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Mercedes Benz CLS AMG taken for a spin

The turbo-charged Mercedes Benz CLS AMG is a race car in the guise of a family sedan, as Jonathan Castle discovers

Image Credit: Jonathan Castle/ANM
The AMG transmission has a wet clutch in place of the conventional torque converter, making for quicker shifts and much earlier lock-up of the drive-train.

With a twin-turbo, power-packed - albeit smaller - engine, improved styling and enough gizmos to give the Batmobile a run for its money (OK, I exaggerate, but you get the drift), the CLS AMG is definitely an improvement on its earlier avatar.

The most recent incarnation of a niche model invented by Mercedes in 2004 - a large four-door sedan with the profile of a coupé, which had proved to be an unprecedented success - this is the first version to use a turbo engine. Along with the new engine, the entire range received a number of significant updates, not least of which was the somewhat more dynamic new front face.

Downsizing from a 6.3 litre V8 to a turbo-charged 5.4 litre engine - which in normal guise delivers more than enough power - may have seemed a risk, but the new generation AMG doesn't fail to offer the instantaneous and ever-present wallop of the old motor.

Pump up the power

However, if that isn't power enough for you, tick the box that says ‘AMG Performance Package' - the figures of 517bhp power and 516lb ft of torque are boosted to 558 and 590 respectively. Even with the regular engine the CLS will sprint to 100kph in 4.4 seconds, and the Performance Pack enhancements shave another tenth off that. Top speed is limited to 300kph - goodness alone knows what this would run to unrestricted.

Overall the styling is a lot sharper and more sporting, in keeping with the nature of the car. The already sleek profile gains AMG addenda, a smattering of carbon fibre and a very discreet boot spoiler, to go with the 19" smoked light alloy AMG wheels, to better show off the red-painted brake calipers. Well, it wouldn't be a proper AMG without some sort of bodykit, but this one is pleasingly subtle.

Inside, it's a similar story, with Mercedes build quality, an encyclopedic options list, and plenty of AMG garnish. Let your eyes wander around the cabin, and you'll find lots of little extra touches of chrome and carbon fibre, including a unique gearshift lever to remind you just what you're sitting in.

Demands to be driven

One thing is certain, you won't be doing much of that sitting still; the CLS 63 just begs to be driven. Walk up and open the door (keyless entry), drop the key into the cupholder to rattle around, press the ‘Start' button and wait for an extra heartbeat while the engine churns before starting with an explosive ‘whoomph'. There is absolutely no question about this car's intent. Sounds like it would be more at home on a Nascar grid. Mind you, it is muted at town speeds. You won't wake the neighbours if you go for an early morning spin.

The gearbox settings have a mind-boggling variety to suit different driving experiences. A good place to begin is ‘C' mode - this stands for ‘Controlled Efficiency', and is, as you would expect, the safest option with maximum nanny controls.

Changes in the MCT SportShift transmission are smooth and slurred for what they call ‘consumption-optimised' driving (read anodyne). ‘Sport' and ‘Sport+' make things progressively more interesting, sharpening throttle response and dropping the shift times to under 100ms. They also introduce an automatic double-declutching function on downshifts and an incredibly satisfying rev-matching blip of the throttle.

The AMG transmission has a wet clutch in place of the conventional torque converter, making for quicker shifts and much earlier lock-up of the drive-train. In practice, it feels pretty much like a good old-fashioned manual, but with the convenience of an automatic - best of both worlds! The ultimate mode is ‘Manual', which is exactly what it says, where you select the shift points yourself via small paddles behind the wheel. And that's only the gearbox.

The choice is yours…

Another control for the suspension offers the same choices of ‘Comfort', ‘Sport' and ‘Sport+', whilst a third allows you to switch the ESP Dynamic Handling control system to ‘OFF'. If you dare. Such is the number of permutations and variations that you could spend weeks trying them all out before you find something that suits. In reality, basic ‘Comfort' mode was fine for traffic most of the time, not least because you never get the opportunity to unleash the beast within inside city limits. Of course, you'll do it anyway, just for the glorious enthusiasm that the CLS 63 assumes, no longer a docile companion, but more an adventurous playmate, always eager to have fun, to be let off the leash for a proper run.

I learned a lesson there. Driving around some of our city's many roundabouts in just such a sporting mode, enjoying what I considered to be an entirely sensible rate of progress, and on a couple of occasions there was a sharp knock from the rear of the car, sufficient for me to worry that I had clipped a kerb or run over an invisible brick.

No such thing had happened, of course. Instead, it was the electronic nanny wagging an admonishing finger at me, the electronics taking over to correct and prevent a spin even before I had begun to be aware of the possibility of it happening. Actually, it was an impressive demonstration of the quality of the safety net, and a worthwhile reminder of just how close and easy to step over is that ragged edge.

Few cars are as much fun to live with as what became quickly referred to as ‘The Big Merc' in my household. Sure, it's not exactly the most stealthy of supercars, with its carbon-fibre body kit, steroidal arches and triple-spoke wheels. Even the quad pipes sticking out of the rear diffuser are a none-too-subtle signal to the person you just passed, of precisely what it was that blew him into the weeds. But no one said the CLS had to be a sensible car.

It has a completely unnecessary amount of power, more gizmos and gadgets than you can ever hope to understand, and one of the most glorious exhaust notes you're ever likely to enjoy.

Yet despite this, it achieves the astonishing feat of using some 30 per cent less fuel than its predecessor, and carries four adults in sybaritic comfort. You could argue that it is a sensible, practical and even relatively economical car for the performance it offers.

But in the end, sense and practicality have nothing to do with it. There are plenty of other cars to do that. Leave that to them. For sheer driving fun and grin-inducing pleasure, very few other cars indeed will even get within shouting distance of the awesome Mercedes CLS 63 AMG.

  • Four-door, four seat coupé with Performance Pack.
  • Engine 5,461cc V8 petrol, twin turbo
  • Transmission Seven-speed automatic gearbox, rear-wheel drive
  • Power/torque 549bhp, 590lb ft
  • Top speed 300kph (limited)
  • Acceleration 0-100kph in 4.3sec
  • Price From US$ 122,650