Showing posts with label Mercedes-Benz. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mercedes-Benz. Show all posts

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Audi A7 3.0T takes on the Mercedes-Benz CLS550

"This car has an identity crisis. The aggressive exterior, brash exhaust note and firm ride say 'sport,' but the interior screams 'grandma!'"

The decision was made to review these "four-door coupes" not only from the driver's perspective, but from all four seating positions.
Strong words, especially when they originate from a stranger named Stephen sitting in the back seat of the $80,995 Mercedes-Benz some 80 miles from where we picked him up. The 31-year-old real estate broker and five other industry outsiders were invited to spend the day with Autoblog to help us compare the 2012 Audi A7 3.0T to the 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550.

These two vehicles have met head-to-head before, but not on these pages. To make things a bit more interesting, the decision was made to review these "four-door coupes" not only from the driver's perspective, but from all four seating positions. The unique comparison would require each of the vehicles to carry 700-plus pounds of passengers comfortably from the flatlands of the hot LA Basin up to the cool mile-high elevations of Big Bear Lake and back. The winner would be determined by a simple vote.

As this task called for six warm bodies willing to be chauffeured 160 miles over a long afternoon, Autoblog's Facebook page was enlisted to recruit. Within 24 hours, we had our six smiling volunteers fingered.

Our randomly chosen readers ranged in age from 22 to 35, and in occupation from a college student to a working professional environmental scientist. There were five men and one woman, each with a strong automotive passion and a willingness to hang with us for nearly six hours in exchange for some ice-cold bottled water and a free hot lunch. Our players:

· Alex, a 22-year-old student

· Erick, a 26-year-old graphic designer

· Ian, a 27-year-old information technology expert

· Lisa, a 35-year-old product specialist for an automotive manufacturer

· Manjul, a 32-year-old environmental scientist

· Stephen, a 31-year-old real estate broker

Fellow Autoblog scribe Jeff Glucker and I would be tasked with driving. The plan was to break into two groups of four that would each stick together for the duration of the review. We'd pull over every 30 minutes or so and everyone would swap vehicles - think of it as a modified Chinese fire drill, but with two cars.

To vary the driving environment as much as possible, everyone met at an In-N-Out Burger in Glendora (elevation 774 feet) at the foothills of the Angeles National Forest. Our route would take us across the LA Basin on freeways to the foothills of the San Bernardino National Forest. At that point, we would climb up the mountain to Big Bear Lake (elevation 6,750 feet), take in the scenery and eat lunch. Our return trip would trace our steps in reverse. Mother Nature had her own agenda, but more on that in a moment.

The Mercedes-Benz CLS550 is the veteran in this comparison. Credited with starting this whole "four-door coupe" segment back in 2004 when it was a knocked-off the W211 E-Class platform, the second-generation four-door (it has a conventional trunk) shares underpinnings and engine choices with the latest W212 E-Class. Sleekly styled with an aggressive facade, the four-passenger CLS550 is fitted with bright LED lamps at all four corners. It looks as modern as a Boeing 787 Dreamliner when it flies by. Under its hood is a new direct-injected twin-turbocharged 4.7-liter V8 rated at 402 horsepower and 443 pound-feet of torque. Power is sent to the rear wheels through a wet seven-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for manual control. The suspension is independent at all four corners, with cockpit-adjustable air springs. Completing its performance package are four-piston brakes in the nose and single-piston units out back, all clamping down on cross-drilled rotors to slow down a set of staggered 19-inch wheels and Pirelli P Zero tires (255/35-19 up front and 285/30-19 in the rear).

The Audi A7 3.0T is the fresh new face in this pair up. Internally designated Type 4G, the first-generation five-door (it has a large rear hatchback) was introduced less than a year ago to worldwide acclaim. Sharing underpinnings with the MLB-based (Modularer Längsbaukasten) A6, the four-passenger A7 is even more beautiful in person than it looks in any picture. Under the aluminum hood is a direct-injected supercharged 3.0-liter V6 rated at 310 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque (ignore the odd "3.0T" nomenclature because this engine is not turbocharged). Power is sent to the automaker's Quattro all-wheel-drive system through a wet eight-speed automatic with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. An independent multi-link suspension, with fixed sport dampers, controls body movement and unnecessary roll. The brakes are four single-piston calipers actuating on ventilated rotors inside optional 20-inch wheels. The square tire setup puts the same size Yokohama Advan Sport (265/35-20) at each corner.

