2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550: Introduction
Redesigning an automotive icon is probably not very easy for automakers, but the task is likely even more difficult when the styling of the car is unique and helped spawn a new niche segment. This is the challenge that was facing Mercedes-Benz when it was time to update its sleek CLS-Class. All new for 2012, the Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class reinvents the unique four-door coupe styling that has inspired a wide range of similar designs from affordable cars like the Volkswagen CC and Hyundai Sonata to high-end cars like the Aston Martin Rapide. After spending a week in the 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 for this road test and review, it is clear that Mercedes-Benz was able to give this car more aggressive styling, improved luxury and faster performance without sacrificing its signature roofline.
Assembled in Germany, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 is on sale now at your local Mercedes-Benz dealership with a starting MSRP of $71,300 – a surprising drop of $2,700 in price compared to the previous model. Despite a lower starting price, the vehicle used for this review added plenty of optional equipment raising the as-tested price to $80,995. While that price actually sits much closer to the Mercedes-Benz S-Class rather than the related E-Class, buyers of this car are most likely drawn to the sleek coupe-like styling instead of the interior space of a more conventional four-door.
2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 Review: Exterior
The sloping roofline and small side windows were the signature styling elements of the first-generation CLS-Class, so Mercedes-Benz kept these lines in tact while adding its latest design language that can also be seen on the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG supercar and the all-new Mercedes-Benz SLK-Class roadster. Most of the styling of the 2012 CLS-Class was actually inspired by the 2012 Mercedes-Benz Shooting Break Concept, but a sloped rear window and short decklid replace the concept’s station wagon rear end. Like recent additions to the Mercedes line-up, the 2012 CLS550 starts out with a powerful face including angular headlights and a large, upright grille that prominently displays the Mercedes tri-star logo. Not only does the CLS550 come with LED taillights and daytime running lights for a contemporary appearance, this test vehicle was also equipped with full LED headlights as a part of the tech-filled Premium 1 Package for $4,390. Not only do these LED headlights give the car more of a high-tech look, they also feature small cooling fans that divert the added heat away from the LED lighting units and act as a defroster for the headlight lenses in colder weather. Mercedes prides itself on the free-standing door mirrors of the new CLS, but this may be the only awkward design feature of this car as they appear too big compared with the small side windows.
While the design of the first-generation CLS-Class relied heavily on the coupe-like window and roof lines, the new car has plenty of styling elements that complement its sporty shape. Compared to the previous design, the biggest changes to the 2012 CLS-Class are noticeable along the side of the car where new body lines help add more character and a more athletic stance. These lines start with a pair of creases in the front fenders that flow back to create the leading edge of the wide rear wheel arches. Even the rear view of the new CLS550 is a stark contrast to its predecessor with more rounded edges and a more pointed shape instead of the squared-off look of the old model. The CLS550 models comes standard with 18-inch, five-spoke alloy wheels, but our test vehicle had optional ($500) staggered-width 19-inch wheels with high performance tires and was finished off in a sporty-looking Storm Red exterior color that made this car even more eye-catching.
2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 Review: Interior and Safety
Mercedes refers to its CLS-Class as a coupe, and nowhere is this more apparent than on the inside starting with the four-passenger seating configuration. Coupes are not often associated with rear-passenger space, but the 2012 CLS-Class has grown a bit to deliver more room for the rear occupants. The rear seats are separated with dual storage consoles and a flip-down center armrest while the cutouts in the front seat seatbacks allow for a comfortable amount of legroom, but the sloping roofline and small side windows leave headroom and visibility lacking. Taller passengers actually have to duck down to see out of the side windows. The frameless door windows help to minimize this problem for front and rear passengers, but reaching out the window from the driver’s seat at a drive-up ATM still proved to be a challenge in flexibility.
Like the exterior, this cabin’s strong point is its style. There is plenty of soft, padded leather around the cabin with rich wood accents, but, being a driver’s car, the highlight of the 2012 CLS-Class starts with the steering wheel. This model had most of its thick rim covered in Burl Walnut trim with the side areas in stitched leather as a $590 option. Peering through the steering wheel are three large gauge pods that relay almost all of the car’s information from trip meter and speedometer info to navigation and audio system functions. Both front passengers also get 14-way adjustments including lumbar support and three-way memory settings while heated and cooled seats are a part of the aforementioned Premium 1 Package. Other equipment in this package includes a power rear sunshade, adaptive highbeam headlights, rearview camera, iPod Media interface, keyless entry and start and a trunk release button that can open and close the trunk from inside the car.
