Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: February 9, 2019
53 is a new number you should get used to, on top of the -43 and -63 suffixes that follow Mercedes’ lineup of AMGs. While not a hardcore track-focused AMG, the 53-series lineup splits the difference between grand touring and performance. Curiously, they are powered by a newly developed inline-six engine paired with an electric motor and auxiliary compressor, along with chassis upgrades that strive to make them efficient and exciting road cars.
The first Mercedes in Canada to receive this new 53-series treatment is the CLS, the four-door “coupe” that pioneered the fastback roofline styling on sedans and kicked off a wave of sexy-over-practical designs. Think Audi A7, BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe, and even SUVs like the BMW X4 and Mercedes GLE Coupe. That’s all because of the CLS.
These 53-series models now get the outgoing 63-series’ twin-blade horizontal-bar grill, while new 63-series models receive the vertical-bar Panamericana grill that first debuted in the AMG GT. 450-series cars get the diamond studded grill design. To complete the AMG makeover, the CLS 53 wears an aggressive lip spoiler, quad exhaust tips, unique 20-inch wheels, and a “turbo” badge on the side fenders, which is an odd choice of terminology as pretty much everything in the Mercedes lineup is turbocharged. Even the B-Class. Yes, they still sell the B-Class.
What makes this CLS 53 unique from the other variations that came before it is the powertrain. Under the hood is a 3.0-litre turbocharged inline-six gasoline engine paired with an electric-powered compressor and a mild hybrid system that Mercedes calls EQ Boost. Without getting too technical, EQ Boost equips the CLS with a battery that serves multiple purposes. It powers the car’s electronics, acts as both a starter motor and alternator, allows the car to disconnect from the transmission while coasting at speed, and dishes out 21 hp and 184 lb-ft of supplementary torque that serves as an intermediary to eliminate turbo lag.
By itself, the straight-six produces a healthy 429 hp and 384 lb-ft. Coupled with the might of electrons and a hasty 9-speed transmission, the CLS 53 launches from idle with a startling amount of force and hits 0-100 km/h in a competitive 4.5 seconds, the same as a BMW 650i Gran Coupe but slower than the Porsche Panamera 4S (4.4 sec) and the BMW M550i xDrive (4.0 sec).
There’s a reason why BMW stuck with straight-six engines for so long, and continue to do so. They are inherently smooth, exhibit potent yet linear power delivery, and feel refined at any point in the powerband. Mercedes’ new engine does just that, and gets the CLS 53 dancing in an upbeat rhythm that is clearly absent in their grainy V6 powerplants. Turbo lag is imperceptible (don't mix being in the wrong gear with an unresponsive turbo), and the entire combustion and electric symphony performs harmoniously. Though the 9-speed gearbox isn’t nearly as polished as the 8-speed used in its competitors, you’ll be finding any excuse to let loose and rev that engine until the needle kisses the redline, because what follows the brisk acceleration is an exhaust note that sounds remarkably similar to a BMW.
The CLS 53 sings a convincing AMG song, and though the notes are not as melodic as a BMW 440i that uses a similar straight-six engine, the grin-inducing sounds are there, the high-rpm howls are there, the throttle overrun burbles are there, as are the barks that follow aggressive gear shifts. V8 engines are great and all but there’s a tangy sweetness to the sound of a straight-six that floods the brain with a rush of dopamine, and the CLS 53 provides just that. Listen to our Exhaust Notes video below to hear it for yourself.
Out on the open road, the CLS 53 is smooth in the way it grooves. Steering is slick, doesn’t require much effort, and it’s light on its feet in changing direction. You never feel like you’re out of control when wrestling the leather and alcantara wrapped steering wheel. Body control is tight and all-wheel drive comes standard, and paired with winter tires, we had an easy time navigating the CLS 53 through daily Toronto snowstorms and roads blanketed with sheets of ice.
Vertical motions on the other hand are where the CLS 53 disappoints, and potholes are its kryptonite. Whether the standard air suspension is on its softest or stiffest settings, the CLS crashes hard when going over cracked road surfaces, forcing us to scream expletives when caught by surprise. Out on the paved tarmac, the CLS 53 hovers about with solidity and composure but when the road turns rough, I would suggest avoiding the bumps like the bubonic plague. The CLS isn’t very forgiving.