The price advantage goes to the Audi. Its base MSRP of $59,250 was bumped up with a Premium Plus and Sport package adding the navigation and 20-inch wheels, among other things. The A7's bottom line was $66,220 including destination. The Mercedes started with a base MSRP of $71,300. It was fitted with options including the P01 package, 19-inch alloys, active driver seat, rear side airbags, split-folding rear seats, parking assist, lane keeping assist, blind spot assist and a wood/leather steering wheel. The must-have equipment bumped the sticker price to $80,995 including destination.

We decided early in the game that the price difference, while large, wasn't significant enough to detract a buyer from either model – if you've got the means to spend $66,000 on a car, bumping up to $80,000 probably isn't too much of a stretch. (On a more grounded note, consider the percentage equates to the same dollar gap between a mid-grade Kia Soul Plus and a well-equipped Soul Exclaim.)

These German automakers have each taken slightly different approaches to the rear accommodations in their four-passenger coupes.

2012 Audi A7 3.0T headlight2012 Audi A7 3.0T wheel2012 Audi A7 3.0T taillights2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 headlight2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 wheel2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 taillights

The Audi's two front seats are identical to each other. Easy to slide onto, they are slightly bolstered with shallow bottom cushions that are surprisingly soft. The Mercedes-Benz, on the other hand, has an upgraded driver's seat with active bolstering and massage features (the front passengers make due with a standard 14-way power seat). While nobody complained about comfort in the front seats of the A7, switching quickly to the front seats of the CLS550 was a wake-up call. "I thought the Audi was comfortable. The seat isn't overly bolstered, the leather is soft and I can adjust it to my exact liking. Moving into the CLS550, however, is like trading a water bed for a Tempur-Pedic. Sure, the active bolsters get tiring after time, but turn them off and hit the massage switch and all is forgotten. After I got out of the CLS, I felt guilty for not tipping," said Autoblog Editor Jeff Glucker. "CLS seats were amazing," added Ian.

Our volunteers had a lot to say about the rear seats, mainly because they spent a lot of time back there. They particularly pointed out how the sharply sloped roofs and jutting seat bolsters made ingress/egress difficult. The CLS550, the most dramatically styled of the two, was singled-out first. "I had trouble getting in and out of the Mercedes... I hit my head twice. I had no such problems with the Audi," noted Manjul. Alex took the words out of most everyone's mouth when he stated, "It took something of a conscious effort not to bump my head every time I got in or out of the car." His comments seemed not only directed at both of the test vehicles but all four-door coupes on the market today.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 interior2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 front seats2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 rear seats

The Mercedes-Benz CLS550 is noted for its wood/leather steering wheel and a full rear storage console

2012 Audi A7 3.0T interior2012 Audi A7 3.0T front seats2012 Audi A7 3.0T rear seats
The Audi A7 features exposed grain wood trim and an open compartment between the rear seats

The center rear seat in the Audi has been replaced by a hard and rather useless storage compartment - but someone theoretically could sit on it (without a seatbelt) in an ill-advised pinch. On the other hand, the rear seat of the Mercedes is fitted with a more extravagant full center console. Not everyone was impressed. "I didn't like that the center console in the Mercedes took away any possibility of a fifth passenger, even if it would only be a child. It went all the way to the floor dividing the entire back seat in half," noted Lisa.

Motor Trend recently tested these identical vehicles and clocked the Mercedes-Benz CLS550 to 60 mph in a blistering 4.3 seconds. The Audi A7 3.0T also performed unexpectedly strongly, busting through the same acceleration benchmark in just 4.7 seconds (while noting most other A7's do it in 5.3 seconds). However, that was with one test driver on board. Our test cars were not only topped-off with fuel but we were flying with a full cabin, as they say in the airlines.

