2013 Mercedes-Benz CLS 63 AMG review: Effortlessly fast sedan saddled with slow tech

The AMG button does not affect the CLS' traction control system, but you can quickly select a Sport Handling mode with the tap of a button, to loosen the computer's reins over the rear axle, or turn traction control completely off by holding the same button for a few moments. Not that it matters on public roads, because the CLS 63 AMG's performance envelope is so large that you'd have to be driving like an absolute loon to get anywhere near the point where the default traction control system would have to intervene.

19-inch wheel
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The Performance Package also upgrades the brakes and suspension. Josh Miller/CNET

Our tester was also equipped with the optional Limited Slip Differential, further increasing grip on the rear axle, and 19-inch forged wheels shod in sticky 255/35 ZR19 tires up front and wider 285/30s out back.

Rounding a sweeping bend on one of my favorite mountain passes at well over the posted limit, the CLS 63 AMG just gripped and gripped; the active bolstering on the optional Premium Package seats gently holding me in place as if the car were saying, "It's cool; I've got you. Go ahead and push just little harder."

Perhaps this car isn't about outright speed and sporting performance -- there are smaller, nimbler cars that will probably get around a racetrack faster and for less money to boot -- but everything about the CLS 63 AMG conspires to make me feel confident in both my abilities as a driver and the vehicle's ability to effortlessly deliver what I ask of it. It's designed for the road, but it's designed to such excess that most drivers will never find the limits of that on-road performance.

Seat adjustment button
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Optional Active Bolstering holds the driver in place when rounding a bend. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

What's more, the CLS makes remarkably few compromises to deliver such performance. You can switch the gearbox and suspension into their most comfortable settings, crank up the heated, massaging seats, and relax for the highway cruise home from your favorite twisty road or, better still, track.

Confusing Comand and superslow apps
If the CLS has an Achilles' heel, it's cabin technology. Where comfort tech is concerned, this sedan does fairly well -- particularly when equipped with the optional Premium Package that adds the aforementioned heated and ventilated front seats with massage and active bolstering for the driver, as well as a rearview camera, adaptive high beams with full LED headlamps, keyless entry and start, and an electronic trunk closer.

However, the Comand infotainment system is showing its age. OK, "showing its age" is perhaps a bit of an understatement. Let's pull no punches and call this dashboard interface simply outdated.

The performance is sluggish -- though a decent voice command system allows the driver to shortcut around some of the worst bits, when the system understands what you're saying -- but most heinously, the interface has simply grown too cluttered, disorganized, and at times downright arcane. There are navigation bars along the top and the bottom of the screen with so many levels and sublevels of options and feature organization that even switching the currently playing audio source becomes a touch- and eye-intensive process involving digging into at least two submenus of the Audio screen.

It's not all bad, though. The standard Harman Kardon surround audio system sounds pretty good -- although, not nearly as good as the exhaust note -- and the hard-drive-based navigation is pretty snappy once you get a trip under way and will automatically prompt to reroute around traffic it finds a faster way to your destination. The list of audio sources is also respectable, including Bluetooth hands-free calling and audio streaming, satellite radio, standard USB/iPod connectivity, and a portion of the hard drive dedicated to storing ripped digital audio. There's also DVD audio/video playback when parked.

Mercedes-Benz Apps
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Mercedes-Benz Apps is one of the most frustrating infotainment systems that I've tested. Josh Miller/CNET

Perhaps the worst offender is the Mercedes-Benz Apps suite of connected features, which has left a bad taste in my mouth when I tested the system previously in the Mercedes-Benz SL550 Convertible . This system includes apps for Yelp, which enables Web-connected destination search with user-generated ratings and reviews; Facebook timeline reading, update posting, and event address navigation; and Google Local destination search with Street View and Photos. There is also a news reader that reads the latest headlines for a variety of topics in that robotic text-to-speech voice.

Entering the Mercedes-Benz Apps interface triggers an excruciatingly slow loading screen, while the apps -- which are presented in a completely separate and mostly unique interface -- are loaded. You could pull over, get your smartphone out, and Google a destination before the Benz could even get to the apps menu. Even when you're connected, the downloads of the requested data are too slow to be really useful.

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The system shows promise, particularly the Yelp destination search with ratings, but it's just too slow. Josh Miller/CNET

To make use of the Facebook and Google features the Apps system requires you to sign in to both with not just your username and password, but also your street address. This wouldn't be so bad if you weren't forced to input this data with the Comand controller, which is ill-suited to long strings of character input. Inputting my complex Facebook password, which uses special characters and alphanumerics for security, took about 3 minutes of twisting and tapping that knob. You'll understand why I didn't even bother inputting my Google password.

Fortunately something better is coming. I was able to test the next generation of Mercedes-Benz Apps, which offloads the apps and the data connectivity to a connected iPhone, at Google I/O 2013. It's much more responsive, it's better integrated with the rest of the Comand interface, and it features predictive text input for destinations, which should minimize the time you spend tweaking the control knob. If you're sold on the CLS, but are looking for a high-tech dashboard (and happen to be an iPhone user), I'd suggest that you cool your heels and wait for the 2014 version of this ride.

In sum
Here's normally where I get into the nuts and bolts of whether the car is worth the money the automaker is asking -- whether it's a good value or not. But at a price of $113,715 as tested, the 2013 Mercedes-Benz CLS 63 AMG and the word "value" have no business in the same sentence. No, people in the market for a car like the CLS 63 don't need to be sold on whether the sedan is a "good deal" -- this isn't a Hyundai Equus that we're talking about -- they just need to know that they're getting a 100 grand's worth of car.

The CLS 63 AMG is definitely a 100 grand's worth of car. As I said earlier, it makes remarkably few compromises in its quest to be the best. The performance is fantastic, both in a straight line and around a bend. The comfort and luxury amenities are top-notch. However, the dashboard tech perhaps stretches just a bit further than its aging platform is capable of, which hurt the sedan's star rating significantly in our tech-heavy scoring system. I'd almost rather see fewer features in a more responsive, simpler interface than the 2013 CLS' poorly organized, sluggish Comand system and Mercedes-Benz Apps.

2013 Mercedes-Benz CLS 63 AMG
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The CLS 63 AMG is an amazing ride, but its clunky, outdated tech sours the experience. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Techies could wait for the 2014 CLS to update its dashboard, but by then BMW's 2014 M6 Gran Coupe will be here, crowding Mercedes-Benz's space and providing a strong performance and comfort alternative along with that automaker's fantastic cabin tech suite.

Tech specs
Model 2013 Mercedes-Benz CLS
Trim CLS 63 AMG
Power train 5.5-liter bi-turbo V-8, 8-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive
EPA fuel economy 16 city, 25 highway, 19 combined mpg
Observed fuel economy n/a
Navigation Standard, HDD-based with traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Disc player Single-slot DVD
MP3 player support Standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod connection
Other digital audio SiriusXM Satellite Radio, hard-drive storage
Audio system Harman Kardon Logic 7 surround system, standard
Driver aids Optional rear camera, optional Parktronic front and rear distance sensors
Base price $95,900
Price as tested $113,715

What you'll pay

Pricing is currently unavailable.

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