After just a few hours behind the wheel of the 2019 Mercedes-AMG CLS53, I'm bereft of complaint. Along winding Spanish roads, the AMG-tuned CLS is a formidable performer, with gobs of power and fantastic poise. It's also incredibly comfortable, with one of the finest interiors in the business today, complimented by a smattering of onboard tech. And did I mention it looks absolutely killer?
Yet just 24 hours after driving the AMG CLS53 in Barcelona, I'm at the Mercedes-Benz stand at the 2018 Geneva Motor Show, listening to the sound of jaws hitting the floor as the new is unveiled to the assembled press. It looks a lot like the AMG CLS, yet somehow even more impressive. It's about the same size as the CLS, too, but with a full hatchback for even better functionality. There's even an AMG GT 53 model, with the same engine -- and same performance specs -- as the CLS53.
Well, this is awkward.
Depending on how you look it, the AMG CLS53 is either suddenly irrelevant, or a sort of bargain take on the AMG GT 53, which is expected to command several thousand dollars more than the equivalent CLS. For the sake of this review, I'll take the latter, optimistic route. Make no mistake, there's a ton to like about the AMG CLS53 package.
Easy on the eyes
The modern "four-door coupe" styling trend can most accurately be attributed to the original Mercedes CLS. And while I'm still going to call it a sedan -- because it is -- that coupe-like rakishness is perhaps in its best form on this 2019 model. Everyone compliments the original CLS for its incredible design, but to my eyes, this new model is the best-looking version to date. Don't @ me.
The AMG 53 sets itself apart from lesser CLS models with a redesigned grille featuring a black lattice pattern, prominent three-pointed star and AMG-specific two-bar crosshair. The CLS53 also gets unique side air curtains, optional 20-inch wheels, a rear lip spoiler and quad exhaust tips. It all looks perfectly cohesive, like the CLS was designed to be an AMG from the start.
The 2019 CLS introduces Mercedes' new mild hybrid powertrain to US customers -- it launched in Europe last year on the S-Class. A new 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six engine forms the basis for this powerplant, with the addition of Mercedes' new EQ Boost system, comprised of a 48-volt battery that acts as a starter-alternator. In addition to supplying power for the car's auxiliary electronics, EQ Boost has two primary functions: offering supplemental torque to reduce turbo lag, and allowing the engine to disconnect from the transmission while coasting at speed.
Mercedes will offer a CLS450 with either rear- or all-wheel drive, but thanks to a hellacious series of weather- and maintenance-related air travel mishaps (ask me about it over a beer sometime), I can't tell you much about that model just yet. What I can tell you is that a detuned version of the 3.0-liter inline six produces 362 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque in that application, with the same 48-volt EQ Boost system on tap for additional grunt.
In the AMG, the 3.0-liter engine is good for 429 horsepower and 384 pound-feet of torque, with the EQ Boost motor offering an additional 21 horsepower and 184 pound-feet. Combining the two results in instantaneous and unrelenting off-the-line power delivery; Mercedes estimates the CLS53 can sprint to 60 miles per hour in a scant 4.4 seconds -- half a second quicker than today's V8-powered CLS550. Transitions between engine and electric operation at speed are imperceptible. Engine decoupling and start-up are seamless, the EQ Boost motor providing adequate power during the split-second gap between your foot hitting the throttle and the inline-six firing back up.
Engine "sailing" occurs more frequently in the standard Comfort driving mode, with Sport and Sport+ keeping the engine on boil as often as possible. The standard air suspension delivers a comfortable and compliant ride quality, one that keeps body motions to a minimum. Mercedes' 4Matic+ all-wheel drive is standard on the AMG CLS53, with a rear-biased torque split. But even on rainy stretches of pavement, it's hard to unsettle this slick sedan.
The CLS53 is easily controlled, with nicely weighted, instantly responsive steering. Turn-in is crisp, and there's a tossable nature to the four-door AMG while negotiating back-and-forth Spanish esses. The CLS53 comes with Mercedes' Active Steering Assist, as well, which can take over for the driver during short stints when the Distronic adaptive cruise control is activated -- great for boring stretches of open highway. Additionally, the Active Lane Change Assist can move the CLS into a different lane automatically when Active Steering Assist is activated.
That's just one part of a whole heap of driver assistance tech that's available on the 2019 CLS53. It's the same suite of helpful technologies that debuted on the face-lifted S-Class last year, including Active Blind Spot Assist, Active Lane Keeping Assist, the Pre-Safe suite of collision safety tech and more.
Pretty on the inside
Nice as the CLS53 is to drive, sitting behind the wheel is enjoyable even when stopped. This is a wonderful interior, with design and materials on par with what Mercedes-Benz offers in its flagship.
Up front, you'll recognize the pair of 12.3-inch high-resolution displays from the redesigned E- and S-Class models. Both have reconfigurable elements, with different color and graphic themes. The left screen acts as a gauge cluster and can show other vehicle data, while the right display is where you'll find Mercedes' COMAND infotainment system. The right screen can be controlled by a large touchpad or circular knob in the center console, but I prefer to use the thumb pads on either side of the steering wheel. After a few minutes of practice, you'll be thumbing your way through screens and menus with ease, and this tech lets you keep your hands at nine and three, where they belong.
The CLS53 gets an AMG-specific, thick-rimmed, leather-wrapped, flat-bottomed steering wheel, as well as model-specific seat upholstery and carbon fiber trim. Like the E-Class, a choice of 64 ambient light colors are available inside the cabin, and there's even backlighting inside the very spiffy and stylized air vents. As comfy and sumptuous as this interior is at all times, it is perhaps best enjoyed at dusk, with warm lighting accenting the curves of the doors and dashboard.
Front passengers are treated to spacious accommodations, with ample headroom and plenty of space between the chairs. But as you'd expect, the CLS' coupe-like roofline isn't so friendly in the back, where rear seat headroom suffers. Legroom is still in good supply, so taller passengers won't be too put out back there. Just tell them to slouch.
For the first time, the CLS will offer seating for five, with three seatbelts across the rear bench. In fact, that might be the CLS' only practical advantage over the forthcoming AMG GT 53, which will only be available in four-passenger configuration in the US. Even so, I don't think three-abreast rear seating will be a huge priority for the vast majority of CLS buyers.
AMG vs. AMG
Indeed, the CLS53's most obvious competitor will be found in the same showroom. Mercedes knows there's going to be some overlap here, and in fact, it's why the company isn't planning to do a CLS63 -- why bother when that awesome new AMG GT 63 exists?
2019 CLS-Class pricing should start around $75,000 to $80,000 when it goes on sale later this year, with the AMG CLS53 positioned closer to six figures. The AMG GT 53 will likely command a few thousand bucks more than that, and I can see a lot of well-heeled customers happily shelling out extra cash for the privilege of owning something a bit more special. For the rest, the CLS450 -- which also uses the EQ Boost 3.0-liter I6, looks just as ace and comes with the same smattering of bells and whistles -- might be good enough.
It's hard to make a clear case for the CLS53, and that's a shame. This car is such a sweetheart -- a fine example of four-door coupe style, and proof that electrification does not hamper the on-road prowess I've come to expect from Mercedes' latest crop of AMGs. It has the potential to become lost in a sea of excellent choices, but for those who seek it out, there's great reward to be had.
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