Seated in the CLS, I set the transmission to Sport mode for a first-gear start and floored the accelerator. The twin-turbo V8 under the hood of the Mercedes seemed only slightly annoyed with the added mass as it pulled strongly off the line and forced all four of our heads against the leather restraints. The Audi was a bit more taxed and burdened with the heavy passenger load, but its smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic kept it in the race several car lengths back as Jeff floored it up the onramp in pursuit.

Both vehicles were very competent highway cruisers, but far from flawless. The CLS has both Sport and Comfort suspension settings. I preferred Comfort for nearly all conditions, finding Sport simply too harsh. My passengers, watching the radar detector bounce violently on its mount while in Sport, agreed. The A7 has Dynamic and Comfort modes for its suspension, but the differences are very subtle – since nobody had brought along a seismograph we were left stumped by the difference.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 engine2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 engine detail
The CLS550's twin-turbo V8 produces 402 horsepower and 443 lb-ft torque

2012 Audi A7 3.0T engine2012 Audi A7 3.0T engine detail
The A7's supercharged V6 produces 310 horsepower and 325 lb-ft torque

Road noise is an issue in both vehicles. Huge tires be damned, as the summer compound slaps down on the grooved pavement reverberating through the passenger compartments of both vehicles. "I was really surprised by how much road noise was transmitted into the cabin of a car costing this much. I drive a 2003 Subaru with a loud exhaust, so my standard for peace and quiet is pitifully low. Our car was equipped with 20-inch wheels and summer rubber, so I'm sure that explains some of it... but still," Stephen sighed, while riding in the Mercedes.

Yet there are plenty of distractions to keep tire noise at the back of your mind. All occupants, including your Autoblog editors, agreed that the Audi took all the honors when the subject was on-board navigation and infotainment. It was impossible for the CLS550's seven-inch fixed display to compete with the A7's slightly smaller, but Internet-enabled, pop-up display in terms of graphics and content delivery. With its own T-Mobile data plan, Audi has not only integrated real-time Google Maps and search features into its system, but it has the capability to deliver WiFi to eight devices within the vehicle simultaneously. Everyone found the Audi's MMI interface more self-explanatory and appealing when compare to the COMAND system on the Mercedes. "Audi is much more stylish, and the infotainment interface is more user-friendly," said Lisa rather succinctly.

"I was blown away by the A7's navigation unit. The trick pop-out screen was cool, if a little gimmicky. Its integration with Google Maps was very well done, especially the topography. It also displays the posted speed limit, if you are into that sort of thing," commented Alex. "The first thing I did when getting in the back seat was hook up my iPhone to the A7's WiFi signal. In my opinion, the navigation system in Mercedes has always lagged behind. As someone who is into the latest-and-greatest in the tech world, this is a deal-breaker," mustered Lisa. "The A7 is akin to driving around with a portable Genius Bar plucked from an Apple store," said Editor Glucker, who didn't hold his punches. "Staring at the radio of the Benz reminds me of a dusty HAM radio. The map displayed by the Benz would have been great if navigation came standard on a 1989 560 SE. Meanwhile, we're not looking at a map in the Audi... we are looking at the actual earth, courtesy of Google."

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 navigation system2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 center console

The Mercedes COMAND multimedia system falls short on innovative technology, but it is easier to use

2012 Audi A7 3.0T navigation system2012 Audi A7 3.0T center console
Audi's MMI is Google-enabled and broadcasts WiFi thanks to the vehicle's own 3G connection

After 30 minutes of near-straight freeway driving at speeds of about 75 mph, it was time to head into the mountains. The weather went from sunny and hot, to wet and cool.

