Thursday 6 October 2011

Driven #44:- Mercedes-Benz CLS 63 AMG W218

I didn’t do more than 80 on my trip today. I didn’t explore any challenging back roads, didn’t test the standing start acceleration, didn’t even stuff it into a roundabout at Nurburgring speeds. I didn’t need to.

Not so long ago I drove a CLS 350 with the CGi Petrol engine, and spurted much prose in its general direction; claiming that it’s the best car to drive in the CLS Range. Well; it isn’t. Not by a long way. Today I had the enviable task of delivering a customer his brand new, 20 miles on the odometer, CLS 63 AMG.

Now, this is a customers car, it has been paid for, it’s brand new and definitely not mine, which explains my unbelievable restraint behind the wheel today. You see, I’m a terrific and loyal employee of my company (if you’re reading this, Boss, I’m sorry about the state of my desk, I’ve been busy, you know…) and as such I have a duty of care to ensure that the £90k car arrives safely with its new owner, and that he’s the first person who gets to really put it through its paces.

But, you know, the whole racetrack thing doesn’t need to be mentioned anyway. It’s an AMG for goodness sake, so we know it’ll be blisteringly quick. We know it’ll be capable enough in the corners, too, if perhaps lacking some of the subtlety and deftness of touch that a BMW M or Jaguar R can deliver. So, really, I can be excused for not ramming my hand down the CLS 63s trousers and giving its balls a really good twist.

Regardless of all this, my limited exploits were certainly enough to establish that the new Mercedes-Benz CLS 63 AMG is phenomenally good.

A bit of background; this car is the first to be fitted with the new, smaller AMG V8, which loses capacity but gains a pair of turbochargers, all in the hunt for lower emissions and improved fuel economy. It’s down to 5.5 litres from 6.2, but the power remains put at 525hp. That’s enough for good times.

The torque, though, has increased. It was a colossal 630nm at a highish 5200rpm, but it’s now up to an impressive 700nm, and that comes in at a dieselish 1700rpm and stays with you until 5000. And if you pay for the AMG Performance Pack (As if you’d need to…) that figure zooms to a scarcely believable 800nm. A drag from zero to sixty takes 4.4 seconds, which I didn’t test because I was being a very good boy indeed, but I have absolutely no reason to doubt it. It’s veh, veh fast.

And it makes the best noise I’ve ever heard coming from a, er, thing. Being honest, I can’t think of a better man-made sound right now, apart from, possibly some music. It beggars belief. Everybody has heard a small or big-block Chevy. I’ve heard them both, with and without mufflers, and neither of them sound as good as this. A Rolls Royce Merlin on full chat, or two if tethered to a De Haviland Mosquito, on a low-level fly-by over a Cornish airfield; that probably sounds as good, but not better.

From cold it almost doesn’t sound very good at all, being impossibly violent and silly, a bit like an old diesel generator with problematic big-ends. But after a few seconds of industrial noise, a valve flicks shut and it all settles down to a far smoother but improbably bassy grumble. It then stays pretty much like this until you put the hammer down (I HEARD IT GO OUT ON A TEST DRIVE, OK?) at which point the gods of war let out their mighty thunderous cry, and it resonates across the very horizons.

We all know what AMG powerplants tend to sound like, and this is the same but somehow more raw, more meaningful. It makes the previous AMGs sound somehow electronically compressed, like MP3 recordings of the real deal. And yet somehow they sound brash, too, in comparison. The CLS 63 is cultured, learned despite the biblical soundtrack on offer.

It’s only there when you want it to be, on a trailing or constant throttle it subsides and gets overtaken by road noise (of which there is plenty), but drop a cog or show a little keenness and it burbles up again, ready to entertain you. It sounds better, I’d say, than even the range-topping SLS, which might upset some people.

But the aural armageddon-on-demand still isn’t its best feature. It isn’t the looks (which eschew subtlety and elegance in favour of snootily suggesting its own expensiveness at every opportunity), it isn’t the acceleration (which was brisk enough to cause me to have second thoughts at my first stab of the pedal), it isn’t the straight line speed (I only hit 80, remember, Officer…) and it isn’t even the fuel economy, despite an infinitely incongruous looking ECO button immediately next to the AMG settings switches; yes, even this rally against environmentalism gains MBs Oh-Damn-I’ve-Stalled-Again Start-stop system. No, the best feature is none of these things.

The best feature of the CLS 63 is the ride quality. It doesn’t have to be, if you enjoy a full-body pummelling on every journey there are both Sport and Sport+ (Hard and Harder) settings open to you, but Comfort mode is a revelation in that it’s actually comfortable.

I’d say the ride in this is better than even the cooking Mercedes models; it's certainly more forgiving than the Sport models. Furthermore, it makes you wonder how they can get away with offering an AMG-ized S-Class where the ride is so much worse; the S being the car credited with the best ride of any series produced car with a real-world price.

And, even in comfort mode, the smoothness doesn’t corrupt the body responses or the steering feel. That suede-rimmed wheel is perfect to hold, and has a very close relationship the road. It has what, to me, feels like perfectly judged gearing and just the right amount of weight. 

And then it dawns on me what the CLS reminds me of. I didn't quite close my eyes and imagine; that kind of practice is frowned upon when you're driving a customers car, but the feel, the sound, the whole package of sensations all added up to one thing. The CLS 63 literally feels like an SLS with two extra doors. Not exactly the same, you understand, but close enough. It feels that special. Driving it feels like an event, and I'm sure it's not just because this is my first time. And it's so bloody complete. ECO button and all.
Stepping out of the CLS and into the E63, you suddenly realise how much all of the above is true. The E63 is an amazing car, I established that when I drove one to Scotland. The Estate model, if anything, is even better, with a little more weight over the rear wheels to improve traction, and looking rather better resolved as a load-lugger than it does in Saloon form.

The E63 would have felt as astonishing, but after driving the CLS it somehow, suddenly, just feels like an outrageously fast E-Class. It feels like a less thoroughly developed product, even though it's still brilliant. This is a measure of just how amazing the CLS 63 AMG actually is.

But then again, at £90k by the time you've added any spec whatsoever, it bloody well should be.