More than a decade ago, the Mercedes-Benz CLS essentially invented the "four-door coupe" segment of the luxury sedan market. The idea was simple: a swooping, coupe-like roofline with the practicality of a sedan.
But while the first-generation model was a smash hit, the second one lost some ground to rivals like the Audi A7 and BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe. For 2019, the CLS enters its third generation with a new design and new technology to assert its dominance.
After a week with one, I'm convinced it's one of the most advanced and stylish sedans you can buy, as long as you have the cash.
With a wide, imposing stance and a body clad in the eye-catching gray, my $100,120 tester certainly looked the part. The matte paint got attention everywhere I went.
Though there is a CLS 53 AMG with a more potent powerplant, I sampled the volume-selling CLS 450. And despite being the base model, it doesn't disappoint. The engine in the 450 is Mercedes' all-new inline six, a departure from the brand's recent preference of V-6 engines. Compared with a V-6, inline sixes are often preferred in luxury applications because of their smoothness. While a V-6 requires balancing shafts to offset vibrations caused by uneven combustion, inline-sixes balance themselves and can rev smoothly and freely.
Perhaps more importantly, the new inline six works together with a 48-volt power system to make this one of the most advanced internal combustion powertrains on the market.
That's a lot of technical information to throw at you, but the sum of it is simple: The CLS 450 offers one of the most refined driving experiences out there. While the combination of a turbocharged engine, a nine-speed transmission and a mild hybrid system could easily lead to having too many cooks in the kitchen, Mercedes has programmed out any confusion or kink. Couple that to the CLS' adjustable air suspension and you have yourself a legendary cruiser.
And I haven't even gotten to the best part.
As has become the norm, the interior of this big Benz blew me away. Gorgeous, creamy espresso leather covers almost every touchpoint. There's also piano black wood and brushed aluminum accents. While every other automaker will heat your butt and steering wheel, Mercedes also heats your armrests. On a cold winter day, everything you touch is warm. Plus, serious sound deadening and "low noise performance tires" make this one of the quietest cabins I've tested. Unless you want it to be loud, in which case the $5,400 Burmester 3D Surround System is capable of ear-bleeding volume without losing an ounce of clarity. It's the best sound system I've ever heard, but it should be at that price.
The CLS 450 also comes with a cabin perfuming system. Mercedes includes a scent that I would describe as "Axe Body Spray's high-rolling cousin," but you can swap it out for any perfume you like.
And that, really, is the story of the CLS. The car was drafted with such an absurd attention to detail that everything you do in it feels better than a regular car. The interior lights can be set to any single color you want, not just the standard set of five or so options. Or, choose from a pleasing array of preprogrammed palettes that slowly shift to keep things interesting.
The trunk's unsightly hinges are hidden from view, a step most other automakers don't bother with. The latch for the trunk itself is incorporated into the Mercedes badge. When you turn on the high beams, they don't flick on but instead light up from the middle outward, creating an "opening" effect. Start the car, and the lights do a little welcome animation. At every step, it's clear that the designers wanted this car to feel consistently and completely special. Yes, you have to spend nearly six figures to get here, but Mercedes doesn't let you forget that.
Finally, some attention must be paid to Mercedes' suite of safety features. It is the only active safety system capable of detecting and preventing an impending T-bone style collision, while also offering the unique ability to push you away from a side collision using the air bolsters in the seat. It offers lane-keeping that beats everyone except Tesla and Cadillac, with the ability to automatically switch lanes when the indicator is flicked. And if you can't brake fast enough to avoid a collision, it'll help make sure you steer out of the way. It may not be the flashiest, but Mercedes offers the most comprehensive suite of safety tech out there.
There are two major things you have to accept with the CLS. First, you are not getting a sports sedan. It handles confidently and is quick, but the CLS puts luxury first. If you want a sports sedan, Mercedes offers a full line of AMG models.
Second, you have to spend big. Our tester had an astounding $28,420 worth of options. That's a lot, and I've reviewed cars that cost less. But, I'm convinced that the CLS justifies its high price with industry-leading technology and great styling to boot.
Other complaints are minor. The CLS comes with COMAND, which is a usable but not ideal infotainment setup. MBUX, Mercedes' new infotainment system, is not on the CLS. So, technically, your infotainment setup is already out of date. Plus, rear headroom isn't great. A 6-foot-3 friend of mine tried to sit in the back and was scraping the headliner for the whole ride.
Start with the CLS 450 4Matic, which is Mercedes parlance for all-wheel drive. Unless you need the attention, I wouldn't bother with the $3,950 matte gray option. Mercedes offers some lovely metallic options for $720 that better suit the CLS' relaxed demeanor.
The exterior lighting package helps bring along smart high beams that can selectively dim around oncoming cars while the rest of the road stays lit up, so I'd check that box for $900. If you live up north, grab the warmth and comfort package for the rapid-heat front seats, heated armrests and heated steering wheel. This necessitates the premium package, which you want anyway. Cooled seats cost $450 and the perfuming system is $550. Yes, the list is getting long, but you don't buy a base-model Benz.
Get the $850 digital instrument cluster to complete the CLS' spaceship interior and spend $1,900 on the cloud-like air suspension. Finally, nab the Driver Assistance Package for $2,250 to make get the gigantic list of class-exclusive safety features I discussed above.
The grand total is $80,970 for a truly innovative and utterly delightful luxury sedan.
This car makes sense at $100,000. At $80,970, it's almost a deal. It's incredibly comfortable, fantastic looking and so full of technology it could shame a Best Buy. It's one of the most relaxing cars to drive, with heated everything and a highly capable driver-assist suite. As long as you're careful with what options you check, I definitely recommend the Mercedes CLS 450.
Driving Experience: 4.5
Price as tested: $100,120