Steady rain, and a long chain of weekend traffic heading up the hill, kept our speeds low as we followed the mountain's contour climbing towards the lake. Realizing hydrated passengers are happy passengers, I had brought along a cooler full of ice and 16.9-ounce water bottles. While the insulated chest was strapped tightly into the trunk of the Mercedes with tie-downs, the passengers were forced to find places to store their bottles. The cup holders worked well up front, but passengers in the rear did a lot of grumbling. The average-sized cup holders held firmly in the Audi, but gave most everyone headaches in the Mercedes. "As for the cup holders on the CLS550, the test bottles did not fit. Even on the highway at speed, a slight change in direction basically made them fall out. I ended up putting the test bottles in at an angle to hold them. Audi's bottles held up going up the canyon roads and never did move. It's a better designed cup holder. The Audi had a spring loaded clip that would close to the minimum position and would spring out to fit larger cups, kinda like fingers holding a cup," noted Manjul.

Jeff and I noticed that the Audi's standard Quattro all-wheel drive made a difference in the rain. Not as much on the high speed sweepers as it did around town - most obvious when launching from a standstill. The muscular Mercedes would just start to spin a rear wheel off the line before its traction control would immediately kill the fun, making for some "oh-crap" moments when pulling into traffic. The Audi, on the other hand, was able to manage its grip and put the power down even on wet pine needles. (The just-launched CLS550 4Matic, with permanent all-wheel drive, would have been an equalizer under these conditions, though more expensive still.)

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 vs 2012 Audi A7 3.0T

After lunch, the clouds cracked open and rays of sun dried the road. It was the opportunity for Jeff and me to push the cars a bit harder. The CLS550 was the muscle car, delivering effortless thrust accompanied by an exhaust note that put smiles on everyone's face. The A7, on the other hand, was challenged to keep up and its exhaust note muted. "The A7 sounds pretty good when you rev it, but nothing like the Benz. The relative lack of exhaust tone in the Audi isn't a strike against the car itself - it wouldn't dissuade me from buying one - but it doesn't stack up to the music that was coming from the CLS engine," said Alex. "The CLS exhaust from the back seat is perfect," Ian agreed.

At altitude, and with all seats occupied by adults, the A7 was working hard. Stuck behind a slow car, but with a clear passing zone, the supercharged 3.0-liter didn't give me enough confidence to try the pass - the CLS550 would have taken it with ease. The engine in the Mercedes was strong, but I did find frustration with its seven-speed automatic transmission as it seemed more likely to unnecessarily hunt for gears. This was most apparent when compared back-to-back against the smooth eight-speed automatic in the Audi.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 badge2012 Audi A7 3.0T badge

Editor Glucker was just as impressed with the performance of the Benz. "It's hard to argue with the 4.7-liter mill mounted under the hood of the CLS550. In fact, you don't want to try and talk over it, because it's more enjoyable just to listen to it. Mean and low, the Mercedes rumbles like a tough guy in a tux. It pulls hard through the majority of the rev range. Audi's powerplant is a totally different animal, yet it is one that fights above its weight class. There is no supercharger whine, or grumbling exhaust note to speak of, but there is a wonderful application of power. Down 92 horses to the mighty Mercedes, the Audi somehow manages to feel nearly as quick. The quattro all-wheel-drive system certainly plays a major role, but I'm still a bit flabbergasted that a car this heavy manages to get along so well with just 310 horsepower."

The passengers relegated to the back seats, and getting tossed around like rag dolls in the process, preferred to ride out the twisty sections in the Audi. "On top of the mountain, the [CLS's] air suspension in the rear was constantly correcting for the car into the turns. I could hear it and while it wasn't bad the fact is that it felt like the sinking Titanic. Go into a fast left-handed turn, the car would sink on the right and then bounce up a bit to stabilize the rear. That's what made me seasick. The Audi did not have that feeling," said a woozy Manjul. He wasn't alone in his queasiness, as Erick agreed with him, "I noticed that sitting in the back of the Mercedes made me feel a little nauseous compared to sitting in the front... sitting in the back was very bouncy for me."

Reaching the base of the hill meant another 30-minute trek on flat 70 mph freeways. Not only did it give Manjul's stomach a chance to settle, but it allowed everyone time to think and compose their thoughts about each vehicle before we arrived back at our familiar In-N-Out parking lot.

