The biggest news here is Mercedes' re-introduction of the inline six-cylinder powertrain.
In the mid 2000s, Mercedes-Benz launched a new four-door coupé body style with the first generation of the CLS. That vehicle ultimately spawned rivals such as the Audi A7, BMW’s Gran Coupés, and even the Kia Stinger (reviewed here). The CLS was offered in regular V8 as well as fire-breathing AMG configurations, but went on to remain a staple in the North American luxury saloon landscape. This year marks the debut of the third-generation variant, and with it comes a new powertrain option. This is the 2019 Mercedes-AMG CLS 53 4MATIC+, and it’s a delight.
The CLS’ low slung proportions aren’t as revolutionary as they were back in 2005, but it’s still a fresh looking and handsome car from any angle. I wasn’t a huge fan of the outgoing car’s styling, so this full redesign is very welcomed. It’s derivative of the CLS it replaces, but with sharper lines, crisper lighting, and a more aggressive overall stance. Starting the car causes the LED headlights to put on a mesmerizing light show, and even painted in a common silver like our test vehicle, the CLS 53 looks menacing and attracts attention.
Perhaps the biggest news here is the re-introduction of the inline six-cylinder powertrain to the Mercedes-Benz lineup. The new “53” moniker refers to a 3.0L twin-turbocharged straight-six, boosted using an electric auxiliary compressor and exhaust gas turbocharging. The technology known as “EQ Boost”, which can also be called a mild hybrid system, sends 21 horsepower and 184 lb-ft. of torque to the 48-volt electric setup.
Total output for the CLS 53 is 429 horsepower and 384 lb-ft. of torque, but the real beauty of this powertrain is the absolute instantaneous response. Any turbocharger lag that would otherwise be present is eliminated by the electric boost right off the line. The CLS 53’s engine starts in an imperceptibly quiet manner and, if the drive mode selector is set to “Sport” or “Sport+”, the exhaust delivers an intoxicated note only deliverable by an inline six.
Power is sent to all four wheels using the 4MATIC+ all-wheel-drive system and a sport-tuned nine-speed automatic transmission. This gearbox snaps off quick shifts and really doesn’t have us missing a dual-clutch layout. Sport and Sport+ modes are best suited to using the paddle shifters, which are decently responsive as well. The drive mode selection also toggles throttle response and firmness of the adaptive dampers.
Ride quality is one area in which the AMG characteristics of the CLS show their true colours. Even in the “Comfort” setting, the CLS 53 is quite firm, making every imperfection on our pothole-ridden spring roads feel significant. The car feels extremely sharp when cornering, with a sure-footed stance and decent communication through the electrically assisted steering. Impressive – in this configuration the CLS feels less brutish than a full AMG would, and more crisp and graceful.
In the past, inline six-cylinder engines have been linked to subpar fuel economy, again pushing many modern vehicles to go to a smaller-displacement turbocharged four-cylinder layout. This latest Mercedes-Benz six-cylinder application excels in this regard thanks to the EQ Boost. Taking place on 91-octane fuel, our test returned 10.6L/100km in combined driving. Highway runs consumed as little as 7.7L/100km, a remarkable feat for any car that weighs 4,500 pounds.
We’re currently in a great era for Mercedes-Benz interiors, and if the last couple of decades are any indication, the brand’s cabin designs age extremely well. Materials are gorgeous and exhibit excellent fit and finish, with a Grey Ash open-pore wood trim option checked off in our test vehicle. It hides fingerprints, dust, and scratches and looks properly upscale. The seats are also decently comfortable, though the sport seats in our test vehicle are a bit tight, even with the adjustable bolsters.
Infotainment is via Mercedes’ side-by-side 12.3” screens atop the dashboard. The digital gauge cluster is very nice to look at and offers a variety of customizable themes. It’s controlled using a thumb-pad on the steering wheel and is also decently responsive. The main entertainment and Burmester audio system are toggled using a combination of a touchpad and a rotary controller. It’s a bit convoluted and simple commands require digging deep through the menus, but Apple CarPlay connectivity helps with this.
The CLS 53 starts at $92,000 in Canada. Options on our test vehicle include the AMG Driver’s Package for $1,900 (which is a must-have for the selectable exhaust), Comfort Package for $3,600, Lighting Package at $1,000, Premium Package for $5,300, and the semi-autonomous Intelligent Drive Package for $3,000. The $109,850 sticker seems high, but the CLS very much is a lifestyle luxury product that’s chosen for the specific image it offers. Noteworthy features include heated armrests up front, and multi-contour front seats that offer active support from the bolsters when cornering.
Perhaps the biggest question mark for the CLS 53 is the very similar but much cheaper E 53, which is available in coupé, sedan, and station wagon forms. An E 53 sedan starts at $83,900, just over $8,000 cheaper than this CLS, and shares its platform. The E-Class also offers a bit more interior space, especially in the form of headroom. The CLS’ closest rival at the time of this writing is the new Audi A7, which is equally style-focused and closely related to its A6 sedan sibling.
The 2019 Mercedes-AMG CLS 53 4MATIC+ offers sharp driving dynamics, a sense of style that differentiates it from the standard four-door sedan, and an exceptional new powertrain that somewhat changes the identity of the mild-AMG car. It’s almost BMW M-car in the way that it handles both long distance commuting as well as corner carving your favourite back road, and that is a performance car benchmark. In fact, while many BMW M products have grown softer, the new AMG 53 models seek to bring enthusiasts back to a time when German automakers had their priorities straight.