If you want a Mercedes-Benz CLS, you better hurry up. A Mercedes representative has confirmed to the Australian outlet CarExpert that production will end this August. It’s not unexpected given Mercedes’ prior announcement of model streamlining, but it still makes me sad. While the current CLS is a perfectly fine motor vehicle, the original CLS was revolutionary. From the Lucid Air to the Hyundai Elantra, a huge number of modern sedans owe a certain debt to the first CLS.
Back in the mid-2000s, Mercedes entered the then-crowded (different times!) luxury sedan market with something truly unique. With its banana-like silhouette accented by a single curved character line running from the front wheel arch through the tail light, the CLS looked like no other sedan on the road. It was Vice to the E-Class’ Deutsche Welle, a switchblade in a world of table knives. In terms of the lineup, it was a very nice car, too; pricing-wise, it slotted in between the E-Class and the range-topper S-Class.
As Car And Driver reported at the time, the design drew its fair share of adoration and ire.
For instance, a woman at a gas station remarked, “Your car has a droopy butt.” How’s that? Was she blind in one eye and unable to see out of the other? A man at a fancy mall told us, “I’ve never seen a Mercedes that wild. I don’t know, it’s pretty extreme.” Is the CLS, for a Benz, too radical? Naw. Like the guy scoffing at the swimsuit babe, some people are just wrong. The CLS is gorgeous. End of story.
Initial divisiveness aside, the original CLS is striking and one of the more successful low-slung sedans of recent history. In the wake of ever-more-vulgar styling, it’s now this bastion of gorgeous simplicity, and its substance can still cash all the checks its curvaceous sheetmetal writes.
On the inside, the E-Class’ business-like dashboard got nixed for a new one featuring one giant horizontal slab of matte wood, and the center rear seat was replaced with a luxurious console. While you don’t see many modern cars with climate controls sitting above the infotainment, the interior materials of the CLS feel a decade advanced, as every premium automaker under the sun seems to offer some sort of satin wood option.
As far as mechanicals go, they’ve also held up well. The M113 5.0-liter V8 on the CLS 500 is a tank, offering unwavering reliability and decent punch. It’s mated to a seven-speed automatic gearbox that still feels reasonably modern, even if it’s on the slow side by today’s standards.
Regarding ride and handling, adaptive damping came standard on CLS 500s, and the chassis feels a bit more eager than on an E-Class. Most of the credit for that goes towards a different wheel and tire package that reduces understeer, but that decision makes for a sharper Mercedes that doesn’t sacrifice ride quality.
Several years after the launch of the CLS, BMW and Audi showed off concept cars of a similar form, while Volkswagen took the four-door coupe trend downmarket with the Passat CC. The brief was simple: A midsize sedan, but sexier. The B6 Passat was already a nice vehicle with punchy turbocharged or seductive VR6 power, lovely interior appointments, and thoughtful touches like umbrella compartments, but the CC took things to another level with sleek styling and an available set of delectable turbine wheels.
If the Passat CC brought the four-door coupe to a more affordable segment, things really kicked off when Hyundai unveiled the 2011 Sonata. It was quite the power move for Hyundai in the decade when that company really came into its own, a stunning replacement for one of the most generic-looking sedans on sale.
Carrying the chassis code YF, the sixth-generation Sonata has a mixed legacy thanks to widespread reports of engine failure. What wasn’t so mixed was the reception to this thing’s sloping roofline and curvaceous styling. Automobile Magazine heaped such praise on the Sonata as “The graceful sculpture of the rearview mirror is worthy of Constantin Brâncuşi at his best. Very nice indeed.” Car And Driver went even further and put the Sonata on its 2011 10Best list, writing that this Hyundai was “best-in-class attractive” and that “No longer simply great for the money, this latest Sonata propels Hyundai to 10Best glory for the first time because its greatness is undeniable.” Kia then followed Hyundai’s lead with the Optima platform-mate, and the swoopy sedan trend stuck.