A quick check of the trip computers revealed 152 fresh miles on the odometer. The Mercedes-Benz CLS550 returned 20.5 mpg calculated by its trip computer (against an EPA fuel economy rating of 17/25). The Audi A7 3.0T delivered 21.6 mpg over the identical route (against an EPA rating of 18/28). Everyone considered both figures very impressive when the payload, driving route and power output of each engine was factored in. The fuel economy numbers were also further proof that the Mercedes wasn't working nearly as hard as the Audi.

Our chauffeured volunteers, who spent five long hours without ever touching an accelerator pedal, were split four-to-two on their favorite. Lisa, Manjul, Stephen and Erick preferring the A7, while Ian and Alex - two of our younger guests - chose the CLS550.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 gauges2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 dash clock2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 start button

Bold analog gauges and a prominent start button are features of the Mercedes-Benz CLS550 interior

2012 Audi A7 3.0T gauges2012 Audi A7 3.0T dash2012 Audi A7 3.0T shifter
Impeccible detail, rich materials and a traditional shifter highlight the Audi A7's interior

Stephen, who was in the Audi camp, couldn't look past the CLS550's styling, both inside and out. "The interior of a car sets the tone in which it's driven. In this case, we've got a whole lot of contradiction. The exterior styling advertises this as a car for the moneyed life of the party and the exhaust note will put your stoplight neighbors on notice. Sadly, the cabin makes it nearly impossible to fulfill either of those prophecies. I cannot imagine sitting in the driver's seat and pushing that car hard. Such a lack of cohesion and display of disorder isn't just surprising in a German car, it's practically shocking."

Ian, who was on team Mercedes, had a contradictory view. "I enjoyed the Benz in almost every way over the Audi. I thought the seats were more comfortable and had more options, the ride when needed felt sportier, and when not needed felt more plush and subdued. The engine, while recognizing the Audi was down on horsepower, just felt stronger and more linear in the Benz. The Audi's only redeeming factor in my mind was its GPS."

The two Autoblog drivers, tasked with preserving life and limb of the valuable cargo, were also split. Jeff liked the A7, while I was mesmerized by the CLS550.

2012 Audi A7 3.0T and 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550

"On paper, the Mercedes-Benz CLS550 is a clear winner," said Jeff. "More power, rear-wheel-drive dynamics and the world-class luxury that comes with a big Benz. But this fight is Rocky verses Apollo Creed. Despite the power difference, the Audi managed to keep up on our canyon jaunts. The A7 is an absolute stunner in the exterior styling department and the interior gadgetry should make a Benz owner throw up for spending so much more. I also feel Mercedes should give up the copycat LED daytime running lights because Audi has clearly perfected them. If I were in the market for a four-passenger luxury sports sedan in this price range (let's quit calling them coupes), I would certainly consider both of these cars. Then I would take my first sip of coffee, buy the Audi, a new set of golf clubs, some aftermarket wheels, and put the rest of my cash into a high-yield mutual fund."

The Audi is undeniably sexy and its technology cutting-edge, but your author finds it impossible to overlook the twin-turbocharged 4.7-liter under the hood of the Mercedes. Mountains of torque rocket the four-door off the line with a squeal and it doesn't seem to ever run out of steam. While I am a tech-geek, the callous rumble of a refined V8 combined with hip-hugging seats and a thick steering wheel made me forget all about the Audi's Google-infused navigation system and eye-candy display. Sure, the Audi was quick in the corners, but the Mercedes is so much more fun to drive. If offered the choice, I'd grab the key fob to the CLS550 faster than you can say "managed collective investment," point the three-pointed star towards Vegas and go hang with the high rollers.

2012 Audi A7 3.0T and 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550

In the end, five votes went to the Audi A7 3.0T while the remaining three votes fell on the Mercedes CLS550 – the A7 owned the win.

