG.

By comparison, the all-wheel-drive 2012 Audi A7—which is as good-looking and nearly as quick as the CLS and offers better fuel economy—starts at just over $60,000. So, for that matter, does the 2012 Mercedes E550 4Matic sedan, which has the same V8 engine as the CLS550 and a more spacious interior. The 2011 BMW 550i GT starts at $65,275 with rear-wheel and $67,575 with all-wheel drive.

Early indications are that many consumers think the new CLS550 is worth the extra money. U.S. CLS sales reached 2,032 in the first seven months of this year, up 75 percent compared with the same period in 2010. With the new 2012 CLS550 hitting showrooms, sales were up 811 percent in the month of August, to 765, after rising 657 percent, to 704, in July, and 645.5 percent, to 738, in June.

Behind the Wheel

In “Comfort” mode, the CLS550 drives a lot like any other high-end Mercedes. There’s plenty of power when you need, it, but the suspension is relatively soft, the engine quiet, and acceleration smooth and restrained. Put the car in “Sport” mode and it’s a different story: The accelerator becomes more responsive, the engine growls, and the suspension stiffens.

Grab the paddles and start shifting yourself and the car becomes a street brawler.  When you punch the gas, the twin turbos kick in with absolutely no lag that I could discern. Steering is slightly heavier than you would expect in a high-end Mercedes (though not as heavy as in the Maserati Gran Turismo), but provides decent road feel. The CLS550’s 5.1 second 0-to-60 time is highly competitive—faster than  the new Audi A7’s 5.4 seconds and only a tick or two behind the BMW 550i GT and Mercedes E550. (The Mercedes CLS63 AMG equipped with the performance package does 0 to 60 in 4.3 blazing seconds.)

I prefer the styling of the previous CLS, which had a more refined exterior and a beautiful curved dash that integrated seamlessly with the front doors. The new model looks more Teutonic to my eye, with a squatter, more aggressive stance, ornery looking air scoops on the front bumper, and a squarer dashboard. However, it’s still gorgeous.

The CLS550’s cabin is less cluttered than before, partly because there’s no shift lever on the center console. There’s now only a small electronic shifter on the steering column (like the one in the top-of-the-line Mercedes S Class sedan); manual shifting must be done via the unobtrusive steering-wheel-mounted paddles. Fit and finish remain nearly perfect, with sumptuous soft leather and classy, roll-top-desk-style covers on the rear seat storage compartments.

As before, the radically sloping roofline makes headroom tight in both the front and rear seats. I’m only 5 ft. 10 in., but my head was close to the ceiling, even when I adjusted the driver’s seat way down. Shoulder space is slightly better than in the previous model, but knee space in the two-passenger rear seat remains inadequate for tall adults. Another gripe: Fold-down rear seats, which seem as if they should be standard, cost $440 extra. Trunk volume without fold-down seats is just 15.3 cu. ft., about the same as in the new Toyota Camry.

My other main gripe about the new CLS is that there’s no optional V6 or diesel engine—as there is in Europe—for shoppers who want even better fuel economy.

Buy it or Bag It?

There are no bad choices in this class of car. The CLS550, the BMW 550i GT, and the new Audi A7 are all wonderful vehicles. The Jaguar XF, which has been redesigned for 2012 (and which I haven’t driven yet), also looks good, and starts at just $53,875. They all offer curvaceous good looks, excellent performance—and a tight rear seat.

The Mercedes is the most expensive of the lot. The 2012 CLS550 is selling for an average of just under $80,000, according to The Power Information Network, compared with $66,999 for the new Audi A7 and $70,523 for the 2011 BMW 550i GT. There are no data yet for the 2012 Mercedes E550 sedan, but the 2011 E550 has been selling for $64,578 on average, 15 grand under the average price of the 2012 CLS550.

The bottom line: If you’re dead-set on buying a Mercedes, compare the CLS550 with the E550. The choice will be boxy versus bold. Otherwise, compare it with the Audi, BMW, and Jaguar. It’s hard to go wrong, whatever you decide.

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