By Jacob Black
The quest for sportiness, or at least the pretence thereof, has dominated the luxury car segment over the last few years. It seems if a car isn’t an M-packaged this or an F-Sported that, S-line or AMG, it’s just not going to cut the mustard.
Which is odd, because luxury cars have a very different, distinct and equally valuable purpose. They exist to pamper the driver (or passenger), to afford gravitas to one’s persona, and to impress/madden the next-door neighbours. All in quiet, peaceful, relaxing, fuss-free motoring.
Happily, Mercedes-Benz has remembered this, delivering a more conventional luxury car. Even as the German marque embarks on a market-share raid with new entry-level cars and some AMG-massaged horsepower warriors they still deliver on the basics, with a car that says, “hey, come in, relax” to you, and “hey, check it out, I’m a baller over here” to your sticky-beak neighbours.
The styling is the new generation of four-door “coupe”, with swooping lines and a roof line that curves out from the waist demurely. The lines are more cocktail dress than athlete, and they work in this size of car. The grille with its many points is intricate and intriguing, the frosted tips working well in the light. It’s a head-turner thanks in part to the basic profile, and aided by the deep and complicated character line sweeping down the flank.
The only thing wrong with the design is semantic – this fad of calling four-dour cars “coupes” is infuriating to me, but there are bigger issues in the world.
The 2015 Mercedes-Benz CLS 400 is a large car, with an imposing road presence only accentuated by the gorgeous blue-grey paint. I’m not entirely sure how or why, but beautiful, rich paint is a calling card of Mercedes-Benz and is in full effect here.
The seats are plush and comfortable, but the real treat is for the driver – adaptive bolstering. We’ve experienced this before but the inflatable cushions that swell to hold the driver in place around bends are wonderful. Think of every fabric softener ad you’ve ever seen, think of that feeling, that’s how adaptive bolsters make me feel.
The rest of the interior is dominated by soft, supple leather seats, thick carpet and a thick, comfortable, heated steering wheel. The wood panelling is convincing thanks to more of that Mercedes-Benz paint genius, and cabin storage options are plentiful. I’m a big fan of the analogue clock set into the dash of many a luxury car; the square one in here was beautifully executed, calling to mind the IWC in the S-Class, but without some of that timepiece’s detailing.
Ergonomically though, Mercedes-Benz has problems. The large instrument cluster is perfectly positioned for the driver, right in eye line and has rich graphics. It is also controlled by a puck controller – my favourite HMI control system. This one, however, is small and positioned too close to the driver and too far back, forcing you to elbow yourself in the ribs and form a little T-Rex impersonation every time you want to use it. With my arm on the centre console I found I kept bumping it as well. Not cool.
The much-maligned Mercedes-Benz shift lever is here too – only AMG models seem to get a proper automatic shifter in the console. Not only is this lever flimsy and cheap, but its location and operation is ridiculous. Twice I hit “neutral” while looking for the wipers (which are activated on the indicator stalk). The adaptive cruise control is also managed via a small, hidden stalk, the instructions on which are completely hidden from view and thus impossible to figure out while in motion. Worse, there’s no indication of which distance you’ve selected, close, near or far. The graphic in the instrument cluster doesn’t change.
Nervous parkers may be frustrated by a feature in the CLS 400 that puts the car in Park the moment the driver’s door is open – even if you’re moving. I found this out the hard and frightening way while checking a distance to a kerb. Normally I’d be grumping about nanny systems like this, but I recently lost someone in a freak accident this feature would have prevented, so my opinion has changed.
I was initially impressed with the interior of the Mercedes-Benz but then a closer inspection started to unravel parts of it. The aluminium trim was fake and thin, and the switchgear all had too flimsy a feeling – lacking some of the substance you might expect. Even the automatic climate control knobs didn’t feel as substantial as they looked, nor as I expected.
All this is fine in the entry-level Mercedes-Benzes currently thrusting the company to unparalleled African market penetration, but this CLS 400 4Matic is $88,225 as it sits. The visual impact is still very much there, and some of my friends were definitely impressed by the interior, but the switch gear is all being built on the cheap and in mass production, which seems unbecoming.
That stands in stark contrast to other things, like the console between the rear passenger seats that is not only ultra-convenient but lined in a practical and pleasing material. The covers over the cup holders, consoles and ash tray are well engineered and pleasing to operate. The sacrifice of the middle rear seat improves luxury and amenity for the rear-seat passengers but also eliminates a ski-pass through for the 60/40 split-fold seats.