The Audi's victory is surprising, but not completely unexpected. Many of us in the driver's seat automatically assume horsepower and a well-sorted chassis will dominate a comparison. This time, with all seating positions contributing a ballot, it was innovative technology and ride comfort that hoisted the leader to the podium.

Battle of the Four-Dour Coupes

The Audi A7 is simply gorgeous, both inside and out. Toss in a very competent supercharged V6 and the all-weather capability of Quattro all-wheel drive and the stunning four-door just may be one of the world's finest all-around vehicles. While down on horsepower, the A7 captured the win thanks to its passenger-friendly cabin and innovative technology - qualities that matter to all occupants, not just the driver.

The Mercedes-Benz CLS550 established the four-door coupe segment, so it finds itself in a defensive position against the newcomers who take carefully aimed shots at the veteran. The CLS550 is a driver's car, from the throaty V8 and rear-wheel drive powertrain to the cross-drilled multi-piston brakes. Those excellent attributes, however, don't change the outlook to those left staring out the window from the rear seats.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550

Mercedes-Benz has a long history of setting trends, which includes being the first company to develop technologies we take for granted today, like traction control systems, airbags and anti-lock brakes. It also kicked off the trend of propelling vehicles with motors, having built and sold the first automobile back in 1885. But it's not usually known for setting styling trends, which is exactly what the company did when it launched the CLS-Class back in 2004.

Despite four doors staring you right in the face, the CLS was officially dubbed a coupe by Mercedes because of the car's sleek coupe-like roofline. Semantics aside, it kicked off an entirely new segment of four-door coupes with its new, artful approach to transporting four people. Just like a fledgling industry followed the Benz Patent-Motorwagen's arrival in 1885, the arrival of the CLS created an entirely new class of vehicle.

Having started the trend, Mercedes gets to show us how it will evolve, and the 2012 CLS550 does just that. It's job isn't just to steer this trend away from becoming a fad, but also fend off a growing number of automakers who wish they had thought of it first.

The first-generation CLS was widely considered a beautiful design, almost shockingly so compared to how the brand was shaping its four-doors back in 2004. If you're a fan of that original design, you probably wouldn't have minded if Mercedes left the exterior alone. Alas, seven years is a long life cycle for any product, and Mercedes can't be faulted for putting pen to paper. The question is whether or not its designers succeeded in making the new CLS more attractive than the old one.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 side view2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 front view2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 rear view

The Autoblog team is not unanimous on the answer. There's no one among us who believes either generation is punishment on the eyes, and so either opinion can be held without considering the other side a bunch of tasteless boobs. Your author, however, finds himself on the side of Team First-Gen, so I'll do my best to explain why I think the original is still the better looker of thee two sedans, err... coupes.

Let's start with some analogies. The first-generation CLS is like a man wearing a fitted tuxedo: formal, sharp and clean. The second-gen CLS is like Lou Ferrigno after he beat up the first man and put on his tuxedo: bigger, bulging and intimidating. Now let's get more technical. From the side, the first-gen CLS is expressed by two basic strokes of the designer's pen: an elegant arch for the roofline and a subtly bowed crease that runs from front fender to taillight above the door handles. The second-gen CLS retains the arching roofline, but is growing a crease farm on its doors. The first-gen's simple single line has been replaced by upper and lower ones that start at the front wheel and get closer together as you move rearward, and a third crease bends over the rear wheel to create a flared fender into which the first two end. Together they create a concavity across the doors that makes the rear fenders look even more pronounced. Coupled with a near vertical grille and taller hood, the second-gen's look is more convoluted and just a bit too butch.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 headlight2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 LED lights2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 side detail2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 taillights

The aesthetic, however, happens to fit, because if you didn't know, Mercedes-Benz makes muscle cars. Its V8s make us swoon, even the ones not stamped with the letters A-M-G. Known for their large displacements, high horsepower and bellowing exhaust tones, these engines – the 5.5-liter and 6.2-liter AMG specifically – are on their way out across the brand's lineup. Sad as we are to see them go, new emissions and fuel economy standards, not to mention gas prices, make it a must. Their replacements are two new smaller V8s – a 4.6-liter for 550 models and a 5.5-liter for AMG versions, both featuring twin turbochargers and direct injection to replace the lost displacement (it can be done!).