On the bright side, the start/stop system in the CLS 53, which shuts the engine off when idling to save fuel, is without a doubt the smoothest and most imperceptible example on the market. Most other vehicles induce a brief chassis stutter as the engine fires back up to life but in the CLS, you can barely feel it switch on and off. Most of the time, you don’t even notice it’s working. It’s that good.
There’s no debate that Mercedes knows how to design an interior. The styling is modern and chic yet it doesn’t overburden the occupants with a complicated flurry of buttons and knobs. The two 12.3-inch widescreen displays share one glass cover and are elegantly perched on the dashboard, accentuating the width of the cabin. The new AMG steering wheel is a stylish work of art with meticulous machine cut dials, buttons, and touch-sensitive pads that control both the left- and right-side screens. BMW and Audi could learn something here. Though some of it is plastic, the overall build quality does a convincing job telling me it’s all metal and chrome. The same can’t be said about the column-mounted gear stalk, which is the same flimsy thing that you would find in your base model A-Class.
The CLS is overloaded with technology that has flowed down from the S-Class and E-Class. That includes the full gamut of ambient lighting, massaging seats, and an air freshener stowed away in the glovebox that pipes a nice scent through the fans. The piranha-shaped vents are a signature of Mercedes’ two- and four-door coupes, and because the CLS 53 is not a “full-blown” AMG, it doesn’t receive the eye-candy IWC analog clock on the center stack, just a standard one with a silver star logo.
Ever since the first CLS model, practicality and rear seat space has always been sacrificed for the greater good of style and design, and the new one is no different. Rear seat headroom and legroom is sparse, and in an effort to sit behind my six foot self, I had to contort my legs and neck into an embarrassing fetal position. Ingress and egress isn’t much easier with the narrow door portals, though for the first time ever, the CLS has the ability to fit a third passenger in the rear middle seat - taller adults may prefer public transportation.
Other notable CLS features are the Burmester speaker grills that are so finely machine cut that they could nick your finger if you carelessly brush along the sharp edges. The massage seats are the exceptional. Of course it won’t knurl and knead with the same amount of force as a dedicated massage chair but it’s way better than anything from BMW, Range Rover, or even Rolls-Royce, all three of which feel more like a slick tickle. Apple CarPlay comes standard and Mercedes doesn’t charge a sneaky subscription fee like BMW. What mildly irks me though is how the infotainment screen shows a model of the CLS 450 and not the CLS 53 that I’m driving. A small oversight but I’d rather not be reminded of what those plebians are driving.
Is the CLS 53 a true AMG? It’s got all the performance garnish but it’s no V8 monster, and there is reportedly no -63 model in the works either. That said, I’d still buy this CLS 53 for the engine alone. The straight-six is a darling, outshines any of the V6s that Mercedes currently offers, and the exhaust note is auditory bliss. But therein lies the rub. This engine will also be available in the upcoming E 53 too, which I believe will be a better and more well-rounded sedan. Not only does it have usable rear seats but it’s more mature in appearance and comes with the same suite of technology. It’s cheaper by $7,100 too, and hits the same 0-100 km/h time of 4.5 seconds.
Of course, previous generation CLS models were bogged down by these intrinsic penalties as well but that didn’t stop them from finding a home. What the CLS loses in practicality it notoriously gains in drop-dead gorgeous looks, and for some people, that’s worth its weight in gold. It just doesn’t help that there are now so many valid choices within the same brand umbrella: the sleek and gentlemanly E 53 sitting below and the new-kid-on-the-block AMG GT 53 4-Door at the top of the silver star food chain. The suave CLS 53 isn’t a bad car, and will undoubtedly deliver thrills and excitement to anyone looking for a sensuous four-door chariot. I just don’t think it’s the best Mercedes.
Model: 2019 Mercedes-AMG CLS 53
Paint Type: Iridum Silver Metallic
Base Price: $92,000
Price as Tested: $106,450
Length/Width/Height (mm): 5,001 / 2,072 (with mirrors) / 1,422
Curb weight (kg): 2,017
Engine: 3.0-litre turbocharged inline six + electric compressor + battery
Horsepower: 429 hp @ 6,100 rpm (EQ Boost +21 hp)
Torque: 384 lb-ft @ 1,800 - 5,800 rpm (EQ Boost +184 lb-ft)
Transmission: 9-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Official Fuel Consumption: 12.4 / 8.7
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 11.8