The battle between the head and the heart-the analytical and romantic sides of our nature-is an eternal one. But in the car business, emotion sells cars to private individuals as effectively as numbers do to fleet managers.
In the late '90s, the designers at Mercedes looked at the four-door car and asked themselves what it might have in the 21st century. The answer resulted in a rewrite of the book that said this type of car had to be upright and staid. Taking the underpinnings of the then-new W211 E-Class and putting them through a Clark Kent-to-Superman act, what emerged from the design studio was the sleek Vision CLS concept car that stole the show at Frankfurt in 2003.
Since then, the world of four-doors has continued to change, and it seems the CLS was a catalyst of that change. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then VW's Passat CC is an unashamed CLS clone, albeit downmarket. And how did the Mercedes designers react to the fact that the CLS is now being challenged in the style stakes by new blood like the A7 Sportback and the forthcoming BMW four-door coupe? What would the second-generation CLS have to do to make an equally good living in the second decade of the 21st century?
The 2010 model year CLS would have to stand out from the crowd today as well as its namesake did in its debut year. The new car is better resolved as an overall concept, and much more sophisticated in the design vocabulary used in its detailing. Yet at the same time it appears all the more contrived for it.
Its nose treatment is very SLS-like and is probably the most aggressive face on any current saloon, perhaps even more so than the Maserati Quattroporte in this respect. This new face features the option of the first all-LED headlamps on any production car. This five-function Intelligent Lighting System with Adaptive High Beam Assist, which only dips the light closest to oncoming traffic, is also the most complex looking headlamp on the market.
The new car's more muscular stance is strengthened by wide tracks, which push the wheels close to the edge of the arches. Despite the more fussy body detailing, the aerodynamicists have done a good job in airflow management and the Cd of 0.26 is an improvement.
The new interior shows the evolutionary thought process was applied to the cabin too. As with the exterior, the cabin architecture is smart casual to the E-Class' formal and more upright idioms. Both in form and material look and feel, the CLS interior is more special, less obviously mass-produced. Of course as with all Mercedes models, there are different levels of trim that can be specified.
Both test cars were part of the limited edition launch series featuring matte gray paintwork and a unique Designo interior. These cars looked and felt very complete, with stitched leather on the dashboard top roll and black piano wood trim. The new three-spoke sports steering wheel also feels good in the hands.
Of equal importance is the extra cabin room. Although I'm just five and a half feet tall, I have always found the original CLS cabin rather claustrophobic. The new car is 20 mm wider in front and 30 mm wider in the rear, with a taller roofline. This extra room makes all the difference, while the reshaped doors also make it easier to get in and out.
On paper, the specification of the new-generation M276 3.5-liter V6 quad-cam motor could be mistaken for the Sport version of the outgoing M272 used in the SLK350 and 2008-onwards SL350. This is because both have output of 301 hp at 6500 rpm, although the new direct-injection motor in the CLS350 BlueEfficiency has 273 lb-ft of torque from 3500 to 5270 rpm compared to 258 lb-ft at 4,900 rpm from the M272 "Sport" motor.