The new CLS550 retains its nomenclature despite housing the new 4.6-liter V8, which while smaller in size produces 402 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 443 pound-feet of torque at a low 1,800 rpm – big improvements over the larger 5.5-liter V8 it replaces, which continues to make 382 hp at 6,000 rpm and 391 lb-ft at 2,800 rpm in other models. The new engine is also significantly more efficient, with improvements of three miles per gallon in the city and four mpg on the highway for new scores of 17 city / 25 highway. We actually experienced a fuel consumption rate in the high 20-mpg range during a long highway trip, which is exemplary for an engine making 400+ horsepower. This new V8 is one area where we're all playing for Team Second-Gen.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 engine

The interior, likewise, is a big improvement, though mostly in the area of materials, which are of a higher quality than the first generation, especially the convincing metal air vents. Ergonomically the cabin looks like most other Mercs, and even much like last year's car with just the elements rearranged. The seven-inch navigation screen has been moved to the very top of the center stack, replacing a pair of vents that now appear below the screen and flank a tasteful analogue clock. The climate controls, which used to be near the top, are now at the very bottom, though laid out in the same way as before with dual rotary knobs and easy-to-press buttons. There's also a new, larger 4.5-inch circular display in the center of the speedometer that gives you access to most of the vehicles high-tech features and functions. Navigating the menus is simple via steering wheel-mounted controls, and there are a lot of them that let you to do everything from change the color of the interior's ambient lightning to turn off the traction control system.

Conspicuously absent is a gear shift of any kind to move the car's seven-speed automatic transmission from P into D. In its place is the COMAND system control knob that operates the navigation, audio, phone and various other vehicle systems. Whether or not you like it depends largely on whether you prefer touch-screens to controller-based interfaces, but we were able to figure it out without cracking a manual and the knob falls to hand without taking your eyes off the road.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 interior2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 dash vent2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 dash clock2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 door controls

This begs the question, how do you put the seven-speed transmission into Drive? By using one of three stalks sticking out of the CLS' steering column. The gear selector stalk is on the right side by itself, and using it brings back memories of the column-mounted shifter in my dad's old truck. It's all digitally controlled now and lacks the mechanical feel of the old days, but the muscle memory of reaching up and pulling down to get in gear is still there. The two left-side stalks, meanwhile, are a bane of modern Mercedes interiors. The smaller one on top controls the adaptive cruise control system, while the bottom one does turn signals and headlights. Most people, however, will instinctively grab the top stalk by accident when signaling a turn. Mercedes has finally begun fixing this problem by switching the stalks' positions beginning with the 2012 ML-Class. Unfortunately, the also-new 2012 CLS missed the cut.

The new CLS gets higher marks for its Active Multicontour Driver's Seat. In addition to the standard 14-way seat controls near the door handles, this $660 option adds another set of controls between the driver's seat and center console that adjusts lumbar supports, side bolsters and shoulders supports, as well as activates a massage function for working out the kinks on longer trips. It also adds active side bolsters that, when activated, dynamically move in to keep you from sliding during turns. They come in handy on sweeping turns, especially highway exit and entrance ramps, where lateral g-forces can last longer. However, we wish the system didn't respond below a certain speed; who wants their sides pinched when they're prowling for a parking spot?

A fancy driver's seat is just one of many stand-alone and packaged options offered for the CLS550, which starts at $71,300 with an $875 destination charge. This particular model tops out at $84,545 as tested, which is a big difference, but not so shocking when you see what you get. For starters, the CLS comes with the $4,390 Premium 1 Package that includes popular options like a rear-view camera, iPod interface, heated and cooled front seats, keyless entry and a power-closing trunk. Its best component, however, is the world's first pair of all-LED active headlamps on a production car, an honor shared with the 2012 Audi A6 that also offers a set.

