The 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 is one of the sleekest car designs on the road. You might mistake it for a big drop of liquid mercury flowing down the highway. Mercedes-Benz did an excellent job maintaining a low, nicely curved roof and molding the rear fenders into its sides. If you don't want people stopping to admire your car, the CLS550 is not for you.
As an update of one of Mercedes-Benz's big sedans, the CLS550 sports a new engine making its way down the lineup of all Mercedes-Benz 550-designated cars, a direct-injection V-8 with twin turbos. This engine, and a new seven-speed automatic, combine for surprisingly good fuel economy. The car also comes standard with an air suspension, giving it one of the most comfortable rides around.
Mercedes-Benz has done a lot of work on driver assistance electronics, and the CLS550 serves as a showcase for these innovative technologies. The cabin tech suite features very good navigation and stereo, but in this area the company doesn't push the envelope. Mercedes-Benz shies away from the kind of application integration currently coming into vogue.
Luxury ride, sound
Two things make the CLS550 a luxury ride par excellence: its air suspension and the Harman Kardon 14-speaker surround-sound system. Although it's over $70 grand, you won't find a car at this price with a better ride. Bumps and rough asphalt are beneath the notice of the CLS550. If the princess who famously felt a pea underneath 20 mattresses were to ride in the CLS550, she would drift off into a deep sleep.
Add to that extremely comfortable ride the beautifully detailed music produced by the Harman Kardon audio system. From its speakers, you can easily hear every percussive snap and guitar string strum. Horns and vocals come through with incredibly rich quality. High notes from this system can get too shrill, and sustained trumpet notes can become painful. Bass, however, is very well-controlled.
The stereo allows about every audio source you could want. Mercedes-Benz adds Bluetooth audio streaming to its roster, which also includes iPod integration, the car's own hard drive, and HD Radio. There is even a PC card slot, an odd little anachronism. But Mercedes-Benz has not jumped on the app bandwagon yet, so there is no Pandora or Internet radio integration.
At this level of luxury, heated and cooled power seats with memory settings are, of course, standard. And available for the driver is a massage seat with active bolstering. This massage function uses air pockets in the seat, which are not as effective as rollers, but still quite decadent.
Further enhancing the driving experience is a nice set of assistance features. Mercedes-Benz for some time has offered adaptive cruise control, which adjusts the car's speed to match that of traffic ahead. This system works very well, letting you drive for many miles in light to moderate traffic without touching the gas or brake pedals. We have even seen it bring the car to a complete stop as traffic ahead stopped.
A blind-spot detection feature lights up a red triangle in the side mirrors, to warn of cars to the sides of the CLS550. That triangle flashes and a warning tone sounds if you activate the turn signal. In the CLS550 Mercedes-Benz also offers its night vision feature, which turns the instrument cluster into a longer view of the road ahead than you can see unaided.
And new for the CLS550 is a lane departure warning and drift prevention system. This system tracks the lane lines, showing an icon in the instrument cluster when it is active. If you drift over a lane line without signaling or actively steering, it vibrates the wheel and sounds a warning tone. Continue to drift and it slightly brakes the offside wheels, causing the car to arrest the drift. When it activates, it feels as if the car is quickly rotating back into the lane, with enough movement to wake up dozing drivers.
CNET's car came equipped with LED headlights, part of a $4,390 package that also includes an iPod interface. These headlights projected well-defined bright beams similar to HID headlights. They track with the steering angle, lighting up corners.
The CLS550's air suspension can be switched to Sport mode, which stiffens the suspension a bit. But the car still feels heavy and leans in hard cornering. The air suspension is not as good for sport driving as magnetic suspension systems, which can constantly adjust the stiffness at each wheel in response to the road and driving conditions.