Mountain Wheels: Turbo power diversifies Mercedes’ CLS performance models
The move to provide distinctive and ultra-specific choices to every Euro-Luxe customer on the planet now means an absolutely bewildering range of Mercedes-Benz automobiles, even among the company’s once-exclusive AMG performance line.
And so while you once could soup up only Mercedes’ sleek and sexy CLS coupe-sedan mix with a roaring 5.5-liter V-8 poking toward 600 horsepower — and yes, you still can — the new AMG CLS53 model has appeared to provide a thrilling alternative with a 3.0-liter inline-six engine turbocharged to an impressive 429 horsepower.
As much as I loved the higher-power CLS63 on a drive a few years back — it remains the car my mother wants me to buy her when I finally win the lottery — this somewhat more low-key CLS53 has all of the AMG sports experience, plus what might arguably be a better setup for high-elevation, all-season driving. And really, at a little more than $87,000, optioned out, my all-wheel-drive 4Matic CLS53 was really not austere in any way.
Granted, casual usage and start-ups do not provide quite the same perversely gurgling cascade of muscle car exhaust, with mostly pretty mild turbo engine noises experienced instead.
But flip the dynamic mode rocker into Sport Plus and not only do you get an endless series of rude blaaps and braats as the car hustles through its nine-speed transmission, you’ll switch over the exhaust to noisy mode and irritate the neighbors — as you might do when you totally floor the car, in any mode.
These options reinforce CLS’s position as a sort-of family-friendly speed machine. Meaning it is ideal for spirited cavorting, strangely decent in the snow but really set up for Southern California-style conspicuous consumption galleria cruising.
I got a combination of all of that last week while rolling in the CLS, both gifted and damned by super-high-performance winter tires that made our ongoing winter-spring blend a safe experience, but somewhat restrained my cornering audacity on a tour over Squaw Pass near Mount Evans.
Suffice to say that the CLS53 hauls along impressively, with deftly grounded and firm cornering and ride characteristics. Its electronically controlled, air-damper-enhanced handling, especially with winter tires, bordered on brutally precise, and I had to be very careful to avoid the ever-widening potholes on Interstate 70 to avoid destroying the vehicle’s beautiful 19-inch wheels.
You also can pretend you’re in full racecar mode as you settle into the highly sculpted and heavily bolstered seats, gripping the asymmetrical race wheel and stomping on the aluminum pedals or tapping the super-fast shift paddles through the car’s nine-speed, high-performance transmission. Compound brakes also offer confident stops from bigger speeds.
The core CLS provides dazzlingly streamlined looks, with a long, loopy roofline that looks head-crushing for adult-sized rear passengers but offered ample room. But the AMG performance upgrades really spice up the whole low-slung and visually broad vehicle, enhancing its jet-engine-styled face, swapping in those super-cool, chrome-outlined black AMG wheels and an aggressive splitter on top of the trunk lid. The puffed-out quad pipes in the rear also mean business, V-8 or not.
The vehicle also enjoys the added push of Mercedes Benz’s electrified EQ system, which provides an additional 21 horsepower of overboost, but also acts as a light hybrid setup to accentuate performance and provide 48 volts, a precursor to the fully hybrid models on the very near horizon.
Like other new Mercedes models, the cabin has been equipped with a double-length, all-digital instrument and navigation/entertainment screen, using tiny touch-sensitive thumb trackballs on the steering wheel or a knob/touchpad on the center console. You can customize the instrument displays and get gigantic and brilliant maps.
Interior details are equally dazzling, with a wide swath of real carbon fiber throughout the cabin, six jet-engine-styled air vents and leather with highlight stitching on virtually every surface. Adjust the temperature and you get LED lighting feedback in the vents.
Invite some friends or family into the back seat and they’ll enjoy equally posh amenities, including the aluminum covers over the high-end Burmester surround sound system and suede inserts in the seats to keep them planted while you test out the CLS’s handling.
Access via the rear doors is a little truncated but the sculpted roofline is actually tall enough to provide reasonable headroom. A sizeable transmission hump and a very small center spot make the vehicle more appropriate and comfortable for four passengers, though Mercedes boasts that the setup is actually an improvement from previous rear seat design.
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