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I vividly remember the first time I saw the Mercedes-Benz Vision CLS concept car. It graced the December 2003 cover of Automobile Magazine alongside other iconic concepts from that year's Frankfurt Auto Show, but the Vision CLS was special. A near-production look at the first modern "four-door coupe," the Vision CLS was the genesis of a trend that truly disrupted the industry. For 10-year-old me, the gorgeous design was revolutionary.
Now, 19 years later, the CLS is nearing the end of its third generation, and while it's still beautiful, it's no longer the showstopping trendsetter it once was. Instead of putting a sparkle in my eye, the 2022 CLS450 just makes me sad.
That disappointment is in large part due to the CLS' styling. As I said, it's still a great looking car, but the proliferation of the four-door coupe-style roofline throughout every size and class of sedan makes the slippery shape less novel. It doesn't help that Mercedes' other four-door coupes, the CLA and AMG GT, look even better. The blacked-out trim from the $400 Night package and the nonmetallic Midnight Blue paint on my test car does the car no favors, and as part of the Manufaktur catalog, that shade costs $6,500. This third-gen model has always kind of looked like a bar of soap -- not always in a good way -- but the update for 2022 at least gave it a more interesting front fascia and star-pattern grille.
One bright spot is the CLS' cabin, even though it's nearly identical to the E-Class. The pair of 12.3-inch screens features Mercedes' MBUX software, and while it's feeling a little old compared to the touchscreen setup in cars like the new C-Class, it's still a great system. Navigation comes standard, as do Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. I love this CLS' combination of Sienna Brown leather and flowing lines of piano black trim (a $1,300 option), and as a whole, the interior feels well put together. There's definitely less headroom and legroom in the CLS compared to the E-Class, but I don't find it to be too cramped or claustrophobic.
The CLS450's powertrain is one of its best attributes. It uses Mercedes' stellar 3.0-liter, turbocharged inline-6 engine, which has a 48-volt integrated starter/generator mild-hybrid setup. Total output in the CLS450 is 362 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. The I6 is a buttery-smooth engine with more than enough torque and quick throttle response in any situation, though the nine-speed automatic transmission can sometimes be clumsy.
Despite sharing its platform and chassis components with the E-Class, the CLS somehow rides much worse. This CLS450 has the $970 AMG Line styling package that adds staggered-width 19-inch wheels with Continental ProContact all-season tires, and combined with steel springs and conventional dampers the CLS has a choppy, too-stiff ride even on smooth roads. 4Matic all-wheel drive is standard, and the CLS450 at least has fairly neutral handling characteristics with steering that's direct but lacking in feedback. But it's not any sportier to drive than an E450, and it's a far cry from the AMG GT 4-Door.
The CLS450's starting price of $74,000 (including $1,050 for destination) does get you a lot of stuff, with standard features including LED lights, heated front seats, a sunroof, keyless entry, 64-color ambient lighting, automated emergency braking and blind-spot monitoring. But my CLS450 has pretty much every option, ringing in at a fairly absurd $93,780. Added items include the $2,300 Premium package (Burmester surround sound system, parking assist and a surround-view camera setup), the $1,950 Driver Assistance package (adaptive cruise control, active lane-keeping assist, automatic lane-change assist and lots more) and the $1,100 Acoustic Comfort package (additional insulation and heat/noise-absorbing glass). Other standalone options are $550 soft-close doors, $200 wireless charging, $450 ventilated front seats, $440 power rear sunshade and a $350 perfume dispenser, because of course.
Even with no options the CLS450 is $10,200 more expensive than an E450 4Matic, and it doesn't really come with any additional features. The E-Class has a much smoother ride, more interior space and trunk room. And while the E-Class doesn't look as striking as the CLS, it's certainly classy and set to age better. Plus, you can still get the E-Class in AMG E53 form, which starts at just $2,050 more than the CLS450; the AMG CLS53 is no longer offered in the US.
Making matters even worse, the CLS is overshadowed by another car in the Mercedes lineup: the AMG GT 4-Door Coupe. The entry-level GT43 model has the exact same powertrain as the CLS450, but with a massively better chassis and driving dynamics. The GT is better looking and has a hatchback to boot, and at $93,550 to start, the GT43 is only $230 more than this CLS test car. Granted, you need to pile up the GT43 with options to get it to match the feature content on this loaded CLS, but the GT is a much better-rounded car even with the higher price.
There's hope on the horizon, though. Early this year, Mercedes unveiled the Vision EQXX concept, a compact electric four-door coupe that evokes the brand's prewar streamliners. While it doesn't directly preview a specific production model, the innovative EQXX is a look into upcoming EV sedans from the brand that will wear fresh design language. Mercedes is getting ready to shake up the segment once more, and looking at the EQXX makes me feel 10 years old again.