Next up is the Driver Assistance Package for $2,950 that includes Active Blind Spot Assist, Active Lane Keeping Assist and Mercedes' adaptive cruise control system called DISTRONIC PLUS with PRE-SAFE Brake. Many cars today have warning systems to alert drivers when they drift out of a lane, but the Mercedes system gets into the game by actively braking the opposite side of the vehicle to bring the car back between the lines. The adaptive cruise control is also at the head of the class for being able to apply full braking force and bring the CLS550 to a complete stop if needed. Our tester is also loaded with the Wheel Package for $760 that adds 18-inch AMG five-spoke wheels, an AMG steering wheel and a manual mode for the transmission, as well as stand alone options like the PARKTRONIC auto-parking system ($970), split-folding rear seats ($440) and rear side airbags ($420).

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 start button2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 multimedia system dial2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 door speaker2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 key fob

The last bit of bleeding-edge tech in our tester is the Night View Assist PLUS system, which is the most expensive stand alone option at $1,780. More of a showpiece to impress the Joneses, it uses infrared beams to display a black-and-white high-resolution video feed of what's ahead of you in the dark. It can even identify people and highlight them. The feed appears in the nav screen, so you have to avert your eyes from the road to watch it, but it does work as advertised and might come in handy if a jealous Mr. Jones takes a baseball bat to your all-LED headlights. Watch the Short Cut video above to see it in action.

All of those options are nice, but what about what's beneath them? First and foremost, the CLS550 is a luxury car of the highest order with an AIRMATIC semi-active suspension that supports a three-link independent front suspension and multi-link rear. There's no slop in the ride, body motions are controlled and you can dial in the system even more by choosing either Sport or Comfort mode. We wish the Sport mode were a little more aggressive, as body lean remains distinctly noticeable even with it on. We have no qualms with the electromechanical power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering, and the 14.2-inch front brakes clamped by four-piston calipers and 12.6-inch rear discs with single-piston calipers make stopping this 4,158-pound four-door a drama-free affair.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 wheel

What's curious about the new CLS550 is that it's still a muscle car putting on airs. Every electrical nanny is there to keep you and the 402-hp V8 in check, and with all of them turned on, there's a thick buffer keeping the two of you from collaborating. We found the transmission and traction control system to be the most oppressive. The transmission does give you three shift modes: Economy, Sport and Manual. Shifts happen early and often in Economy mode, while Sport mode gets the transmission moving quicker and holding gears longer, and Manual mode takes advantage of the paddles on the back of the steering wheel. We suggest the latter for what feels like the quickest shifts, but chances are you'll spend the most time in Economy mode where the car is most efficient, and in this mode, the CLS550 feels like a race horse that isn't allowed to leave the gate.

The key to flexing the CLS550's muscle is activating the Sport suspension and Manual transmission modes and turning off the traction control system (along with all of the other nannies that beep and flash). With those steps taken, the CLS550 feels more like something from Mopar than Mercedes, willing at a moment's notice to paint the pavement with rubber. After experiencing the CLS550 this way, the manufacturer's claimed 0-60 mph time of 5.1 seconds becomes much more believable. And though the new 4.6-liter doesn't sound quite as deep and rich as the last generation's 5.5-liter, it still burbles and vibrates more than the eight-cylinders in most other luxury cars.

2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 rear 3/4 view

And maybe that's because the CLS550 just isn't a luxury car, or at least doesn't want to be with such a strong, athletic engine. So much effort goes into subduing the V8 that Mercedes could have just as easily offered a V6-powered model, a CLS350, that wears the luxury moniker more willingly while also being more efficient. Maybe we'll soon see one here in the U.S., not to mention a diesel-powered BlueTec variant. Europeans can already have their CLS any they want it, so hopefully it's just a matter of a suit somewhere saying 'yes.'

Even with a split personality, the second-gen CLS is superior in almost every way to the original, maybe every way if you prefer its design. And like every trend setter, it's now surrounded by variations on the theme – some quicker, some sexier and some more serene. Mercedes, however, has successfully kept the CLS their target, and thanks to this wonderful engine, it's a moving one.