The driver also gets power tilting and telescoping and this car added the Active Multicontour Driver Seat – for an additional $660 – which adds a massage function and adjusts the bolsters in turns to keep the driver in one place. The navigation and audio systems (as well as other vehicle functions) can be adjusted using the COMAND controller found on the center console with all of the information displayed on the display above the center stack. Compared to advance display screens found in other Mercedes-Benz vehicles, it is surprising how small the screen is in this model. Rear-seat passengers are given nice amenities as well with comfortable sport bucket seats and a large center console splitting the seats offer plenty of storage. Other rear-seat options include rear side airbags for $420 and a split folding rear seat for $440. The trunk is actually big enough that this latter feature shouldn’t be required too often, but will probably be helpful on trips with two passengers and lots of luggage.
The all-new 2012 CLS-Class has yet to be crash tested by either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Standard safety features for all 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class models include ten airbags, active front head restraints, electronic brake-force distribution with brake assist, four-wheel anti-lock disc brake system, tire pressure monitoring system, daytime running lights, Attention Assist (driver drowsiness monitor) traction control and Electronic Stability Program.
2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 Review: Performance
Despite the “550” designation in its name, the 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 is actually powered by a 4.6-liter V-8 that uses direct injection and twin turbochargers to produce 402 horsepower and 443 lb-ft of torque. When pushed hard, the engine lets out a ferocious growl, but it quiets down in normal driving making it sound more like a refined luxury sedan than a powerful sport sedan. With torque hitting its peak at just 1,800 rpm up through 4,750 rpm, the CLS550 offers quick acceleration that keeps pulling at just about any speed, and paired with the seven-speed automatic transmission, shifts are smooth and precise. The EPA has yet to announce official fuel economy estimates for the 2012 CLS550, but Mercedes-Benz expects it to return 16 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway which is an improvement over the 2011 CLS550 which was rated at 14 mpg city and 21 mpg highway. After driving more than 300 miles in mixed driving, this test vehicle showed just under 20 mpg including plenty of acceleration tests. Mercedes-Benz claims that the CLS550 can run from zero to 60 miles per hour in just 5.1 seconds, and we found this to be easily achievable regardless of whether or not the gearbox was in Sport mode.
Drivers looking for all-out performance from the CLS will want to check out the new CLS63 AMG, but the CLS550 still delivers an exhilarating ride without giving up a smooth, comfortable ride. In normal driving, the CLS550 can be reserved and gentile, but stomp on the gas pedal and the car can make some cars in this price range envious. The driver can choose from an economy mode or a sport mode for the transmission and engine response and the car also has a height-adjustable air suspension. For improved handling, the CLS550 comes with large brakes (including perforated front rotors) and an electro hydraulic, speed-sensitive steering system which both give great feedback and control to the driver. At the end of the day, the CLS550 feels much sportier than the closely related E550 sedan thanks to better power-to-weight ratio from the more powerful engine and almost the same curb weight.
The electric power steering also allow the 2012 CLS550 to offer some advanced optional features such as the $850 Lane Tracking Package which alerts the driver with a slight steering wheel vibration (in similar fashion to hitting a rumblestrip on the shoulder of the road) if he or she starts to veer into another lane, and applies the brakes slightly if the driver does not correct to keep the car in its lane. If for some reason drowsiness is causing the driver to veer, the CLS550 can monitor the driver’s alertness and give visual and audible warnings to wake the driver up or get him or her to pull off the road for some rest.
2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 Review: Summary
When it came time to redesign the stylish and trend-setting Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class for 2012, Mercedes-Benz not only to recreate the unique styling of its four-door coupe, but it was also able to design a car that was more lavish with more technology and, surprisingly, a lower starting price. New-car buyers considering a new Mercedes-Benz CLS550 should still be ready to make a few compromises, but styling, power and luxury are not on this list. More conservative tastes will likely find other Mercedes sedans as sufficient alternatives, while those looking to stand apart from other luxury vehicles will be hard-pressed to find anything more alluring or revolutionary than the 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550.
The CLS-Class was the originator of the current four-door coupe segment spawning rivals like the Audi A7, Infiniti M and Jaguar XF while also nipping at the heels of higher priced cars like the Aston Martin Rapide and Maserati Quattroporte. Even BMW is about to enter this market with its upcoming 6 Series GT. From the moment the Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class hit the scene in 2004, competitors have been trying to mimic this exquisite design, and while the saying goes that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there is probably nothing more flattering to the original design than the sleeker, more athletic design of the 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class.
Pros – new styling redefines the four-door coupe look; lower starting MSRP; surprising performance; exquisite cabin materials and technology
Cons – small navigation display; cramped rear seating; small window openings limit visibility
Mercedes-Benz provided the vehicle this road test review
Photos by Jeffrey N. Ross