MERCEDES-AMG CLS 53
Style meets substance in AMG’s competent, design-driven sedan
HOW DO YOU neatly encapsulate that certain feeling of ‘rightness’ in a performance car? You feel it within the first 50 metres and it usually takes something wholly egregious from that point forward to change your opinion.
Still, when you pause to consider it, your first handshake with a car tells you a great deal. You’ll know whether the driving position has been nailed, you’ll key into the finesse of the tip-ins of the major controls. You’ll already have a handle on how the steering is geared and how the suspension traverses whatever surface you’re on. But if there’s one thing that inspires confidence like none other, it’s how these components blend to make the car you’re driving feel smaller and wieldier than you’d ever have imagined.
The Mercedes-AMG CLS 53 4MATIC+ is not a small car. From prow to posterior this third generation C257 model, first introduced in 2018, measures a smidge over five metres, if smidges are reckoned to be 12mm long. With its fiendishly complex supercharged and twinturbocharged straight six, allwheel drive underpinnings and 13-speaker Burmester stereo it tips the scales at 1985kg, or roughly two 70kg passengers more than the weight of a Tesla Model 3 Performance, itself no lightweight.
Yet there’s a certain lithe co-ordination about the way the CLS 53 comports itself. It feels all of a piece, it’s easy to both manoeuvre at low speed and heft into a bend at a decent clip. But before we get too far into that, it’s worth rewinding a moment and explaining why we’re behind the wheel of this car at all.
As some of you might have guessed given the date of its introduction, the CLS 53 has come in for a mid-life wash and brushup. The unexceptional CLS 450 model has been ditched from the Australian line up, leaving the AMG 53 the sole CLS model available. That’s no bad thing. It was only ever $15k more expensive, and that cash bought you an additional 50kW and 20Nm, a stack of additional equipment and sharper styling to boot. Since the range has been rationalised, Merc has given the CLS 53 a $6k price cut which makes it better value than ever.
Splashing out of a sodden Phillip Island circuit, I’m given to pause and consider where this generation of CLS fits with its predecessors. The original C219 version was a knockout, that banana-shaped barnstormer that could, from 2006, be had with a naturally aspirated 378kW 6.2-litre M156 engine. The second generation C218 car arrived in 2010 and never created quite such a stir. It was better built and went down a road in a more composed manner, but the 5.5-litre twin-turbo M157 (in tunes from 386 to 430kW) was never a powerplant from AMG’s very top drawer.
Fast forward to 2018, when the C257 model arrived. With no 63-badged model ever offered, it would be easy to dub this, from an enthusiast’s perspective at least, the runt generation. Unless you’re absolutely wedded to every last person in the neighbourhood knowing that you’ve bought a V8, there’s a lot to like about this CLS
53 AMG. For a start, it feels like a proper sports sedan.
That’s a bit of journalist-speak for the fact that it rides a bit firmer than you might well expect. Some will like the fact that it can corner flat and hard, but there will be others who get into the CLS and expect a sleeker version of the E-Class. They’ll be disappointed that this is no lugubrious wafter. Road imperfections filter through to the cabin, the suspension bumps and thumps like distant thunder and there’s a persistent tyre roar. It’s never harsh, but it always serves to remind you that you chose an AMG version.
The engine is still a mighty thing, with a torque curve that looks like a Badlands mesa. Anywhere between 1800 and 5800rpm, you have the full 520Nm measure available to you. The 48V mildhybrid tech acts as torque fill, ladling on 16kW and 250Nm which helps the CLS 53 to 100km/h from rest in 4.5 seconds.
Aside from the race circuit, Phillip Island doesn’t offer too much for the keen driver, so we head inland to the roads that rise into the rolling Gippsland hills.
There’s a bit of everything here: weird cambers, bad weather, splitmu braking zones, humps, crests, compressions and some beautiful open sinuous sections where you can tip the AMG downhill like a slalom skier, getting early into the turns and feeling the weight shifting laterally as both you and the car calculate how much of the grip envelope you have remaining.
The steering is a little mute when you really want it to speak to you, and in the less aggressive drive modes, stability control interventions arrive a little earlier than you may expect for an all-wheel drive car, but other than that, it’s an impressive performance. Yes, it’s tempting to think what a 63 version would offer, but every once in a while, less can be more.
Even with a $183k sticker price, an AMG badge and 1980kg to arrest, the CLS 53 doesn’t come standard with carbon-ceramic brakes, but the standard stoppers certainly aren’t found wanting. Notched into a conservative drive mode, the transmission calibration slurs into higher gears early. Click into Sport+ and the air suspension girds itself a little, the exhaust note hardens and steps up a semitone, the stability control loosens its belt, the throttle map delivers more in the first couple of inches of pedal travel and the transmission gets its game face on. Above 4500rpm, the engine note hardens and by 5000rpm it’s hauling hard. Peak power arrives at 6100rpm, all 320kW of it, after which the 6500rpm redline forces you to snick up another gear.
There’s no doubting the effectiveness of motor, compressor and all-wheel drive, punching the CLS out of tighter corners with spooky grip. If you’re looking for something more expressive in its ability to steer from the rear, sign up for a C63 while you still can.
The Mercedes-AMG CLS 53 isn’t overt. It probably isn’t the car that appears in first or even second place on your shortlist when shopping in this category. But as long as you can live with the fact that this slick-looking four-door coupe has a bit of sinew about its ride quality, there’s a lot to like here. Runt generation? Spend a little time with this car and get back to me on that one.