x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Mercedes CLS: the sensible seductress that fills many niches

Niche-filling gone mad or a genuine gap in the market? Kyle Fortune finds out.

The eye-catching Mercedes-Benz CLS has combined style and practicality with the Shooting Brake estate version.
The eye-catching Mercedes-Benz CLS has combined style and practicality with the Shooting Brake estate version.

The Mercedes-Benz CLS is a car with an identity crisis. Mercedes-Benz likes to call its lithe machine a 'four-door coupé'. That actually makes no sense at all. Put simply it's a saloon; a rakish, beautifully proportioned one admittedly, but definitely a saloon. Confusing things even further is this, the CLS Shooting Brake. The what? Let's cut to the chase here: it's an estate.

Mix in some AMG magic (there are other CLS Shooting Brake models around but who's not going to want 557hp?) and you've perhaps the most confused concept of a car available. It is niche filling gone mad, coming from the company that takes a huge amount of pride from creating niches in the first place.

The thing is, the CLS has been a successful machine. It's clever too, borrowing much from its E-Class relation, yet thanks to those superstar looks can command a larger premium. Unsurprisingly then it has spawned a whole host of imitators. Volkswagen's CC and the BMW 6 Series Gran Coupé fit the genre, with more certain to be on the product planners' spreadsheets from other brands. From all you'll find that 'four-door coupé' description, even if it's technically inaccurate.

Underlining that it owns the niche market Mercedes-Benz has given us the CLS Shooting Brake. And it's a quite wonderful thing. Adding practicality back into a package that removes it, the Shooting Brake grafts a sleek estate rear above the CLS's sculpted rear wings. Beautiful? Yes, though it's possible to see how some might find it challenging - not least in concept.

More than many pseudo estate cars - so often banded under the banner lifestyle estate - the Shooting Brake actually adds decent practicality. The boot is sizeable and well-shaped. Seats up, it'll carry 590 litres of luggage, though drop them (simply via the standard Easy-Pack Quickfold rear seat adjustment) and that grows to 1,550 litres. Not quite E-Class Estate capacity, but more than the C-Class.

Forget putting anything in the back if you choose the designo American Cherry Wood load compartment. A wooden floor, reminiscent of the deck of a yacht, it's a glorious nod to the original concept model shown in Beijing in 2010. There are protection strips of rubber housed within aluminum, but you'll keep the French polisher busy if you put anything but the softest bags in there.

Unlike that 2010 concept the Shooting Brake is a five-seater, the individual rear seats being replaced by a more conventional bench. If anything, the rest of the interior is a slight let down - as it is in the standard CLS - the obviously design driven exterior not echoed inside. It's too generic Benz, the switchgear all working with the sort of nicely damped, sensibly positioned precision you'd expect from a Mercedes-Benz, but lacking any real flair.

You do sit lower, in what is clearly a more driver-focused machine, and firing the 5.5-litre biturbo AMG V8 engine up only cements that. It's badged '63' in a nod both to AMG's recent naturally aspirated V8 and an old racer, but even this car is not able to escape the trend for downsizing. Economy's gain isn't your loss though, as 557hp isn't what you'd call lacking, that peak power produced at a far lower level than with a naturally aspirated V8. The twisting force it brings is monumental too, with 800Nm of torque available from 2,000-4,500rpm. That's enough to test the traction of the rear tyres whenever you want. Yet for all its promise of insane performance, 0-100km/h happening in just 4.3 seconds, the CLS 63 AMG Shooting Brake is a demonstration of civility at low speed.

That's not to say it's anything but unhinged when unleashed. Any vehicle with the output this car has is going to have the potential for silliness, and the CLS 63 AMG Shooting Brake is no exception. Push the accelerator hard and the effect is always slightly shocking. You'll involuntarily giggle as the car hurls forward with unerring ferocity the rear squirming slightly as 557hp and 800Nm fight their way through to relatively small strips of rubber onto the road. Throw in the gloriously naughty sound emanating from under the bonnet and via its four tailpipes and it's difficult to resist the temptation to give your leg a repetitive strain injury pushing it to the floor.

There's agility too that belies the CLS 63 AMG Shooting Brake's size. There is not much in the way of actual feel at the steering wheel's rim, but it's decently weighted and accurate, the CLS more than simply a practical, good-looking dragster. The AMG Ride Control sports suspension is understandably taut, at the expense sometimes of low-speed ride, but it's a tradeoff worth making for the control it gives at speed. If there's a weak link in the driving experience it's the AMG Speedshift MCT seven-speed transmission. Fine when left alone in fully automatic mode, if you want to drive it - via the wheel mounted paddle shifters - it's reluctant to relinquish complete control, second-guessing and often just ignoring your inputs. A small frustration in what otherwise proves to be a beguiling package, the CLS Shooting Brake might be a niche product within a niche, but it's impossible not to be seduced by this unique fusion of super, saloon and estate car.