First Drive Review: 2009 Mercedes-Benz CLS
By Andrew Bornhop of Road & Track
Vienna, Austria — Just imagine if Leonardo decided to "update" the Mona Lisa with a modern "emo" hairdo, giving her hair that swept across her forehead and obscured her eyes for a disinterested, brooding look.
Preposterous, isn't it? Good art, like good design, doesn't need to be changed.
Mercedes-Benz knows this. Although its CLS may not qualify as fine art, the trend-setting sedan with the muscularly arching silhouette and coupelike roofline has developed into a modern classic since its introduction in 2005 as a 2006 model. That it has spawned copycats (including the new Volkswagen Passat CC) proves it has a shape that didn't need to be altered much — a point further underscored by the 2009 CLS.
A discerning eye is needed to spot the subtle changes. Most obvious is a new grille, which has two bars instead of four spanning the mesh that's now painted gray. More subtle are the arrow-shaped LED taillights, slightly revised rear bumper cap and exhaust outlets now shaped like trapezoids instead of ovals. And if you look closer, you'll see side mirrors that are 32 percent larger than before, featuring integrated turn-signal lights shaped like arrows. That, together with new 5-spoke 18-in. alloy wheels, completes the aesthetic changes for the 2009 CLS, which went on sale in late May.
Inside, the 4-seat CLS continues with yards of leather and a broad expanse of wood spanning the dash, plus a few improvements. Most notable is a sportier 3-spoke steering wheel, through which can be seen updated chronometer-style gauges, now finished in white with silver backgrounds. There's also the latest COMAND system, now incorporating Bluetooth technology for hands-free control of a cellphone and the standard Harman Kardon audio system, which features a 6-CD stacker unit and 12 speakers with digital surround sound.
As before, a CLS550 and a CLS63 AMG — one of our personal favorites — remain available. The 550 is a great everyday ride and by no means a slouch, powered by a 5.5-liter V-8 with 382 bhp at 6000 rpm and 391 lb.-ft. of torque from 2800 rpm to 4800. A 7-speed automatic transmission (with paddles on the back of the steering wheel) ups the sporting quotient, and the air springs of the Airmatic suspension team with electronically adjusted gas-filled dampers to create a ride that's comfortable on the highway and capable in the twisties. Of help in the latter department are reasonably large tires, size 275/35ZR-18 in back, 245/40ZR-18 in front.
The CLS63 AMG, however, warrants most of our attention. Its rumbly 6.2-liter V-8, hand-assembled at AMG, is the star here, a superb blend of power and sophistication that pumps out 507 bhp at 6800 rpm and 465 lb.-ft of torque at 5200 rpm. Needless to say, traction control is your friend in the CLS63, which now benefits from a new DTM-influenced steering wheel that's flat across its lower edge. The car features a torque converter equipped 7-speed automatic with AMG Sportshift, which has more substantial paddles behind the wheel and feels like a well-shifted manual with perfect rev-match downshifts. On some twisty roads west of Vienna, the CLS63 felt much smaller than its dimensions suggest, a testament to its impressive athleticism. And the brakes, with massive 14.2-in. rotors and 6-piston calipers in front, never came into question.
But we do have two minor regrets with the CLS63: First, it doesn't have the SL63's 7-speed automatic, which has a multiplate clutch in place of the torque converter and shifts even more crisply than the 8-speed automatic in the Lexus IS F. And the CLS63's ESP stability control doesn't have the Sport mode of the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG's transmission that allows lots of tail-out fun before intervening.
Nevertheless, that's about all we'd like to see changed on the new 2009 CLS sedans, which, thankfully, look as good today as they did the day they were introduced.