Mercedes-Benz CLS 350 (2005)
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Mercedes-Benz CLS 350 (2005)

Coupe version of the E-Class didn't work well as far as we were concerned.

Of the three models in the CLS range, this one is expected to be the number one seller in the UK by a significant margin, being chosen by an estimated 65% of all customers. Don't expect to see many of them on the road, though, since Mercedes-Benz reckons that total annual sales will be around 4000 units. As Mike Grundon explained in his launch report, this is very much a niche model; part of the reason for this is that, although the CLS is closely based on the E-Class saloon, not many people are likely to favour it over the E-Class, since it's more expensive and has less interior space.Another issue is that around 84% of E-Class buyers these days opt for diesel engines, and very few go for the large-capacity V6 or V8 petrol alternatives. Big petrol engines are all that's on offer with the CLS - there's nothing under 3.5 litres, and there are "currently no plans" to make a diesel available. Despite the close technical relationship, then, there's little threat of damaging the success of the E-Class.The company expects to do better from conquest sales, attracting the interest of people who might have bought an Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Lexus or Porsche. In this respect the CLS will live or die by its looks, which are certainly distinctive. Whether or not this is a beautiful car is a matter for your own judgement, but personally I think it depends on where you are standing. From some angles the design is a success, but from others the car seems dumpy when the intended effect was surely that it should seem sporting.If the CLS is truly aimed at, for example, potential Porsche buyers, you would also expect it to provide a sporting drive. No doubt this is the case with the more powerful (and vastly more expensive) AMG version, but I don't think the entry-level CLS 350 succeeds here. Unlike its higher-spec sisters, it uses conventional springs and shock absorbers in its standard form, though the test car had AirMATIC semi-active air suspension as a £1240 option. Mike Grundon has written that without this the 350 has a "solid, sporting ride", but that's not the impression I got from the more sophisticated set-up.On the contrary, the test car felt to me like a large limousine - not because it's especially luxurious on smooth roads but because it lumbers along on twisty ones. Changes of direction are accompanied by a feeling of "oh, well, if you insist, but give me a good long straight soon, would you?" I can't quite see a Porsche enthusiast being impressed by this sort of thing.Given a suitably unbending road, the CLS 350 is pretty quick. Using the seven-speed automatic transmission which comes as standard, it covers 0-62mph in seven seconds, and there's enough grunt to oblige Mercedes-Benz - under the gentleman's agreement still being observed by some German manufacturers - to limit the top speed to 155mph. With performance like this, the 350 should be a sturdy enough performer on an autobahn, and it's going to be quick enough for pretty much any UK scenario. Without having driven the 500 or the AMG, I feel I'm safe in suggesting that they can't be usefully quicker.Inevitably, the CLS seems very similar to an E-Class from the inside, though it's significantly lower and capable of holding just two large adults for any great length of time. For a car costing more than £43,000 at its most basic (but wait till you hear about the options), the CLS is appropriately comfortable, yet there are some oddities which I would not expect from a car in which I had invested to quite this extent.The foot-operated parking brake, for example, sits very high in the "off" position, which meant that I had to bend my left knee almost as far as it would go in order to lock the brakes. And the right-hand wiper misses the edge of the screen by several inches, so in bad weather the width of the A-pillar is effectively doubled, with obvious results in terms of visibility. Neither of these things seemed acceptable in something so expensive.Oh yes, about the expense. Manufacturers tend to load their press cars with extras, and that was extravagantly the case here. Our CLS had a whole array of the things, including the air suspension mentioned above as well as 18" alloy wheels, a COMAND display system, active bi-xenon headlamps, telephone pre-wiring, heated seats and leather upholstery. With a few more odds and ends thrown in, the effect was to increase the price to a startling £51,250. That's very close to what you would pay for a "basic" CLS 500, though well short of the £70,565 Mercedes is asking for the AMG.The cost of the larger-engined cars may well justify these figures, but I just could not make myself believe that the 350 felt like it was worth more than fifty grand. I was left with the impression that you would have to fall deeply in love with the car's shape before you would even consider it as an alternative to its stated rivals. Engine 3498cc, 6 cylinders Power 272bhp Transmission 7-speed automatic Fuel/CO2 28.0mpg / 241g/km Acceleration 0-62mph: 7.0 seconds Top speed 155mph Price £43,120 Details correct at publication date

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