Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Driven #41:- Mercedes CLS 350CGi

A customer of ours lives in a beautiful, detatched 1930s house in a leafy part of Berkshire. It’s on a big plot, has glorious period details and a spacious interior layout. It’s, basically, my dream house; except for the small detail that it’s being demolished later this year.

A wealthy man, he has decided that, as nice as his house is, he could do better. He owns the land, so he can choose what to put on it; probably some identikit catalogue mansion, straight out of Footballers Wives. Sadly, as much as the old adage rings true not to fix what ain’t broke, sometimes change for the sake of change is inevitable. So to the Mercedes-Benz CLS.

The old-style CLS was a high water mark in recent Mercedes-Benz desirability. Love it or hate it, it looked like nothing else on the road and opened the doors to customers based on looks and image alone. As you’d expect, the same instantly recognisable basic silhouette has been retained by its replacement, but with a new face and arse grafted on. The face, I have no problem with, the assertive grille is nicely integrated and flows gracefully into the windscreen pillars and beyond. The headlamps are beautifully sculpted and feature pioneering LED technology and complement a nose section which, viewed off axis, tips its hat to the current Audi TT. 

The rump is slightly more problematic, the lamps awkwardly intersect the bootlid shut-line, a treatment like found on the CL might have been more elegant, but the most irksome bit is where, as seen on the E-Class saloon, the rear flanks bulge upwards in the manner of the “Ponton” saloons of the ‘50s. It just sits a little uneasily with the swage line that flows from above the front wheelarches and, at the intersection, there’s an awful lot happening on the passenger doors. The CLS is best observed from a low front three-quarter perspective, from which it’s a svelte and handsome beast.

 The new shape CLS has so far generally been a sales success for Mercedes-Benz, and a lot of the responsibility for this good start is down to it being based on the E-Class chassis, a platform that returned M-B to the premier league among driver-focussed cars in the sector.

Here we must differentiate between a drivers car and a driver-focussed car, the CLS is the latter. BMWs, by and large, fall into the former category; they’re all about entertaining the driver while the passengers come along for the ride or, in some cases, hang on for dear life. Most Jaguars come under the latter description, the driver gets to share the same cosseting surroundings as his guests, but the car still offers enough of a degree of mischief to entertain when it’s in called to.

The CLS was always this way, and still is. It has a superb passenger compartment with twin individual rear seats and reasonable legroom. The chopped roof limits the headroom, but the high beltline and slim windows make for a secure, snug time in the rear seats. They help you to feel involved, too, with the work being done up front.

Here, the driver sits behind the best Mercedes dashboard for several years. The cluster of inset dials straight ahead form a subtle arc around the driver, purposeful and cockpit-like. The Navigation screen is ideally positioned and the logistics of moving around behind the wheel are made easy, the controls fall to hand and feel tactile and rewarding.

The same minor switchgear as seen on the C and E-Class is in evidence and this earns an insignificant black-mark. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have been given bespoke switchgear like the S-Class? Of course, platform sharing forbade this and the controls themselves are perfectly pleasant and work well enough, but they don’t offer you any more satisfaction in operation than they do in a car costing £20k less.

I always liked the drive of the old car, it had a satisfying weightiness, a feeling of heft that made progress fun at any speed. Although it would shrink around you dimensionally, it always felt like a lot of car. The new one still does, but the sensation is different. Not better, not worse, just different.

It drives like a cross between an E-Class coupe and an E-Class Saloon. I’ve criticised the E-Class coupe before because driving it feels too much like the C-Class saloon with which it shares a platform; very agile, very alert but missing some of the big-car feel that an E-Class should have. The E-Class saloon redresses some of that balance at the cost of a bit of control sensitivity, but also brings with it profound improvements in ride quality.

In the new CLS you have, sort of, the best of both worlds; some of the stately ride of the E-Class saloon combined with the vitality of the C and E Coupe. And really, that should be one hell of a recipe, but yet part of me still misses the old car. It just cocooned and soothed its occupants in a way the new one doesn’t. It’s only a tiny, incremental difference, but it’s there.

The engines, though, are good news from beginning to end. At the top of the range is a new ensmallened AMG V8, down to 5.5 litres now but twin-turbocharged. It’ll be ages until I get to try the CLS63, so I may as well stop talking about it now. More relevant are the CLS500, the CLS350 CDi and this car, the CLS350 CGi.

It’s an unusual spec, this car. In standard trim rather than Sport, with gentler springing, Xenon headlamps rather than the LED ones, and with a six cylinder petrol engine rather than a V8 or a diesel. This country doesn’t look kindly towards V8 cars; fuel prices rule ownership out unless you have the word Sheikh somewhere in your name so diesel is increasingly becoming the default for large cars. We tend to queue at the pumps among the Transits and Scanias out of necessity, not preference.

So the 350 petrol can be rather overlooked. It costs the same to buy as the diesel car, falls into the same tax bracket, and is (on paper) only 6mpg down while having forty extra horsepower.

It’s rather a nice engine, too. Quoted acceleration from its 306hp is 6.1 seconds to sixty, with the usual electronically nannied 155mph top end. It doesn’t really feel all that fast behind the wheel, to be honest, but it’s an expressively voiced unit and appears to enjoy being worked. The same engine is used in the SLK sports car, and in the CLS it’s burdened with rather more work to do, but it feels willing and has sufficient performance for all but the most greedy. Problem is, if you spend all your time chasing the needle around the tach, it feels like it’s going to wreak havoc with your fuel economy.

Unfortunately for the petrol unit, the diesel car feels just as quick, in fact even more so because you surf on a wave of torque until well into three figures, it all feels so effortless and is accompanied by a manly thrum from the refined V6. And you get the sensation, too, that this is all being done while drinking derv with relative parsimony. The diesel makes for a fabulously relaxed long-haul drive because the 620nm of torque (damn near double that of the petrol car) is always available for wrecking-ball overtaking urge. By comparison you’d have to scream the petrol engine right around the rev-counter to keep up. Of course, being a diesel you run out of useable revs at around four thousand; but you’re not bothered on the motorway.

Switch onto the A591 in Cumbria or the A133 in Essex, and the petrol car makes its keynote speech. Where the diesel is all about brute straight-line force, the petrol thrives when the throttle is fed in and the power modulated on a curve-by-curve basis. It can be driven with sensitivity that the diesel can’t. In real terms you’re probably not covering ground any quicker, but the sensory experience is far richer; it feels more hands-on, more analogue.

Also, the diesel weighs a full 80kg more than the petrol, and you really feel this in the corners when you’re trying to track the nose from apex to apex. Combine this with the all-or-nothing power delivery and you soon find yourself throttling back and re-entering the relaxation zone, wishing you were back on the motorway in your beautifully refined bubble.

In sheer driveability, really, the 350CGi is probably the best car from the CLS stable aside from the specialist AMG, and even that car is likely to be saddled with punch-in-the-balls ride quality and F-15-on-take-off tyre roar. Yet it’s inevitable that the smaller engine will remain underground, unsung, recognised only by those-who-know. The company car buyers will still go for the diesel, the wealthy and performance-crazed will go for the AMG or the 500.

This leaves the 350 CGi to be enjoyed by that increasingly rare breed; the buyer who isn’t lead by hype and knows a good thing when he sees it.