A few weeks ago I had a pootle around in the new CLS 500 and I came away smitten. I adored the CLS, not because of its performance or handling which are fairly pedestrian, to be frank, but simply because of the way it looks and the mature, composed way it devours huge kilometres and soothes vast distances away.
A few weeks prior to that I’d had a thrash in Mercedes’ new SLK 55 AMG and while I loved the AMG performance I found the ride a tad firm, the handling a little too clinical and the styling a smidge tasteless. So while hypothesising as to what the CLS 55 AMG would be like in advance of being handed the keys, I imaged a car that combined the brutal, emotionless speed that AMG does so well with an overdone styling kit that ruins the looks and a rock hard suspension that destroys its composure, making it about the most pointless thing since the common, but pretty functionless, necktie.
Well, I was right about one thing. The speed is brutal. Not surprising, perhaps, when you consider the supercharged, intercooler 5.4-litre V8 packs an astonishing 476 bhp and 700 NM (516 lb-ft) of torque. To put that into perspective, a Porsche 911 produces 325 bhp and the legendary Dodge Viper’s got 500. Anaesthetised? I don’t think so. The baritone song of a high-tech V8 is sweet enough but when you throw a supercharger falsetto into the melody, the resulting chorus can lift the hairs on the back of your neck.
And for such a big, heavy car the pace at which in collects speed is nothing short of staggering, reaching 100 km/h in 4.7 seconds and 200 km/h in just 16.1.Top speed is supposedly pegged at 250 kph but AMG still saw fit to install a speedometer that reads all the way to an entirely feasible 320 km/h. Stopping, thanks to those massive cross-drilled discs and huge eight-piston callipers, is no less impressive, hauling the 1847kg CLS to a halt with eye-popping force. In fact, just about everything about the way this car changes velocity is an assault on the senses. The CLS 500’s styling is so pretty it could well be a new Maserati Quattroporte, so I’m thankful the good people at AMG recognised a good thing when they saw it and left the CLS pretty much unmolested.
There are some tasteful 18-inch alloys – five spokes instead of the multi-spoke design of other AMGs – a subtle new front bumper, restrained side-skirts and the most unassuming rear spoiler ever seen. The CLS 55 AMG makes its intent known, not with garnish and icing but with baked-in subtleties like those four massive exhaust pipes and its low, wide stance. Even the badging is subdued, though not so invisible that people won’t know exactly what has just smoked them off the lights. From a visual perspective, the AMG-ing of the CLS has been a resounding success, managing to make the car look even better, something I scarcely thought possible. Inside, the CLS is no less delightful, with suede and leather on just about every surface including the headliner and the sunroof blind. We also find all the usual toys like a huge stereo, four-zone climate control and heated electric front seats with adjustable side bolsters and twin lumbar supports.
Our car also had satellite Navigation, seat ventilation, ‘Dynamic’ seats (the side bolsters supposedly move to hold you fast in corners but in reality they usually arrive a bit late for work) and a six-CD changer as part of a $4,000 option package. Swivelling headlamps were also fitted at a cost of $1,220 and the active cruise control, which I abhorred, was a whopping $3,130 extra, bringing our test CLS 55 AMG to a grand total of $97,270.In Ireland, those options would push the €143,670 CLS 55 AMG’s price to somewhere beyond the €170,000 mark, and yet despite the exorbitant price the quality of construction is an absolute shambles.
Take the weighty sunroof shade, which slides forward and backwards as you accelerate and brake, thumping its bump-stops with a startling thud. Or the cheap, stretchy netting that straps the Owner’s Manual trilogy to the transmission tunnel, squatting where the front passenger’s left leg is meant to go. The manual is so heavy, in fact, it pulled the poorly fitted carpet proud of the tunnel, exposing the colourful soundproofing underneath. Then the ‘dynamic seats’ packed in, probably caused by me inadvertently groping the exposed wires behind the switches, and even the key fob came apart at one point. I wouldn’t accept this kind of shoddiness in a Ford or a Fiat, but in a Mercedes it’s positively disgraceful.
And yet I find myself willing to forgive it its sorry build quality because the CLS 55 AMG is not only better looking than just about anything else on sale today, it’s an absolute riot to drive. Where standard CLS has wallow, the AMG has taut. Where the 500 is vague, the 55 is military precise. When the CLS 500 comes over all furry mittens, the CLS 55 AMG is shod in Italian leather driving gloves. The CLS AMG is like an entirely different car. Take the steering, which is considerably sharper and weightier than before, with actual feedback and information from the road being transmitted to your hands.
The steering wheel might be a touch too big and it’s a bit of an eyesore, but there’s no arguing with the way it gets the driver involved in the fun like no Mercedes before. And there are the brakes, so much firmer and more reassuring than the standard machine’s, but not wooden or grabby as can often happen with super-performance anchors. Don’t forget the gearbox (sensibly utilising just five ratios instead of the CLS’ pointless seven), smooth and refined yet extremely quick to react to a poke of the steering-wheel mounted shifters. And let’s not omit the ‘Airmatic’ suspension that’s been firmed up considerably to give drivers the sporty feel they’ve paid all this money to enjoy. On its softest setting the car rolls a lot, but it still jitters over cracks in the road and thumps into potholes with a resonant thud, so you may as well leave it on its hardest setting and get the full-on effect all the time.
It’s definitely firm and sporty, but only when the road is in very bad shape does it become tiresome or irritating. No, AMG got this high performance saloon exactly right, even down to the way it can be power-slid at lurid angles with the electronic nannies on standby only if things get seriously awry. The Mercedes CLS 55 AMG is one of the very few cars I would buy with my own money, if I had that much disposable income. It looks exquisite parked outside the golf club but is no less at home sliding sideways around my favourite hairpins. Every journey becomes an event and every moment behind the wheel is a moment to savour. I’d even be happy to tolerate all the bits falling off it just so I could hear that Messerschmitt V8 howl every day. It’s one of the most emotive driver’s cars on the planet. Who knew Mercedes had it in them?
MERCEDES CLS 55 AMG
Engine 5,439cc V8, 473bhp, 700Nm torque
Boot Capacity 495-litres
Acceleration 0-100km/h 4.7secs
Top Speed 250 km/h Price €145,670
Transmission Five-speed auto, rear wheel drive