For the difficult second act, I don’t think Mercedes quite nailed it. The second-generation CLS was more luxurious than before, but also less beautiful. Slab-sided haunches and a character line running from the front lamps to the rear doors gave it a sort of Buick-like sweepspear while making the amount of metal on the bodyside seem huge. It’s still a sharp-looking car, but it’s not razor wire like the original.
However, the second-generation CLS did give us one of the more tantalizing Euro-only Benzes of the 21st century: The CLS 63 Shooting Brake.
The long greenhouse of the shooting brake did wonders for the CLS, and a 500-plus horsepower wagon is just plain cool by any measure. However, now the competition started to catch up. The first-generation Audi A7 is still gorgeous and the BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe might just be the last truly pretty BMW.
When the third-generation CLS launched, the sleekness of the original was back. Mercedes took the time to reduce hard character lines, and I reckon it worked. While I appreciate the effort of cutting visual weight, some of the verve that made the previous models special was missing. The dashboard was no different than on a standard E-Class and the largest engine option was a turbocharged inline-six.
It was great for most people’s needs, but the CLS was never about needs. It was about wants, and what many CLS customers wanted was a thumping V8 nestled inside sexier coachwork than an E-Class has to offer. We never did get a V8-powered third-generation CLS, but it didn’t take long to figure out why: Mercedes had effectively replaced by a car with an enormous name, The Mercedes-AMG GT 63 S 4-Door Coupe.
Eventually, the Mercedes-AMG GT 4-Door Coupe started trickling down into the realm of the CLS, starting with the six-cylinder GT 53 4-Door Coupe and more recently expanding to the low-output GT 43 4-Door Coupe. If this sounds like cannibalization, you’d be right, and it’s for one of the oldest reasons in the book: Money. Even with largely identical inline-six powertrains, every Mercedes-AMG GT 53 4-Door is a six-figure car, while lightly-equipped CLS 53s weren’t. Car companies are in the business of making money, so if they can charge a higher price for conceptually-similar products, you best believe they will.
With Mercedes looking to kill off low-volume models, the writing for the CLS has been on the wall for a long time. However, its influence is hard to understate. Nowadays, a huge number of mainstream and luxury sedans don’t feature a traditional three-box silhouette. From the Honda Civic to the Lucid Air, the break between window and deck has grown harder and harder to discern, and there’s a good reason for this other than the obvious style benefits. An abrupt transition from roof to rear window like you’d see on a traditional sedan promotes an area of low pressure above the trunklid. As a gross oversimplification, this is generally considered bad as it can increase drag.
What’s more, these fast silhouettes show that sometimes there’s nothing wrong with sacrificing a bit of practicality for style. So what if rear-seat ingress and egress aren’t as easy as they could be? Most cars are primarily occupied by a single person, and swooping rooflines can look great. A really good four-door coupe makes its owner smile when they look at it, and that’s really what we all want out of our cars.
(Photo credits: Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Honda, Lucid)
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Is the GT43 actually running a 4-cylinder, at least in some parts of the world? MB USA is showing it as using the ‘regular’ 3.0 liter inline-6, same as the E450.
The ’97 Pontiac Grand Prix doesn’t get enough credit for being way ahead of this trend.
I had a 2011 YF Sonata in the Red color pictured, same chrome grille and the 270hp turbo engine. Yes, the engine grenaded itself, but was replaced under warranty. I freakin’ adored that car. I’d still be driving it, but my spouse totaled it some years back. It was a beautiful car, was fast, handled well, and should not have been the affordable fun that it was. It looked far better than any of these weird looking german sedans of that time.
The worst derivation of CLS is CLA, one of the most useless and pointless cars ever made. The low roofline made it is impossible to enter and exit the car unless you are less than 1.7 metres tall.
My father received a loaner car, CLA 180, from Mercedes-Benz service centre when his E 280 underwent the collision repair. He protested about the choice because he was 195 cm tall, but it was only loaner car available.