Rear seat room, shoulder room and even head room are ample for me to sit “behind myself” but taller people will suffer for the sake of the CLS 400’s beauty.
The trunk is a healthy 520L, and with some wiggling we managed to put a cello case in the back. I was impressed. Cellos are large.
No matter what I’ve said about the switchgear quality, the CLS 400 still maintains the overall sense of luxury. Partly through the rest of the interior and the seating comfort, but also through its manners on the road.
A 3.0L twin-turbo V6 with 329 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque sounds a bit lame when the same company is producing a two-litre four cylinder with only one turbo and better numbers – but that AMG stroked motor isn’t the same as this. For one, it suffers lag. This doesn’t. Throttle response is strong, confidence-inspiring and progressive. The engine doesn’t launch the car off the line, but the 1,835 kg chassis surges forward with effortless grace. The 4Matic drivetrain keeps all the power in check and applies it directly to the road with no theatrics. Will it pin you to your seat or light up the wheels? No, but it’s not supposed to. This is what they mean when they say power is “sufficient”.
It’s is a strong, “just right” drivetrain designed to do what luxury cars do best: Keep you in command on the road without bothering you. Even the transmission is unobtrusive, changing gears smoothly, almost imperceptibly throughout the range. There are paddle shifters, but I essentially ignored them, preferring to let the car carry me on my commute.
My measure of “luxury” might differ to yours, but essentially it’s this: How do I feel when I get to the end of my horror commute home in rush-hour Toronto traffic? In the 2015 Mercedes-Benz CLS 400, I felt calm. Relaxed. Sometimes, I even felt more calm and relaxed than when I started my journey – a feat only the Volvo S60 stands out as matching in my mind.
The suspension smooths out the road with quiet ease, there’s very little suspension noise, and even less wind noise. The engine is near on silent, and smooth. Steering is well weighted, enough to convey substance, but light enough for comfort.
The handling is comfort-focused, but still capable enough to satisfy on-ramp enthusiasts and impress the ad-sales team on a coffee run – the other, unspoken role of a prestige car.
Sport mode is available, but has no discernible impact on anything but the gear shift patterns. It’s also not something I found myself interested in during the course of my drive. There is an eco mode which dulls the throttle but barely impacts the fuel economy figures.
A very smooth engine stop-start system helps the CLS to a rating of 12.1/8.5/10.5 L/100 km city/highway/combined, and after 1,500 odd km my tester was showing an average of 10. The tank is a generous 80L, so there’s plenty of range.
The features really only pile on once you select some packages, like the $5,950 Premium Package fitted to this tested which included adaptive high-beam assist (AHA), power trunk, rear window sunshade, passive lane keeping assist, heated rear seats, heated steering wheel, active Multibeam headlights, 360° camera, Harman/Kardon LOGIC7 sound system, and keyless-go.
Or the $2,700 Intelligent Package with active blind-spot and lane-keeping assist, Distronic Plus with Steering Assist (adaptive cruise control) and pre-safe emergency braking and collision mitigation.
The final package fitted to this car, the $1,500 Sport Package, is how I ended up with the adaptive bolstering in the driver’s seat. This Drive-Dynamic Multicontour driver’s seat comes along with sport suspension, 18-inch AMG wheels and a sport brake system. Of the three packages, it’s the one I found most valuable.
You can’t get it though, without getting the $5,950 Premium Package. You can get the Intelligent package on its own, but you still don’t get the seat – and you want the seat.
Packages or no, the Mercedes-Benz CLS 400 is a relaxed, comfortable, confident and capable cruiser. If it was an actor, it would be Christopher Walken. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else because pretending is lame. Bruce Dickinson is never lame.
4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation
BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe
The CLS 400 is elegant and sophisticated. It’s a prestige vehicle that shows hints of the “mainstreaming” of Mercedes-Benz but holds true to that luxury car ethos the brand is perhaps most famous for. And if you do want something a little more aggro, something with a little more cowbell – there’s always the CLS 63 AMG….
Base Price: $75,900
Options: Sport Package – $1,500, Intelligent Package – $2,700, Premium Package – $5,950
A/C Tax: $100
Freight and PDI: $2,075
Price as Tested: $88,225