I don't care what Mercedes-Benz says on its Web site or even on the spec sheet affixed to the window, the 2013 CLS 63 AMG is not a coupe. Streamlined roofline or not, the car that rumbled into the Car Tech garage this week has four doors and a discrete trunk. That, my dear friends in the Mercedes-Benz marketing department, makes it a sedan.
Now, that's not to say that it's not a handsome sedan. The CLS is a fine-looking set of wheels when viewed from most angles, hiding the increased bulk necessitated by the big sedan's fairly spacious cabin with muscular sculpting and sporty proportions.
However, I'm not a fan of the profile, which looks a bit too, well, fat. Mercedes wanted this generation of CLS to have more headroom on the back row, so it's raised the roof line, demolishing any bit of coupelike profile that the previous generation had. The new model also features a B-pillar, where the outgoing chassis boasted a trick pillarless side glass treatment.
Interior styling pulls off a trick that only Mercedes-Benz can: being gaudy and bold, but in an understated way. The design is decidedly Benz. That means that, at least in photographs, there's not much visual difference between the cabin of the $95,900 CLS 63 AMG and that of a much less expensive. In person, however, the difference boils down to much better materials throughout the cabin -- not just at the touch points -- more metal, less plastic, and better isolation from the elements.
That the long-wheelbase CLS offers more shoulder room up front, and more legroom in its spacious back row, doesn't hurt either.
Power, responsiveness, and comfort: the CLS 63 AMG is a car that does everything right...which it should, for a base price of nearly $100K.
The CLS 63 AMG's hood swings wide to an absurd 90-degree angle, giving a clearish view of the 5.5-liter bi-turbo V-8 engine's optional carbon fiber cover, part of our vehicle's AMG Performance Package. That package also includes an AMG Sport steering wheel and -- most importantly -- a boost in power and torque. As equipped, our tester boasted 550 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque; its top speed limiter has also been raised to an insane-for-public-roads 186 mph.
Even from within the CLS' quiet cabin, the engine sounds amazing -- its low rumble palpable at idle, growing to an epic howl that complements the G-forces that pressed me into the sport bucket seat with a strong stab at the accelerator. Power delivery is predictable, linear, and, unless you catch the gearbox lazing in its top cruising gear, immediate.
However, this isn't the sort of car where you'll spend much time at full throttle; your driver's license simply wouldn't survive it. When making my regular performance-driving loop, I had the misfortune of getting stuck on a two-lane road behind a guy putting along at 10 mph below the posted limit. When the solid center line went dotted and I was clear to pass, I gave the CLS 63 AMG the full beans and was amazed by how quickly the speedometer swung into the triple digits. I honestly hadn't meant to reach those speeds, but the AMG not only reached them quickly, but also effortlessly. The rush was exhilarating, but not necessarily terrifying.
The shifter for the eight-speed automatic gearbox is an odd electronic unit that returns to center after you push it forward for reverse or pull it back to enter drive -- sort of like the', but with a more satisfying "thunk" signaling that you've selected your direction of travel. To park the vehicle, you push a small, almost-hidden, rectangular P button just ahead of the lever.
Gear changes from the automatic happen quickly enough when in its default Comfort mode, though the CLS 63 AMG changes ratios with more of the casual effortlessness of a conventional torque converter transmission than the lightning-fast, snap changes of a double-clutch unit. Goose the throttle and the CLS has enough torque on tap that, in many situations, it may not even need to downshift.
Of course, for performance driving it's better to be in the right gear to begin with, so the CLS' transmission is also equipped with two more programs, Sport and Sport+, that hold progressively lower gears and change the shift points to more aggressive settings for even better responsiveness and even more roar from the force-fed V-8.
There's also a manual shift program but, interestingly, the Mercedes-Benz CLS 63 AMG's shift lever lacks a manual shift mode gate -- you know, the type where you push the lever forward to upshift and so on. Instead, the company assumes that anyone with half a brain would prefer to use the more conveniently placed metal paddle shifters on the steering wheel. So the automaker has skipped the whole lever-shifting nonsense altogether. As a driver who tends to default to paddle shifters when given the choice, I have to say that I approve of the decision.
In an attempt to maximize fuel economy around town and reach the EPA-estimated 16 city mpg, the CLS 63 AMG is equipped with a stop-start system that shuts the engine down when stopped, perhaps at a traffic light, and fires it back up when you start moving again. Normally, I immediately go searching for the "disable" button when testing cars with this system, but I didn't even realize that this Benz was thus equipped until my second day of testing.
That's because the stop-start system is automatically disabled unless the gearbox is in Comfort mode, and because the operation was so seamless that it was almost unnoticeable. Refiring of the engine is instantaneous with nary a shudder of the chassis. You can still hear the engine crank if you listen for it and feel the slightest bit of hesitation if you jump too quickly from the brake to the gas pedal, but for casual around-town cruising, this is one of the most transparent, nonhybrid stop-start systems that I've ever tested. Plus, I rather like the coffinlike quiet that fills the cabin once the engine shuts off as a contrast to the rumble of the car in its Sport modes.
Handling and performance
The CLS is equipped with an adaptive suspension with three settings: Comfort, Sport, and Sport+. However, when augmented by the AMG Performance Package's suspension upgrades, the settings may as well be Sport, Sportier, and Sportiest.
In its comfort mode, the ride is still firm. What the adaptive suspension does is smooth out the ride to tune out the harshness of expansion joints, cracks in the concrete, and small potholes. Big potholes will still be pretty jarring, just not "OMG, did I just break something?!" jarring.
The suspension settings can be toggled with a button on the center console or you can simply press the shiny AMG button that sits adjacent to instantly set the gearbox to its Manual shift mode and the suspension to its most aggressive Sport+ setting.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
|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|
|Price as tested||$113,715|