Curiously, I wanted to check out the driver’s seat and rear seat, but I barely managed to get onto the driver’s seat as I am 205 cm tall. Getting in to the rear seat was no go for me. (Before you mouth off that I ought not drive smaller cars, I have no problem with the original British Leyland Mini and the first generation (BMW) MINI as well as Volkswagen Polo that my mum drives).
Three days later, the service centre swapped the CLA 180 for E 200. That gladdened my father who viewed the CLA as a torture chamber…
I had a CLA show up as an uber once and found it to be the least adequate car for that job I’d ever seen.
I have no opinion about the CLA, as I’ve never driven one, but I’m not about to mouth off about anything to a 6’9” Viking.
Man, I always thought these things were absolutely hideous. The curved character line makes the whole car look droopy, like it was left out in the sun, the tiny gunslit windows make the proportions positively comical. I also just strongly dislike pretty much all Mercedes styling since the W140 so… I guess there we go.
If I were to point to a car that directly inspired the majority of fastback sedans (I refuse to call them coupes), I would say it’s the Audi A7. What an absolutely phenomenal design that nailed every aspect of what it was trying to be and still looks fresh today, unlike the pinched rear end and hideous lighting and goofy proportions of the original CLS.
Bingo. I could never bring myself to like the CLS, or really any of the other cars from other makes that its design inspired – except the A7. Even though the loss of practically of these silly coupe-sedan things drives me nuts, I have to admit that Audi absolutely nailed the design of the A7.
Agreed, always hated the way these look. Love your channel by the way jake.
One criticism I remember reading back in the day: “It looks like it’s melting”
Now, I couldn’t remember what this melty car was called, because I can’t be bothered with alphanumerics, but I don’t have to care now because it’s going away! Will not be missed.
Unfortunately, the reason I was trying to remember this thing was the Hyundai Ioniq 6 articles last month, because that one’s even more melted. The horror will never end.
Sorry but no CLS styling discussion is complete without a mention of Ford Australia’s AU Falcon, which predated the CLS by half a decade:
Ford really should’ve sold the Falcon over here instead of the shitty Panthers
Best part about the Falcon: after 999999 km, the odometer rolls over to zero 😀
This one is from an EL, but the AU probably does it, too.
Why doesn’t everyone make it roll over? Most digital odometers stay at 999999 once they get to a million miles or km. WTF?
I won’t tolerate panther slander, and I wont tolerate anybody saying the AU falcon is good looking. Love falcons, but boy oh boy did they ever design those in Ford’s awkward years. I think of the bizarre OVAL taurus whenever I see one an AU. The panther platform …mostly… avoided Fords outlandish designs of the time.
I remember when the CLS was new and it was quite unlike anything else at the time. Looking at it now, it’s pretty tame compared to all the other genre bending “coupes” it influenced. I’d even argue that the 6th gen Sonata that it most immediately inspired did the fast back sedan look better and was perhaps more influential, putting that four door coupe style in the hands of far more people than the Benz ever could.
These days though, that rakish roofline is almost mandatory and has been taken to the extreme by SUVs, to the point that even the CLS looks very traditional. The four door coupe roofline now just registers as a normal sedan.
And as I said on The Drive, once the AMG GT 4 Door(what a graceful name) made its debut, I knew the CLS had to be on borrowed time. The two are damn near identical and both ride on the same platform, but the AMG could fetch a much higher price. Seemed like a no brainer to kill the OG and I’m surprised it took this long to take it behind the shed.
I was always told that shooting brakes had two doors.
And while the slope of that wagon’s windows is undeniably distinctive, that D pillar makes it look to me like a hearse.
I remember when Mercedes or a dealer had a dark red first gen parked outside Playhouse In The Park (a theater in Eden Park Cincinnati) and it was stunning, there was both else like it, especially from Mercedes. Nowadays, boy has that first gen aged poorly
The original looks like a Hyundai now, which is the fault of the Sonata rather than Mercedes, but I always thought the second gen CLS was a much better design.