Emotion influences our decisions, whether we realize it or not. Happiness, sadness, anger, fear, jealousy, regret; these emotions and others influence what we believe, what we do, and what we buy. Rationality plays a role, too, but emotions, according to neuroscience researchers*, “are the dominant driver of most meaningful decisions in life.”
Perhaps better than any other automaker, Mercedes-Benz knows this about you. It knows you’ll pay more for dramatic styling, perceived status, even a badge with a bigger number. Right down to the company’s advertising tagline, “The best or nothing,” Mercedes-Benz understands what motivates you.
Enter the Mercedes-AMG CLS 53. Redesigned for 2019, the CLS-Class is basically a Mercedes E-Class with rakish “coupe” design, less interior and trunk space, and an $11,750 price increase between comparably equipped CLS- and E-Class models.
As this review is published, the Mercedes-AMG CLS 53 is “the best” version of the automaker’s 4-door coupe, requiring an additional outlay of $8,200. It comes standard with a light electrified, or mild hybrid, powertrain that delivers a balanced blend of performance and efficiency, along with the requisite AMG-this and AMG-that.
Having spent a day with the CLS 53 in the San Francisco and Napa Valley areas, I’m convinced that it is “the best” version of the CLS if you’re seeking performance. If you’re seeking luxury, perhaps a CLS 450 with lots of upgrades, including the Acoustic Comfort Package, would be more to your liking.
You’d need to do without the CLS 53’s impressive drivetrain, though.
Hybrids Aren’t Just For Efficiency Anymore
Available in the Mercedes-AMG CLS 53, E 53, and redesigned 2020 GLE 53 models, the automaker’s new EQ Boost technology is applied to a turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine and promises to deliver performance and efficiency.
How? Good question.
Engineers install what’s called an Integrated Starter Generator between the engine and the transmission. This component serves multiple purposes, from adding instant power and torque that effectively eliminates turbocharger lag to supplying the recuperative energy that recharges a lithium-ion battery and in turn powers the car’s 48-volt supplementary electrical system. Learn more about EQ Boost in our deep-dive on the subject.
Net horsepower measures 429 and peak torque is 384 lb-ft. An AMG SpeedShift 9-speed automatic transmission powers all four of the CLS 53’s wheels through an AMG Performance 4Matic+ all-wheel-drive system. Under normal driving circumstances, 4Matic+ operates as a rear-drive system. Up to half of the engine and electric motor’s output can flow to the front wheels as is necessary, distribution continually varying depending on surface conditions, driver inputs, and driving mode.
You choose a driving mode using the AMG Dynamic Select system. It offers Eco, Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ dynamic profiles, or you can mix-and-match to create one of your own, saving it to the Individual setting.
Standard equipment includes staggered width 19-inch AMG-design aluminum wheels, featuring 245/40 front and 275/35 rear all-season run-flat tires. These are bolted to an AMG-tuned adaptive and self-leveling sport suspension based on the company’s Air Body Control technology. An AMG Performance Braking system and AMG Sport Exhaust system are also among this car’s upgrades, and an optional active AMG Performance Exhaust is available.
To make sure people know you’ve got the best CLS, the AMG 53 gets revised styling including big front air intakes, side sill flares, quad exhaust outlets, and a rear diffuser panel. Four different 20-inch wheel designs are available, as well as Night and Carbon Fiber option packages. Enable stealth mode by deleting the car’s badges, which, depending on your reason for getting the CLS 53 in the first place, may defeat the purpose.
Plush Interior but a Loud, Stiff Ride
The AMG treatment continues inside of the CLS 53, where the driver faces an AMG Performance steering wheel wrapped in premium Nappa leather. Black MB-Tex leatherette upholstery with Dinamica suede inserts and red contrast stitching covers the 5-passenger seating. Numerous upgrades are available, from exclusive aluminum, metal weave, and carbon fiber trim to premium seating materials and AMG illuminated doorsill trim plates.
Getting into the Mercedes-AMG CLS 53 in the parking garage at San Francisco International Airport, following hours of irritating flight delays, I find the car to be both a snug fit and a major upgrade from seat 22F. You sit low in relationship to the side sills like you’re cocooned in the cabin, and the strips of Dinamica on the outer bolsters make it harder to move around in the seats.
During the course of the day, the heated and ventilated driver’s seat proved comfortable and the steering wheel was pleasing to grip. My right leg, however, rubbed uncomfortably on the car’s center console.
I gave the rear seat a try, ducking and tucking myself in through the rather small door. Headroom was fine, and the seat cushions provided decent support. Legroom was tight, though, and foot space nearly non-existent. Technically, this is a 5-passenger car, but when used that way you’d better be carrying a trio of children.
Before departing the airport, I spent a good 30 minutes futzing with the CLS 53’s Widescreen Cockpit technology. Two 12.3-inch displays reside under a single piece of glass, one providing the digital instrumentation and the other handling infotainment system functions.
Exceptionally sophisticated and robustly-featured, Widescreen Cockpit is a complex beast that takes time to master. Some functions are easy to find and reference, while others are not. Should you buy a CLS with this technology, my recommendation is to spend plenty of quality time getting everything set up to your preferences. Otherwise, the potential for confusion and frustration is significant.
My test vehicle had the optional Driver Assistance Package, containing 14 different advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). At various times, I used these as I drove out of San Francisco for the comparatively empty stretches of 2-lane highway in the Napa Valley area. Get more details about the Driver Assistance Package in our full report on these ADAS technologies.
Best When Used to Rip Around on Rural Roads
From the airport, I got on Interstate 80 heading over the Bay Bridge north to Napa Valley. I expected the Mercedes-AMG CLS 53’s powerful acceleration. I did not expect the amount of road noise and impact harshness.
Even with the car in Comfort mode, the ride was stiff. And plenty of what I’ll characterize as “road boom” made its way from the back of the cabin to the front seats.
One possible solution to this problem is opting for the Acoustic Comfort Package. It adds extra sound insulation and acoustic windshield and side window glass, and my test car did not have this upgrade. Another possible solution to this problem is to stick with the standard 19-inch wheel-and-tire package. My test vehicle had 20-inch wheels shod with performance tires with thinner sidewall heights.
Or, you can skip “the best” CLS in favor of a CLS 450 with a more compliant suspension and a quieter ride. The CLS 450, however, does not include the CLS 53’s EQ Boost hybrid drivetrain.
One of the benefits of the EQ Boost drivetrain is instant torque from the electric motor. I’m happy to substantiate Mercedes’ claim that it eliminates turbo lag, as the CLS 53 leaps away from a stop and relentlessly builds speed until you relax pressure on the accelerator pedal. Passing power is equally robust.
Another benefit of the EQ Boost drivetrain is fuel efficiency. The EPA says the CLS 53 will get 21 mpg in the city, 27 mpg on the highway, and 23 mpg in combined driving. During the course of 137 miles, much of it traffic- and city-free, my test car returned 24.2 mpg.
On the writhing roads of Napa and Lake counties, the CLS 53 and I continued our struggle to understand each other.
In Comfort mode, the car’s disquieting body float while the wheels simultaneously pound across the pavement creates a sense of cognitive dissonance. The steering feels a little light, too, and I found myself feeding the wheel minor corrections through constant radius corners.
In Sport and especially Sport+ modes, the CLS 53 comes alive in your hands, stiffening up, getting louder, responding faster, and in Sport+ mode adding a roaring, crackling soundtrack to the proceedings. As a result, this is a fun car to drive fast.
I had a ball thundering down back roads, still wet from rain during the day. Despite the dampness, the AMG 4Matic+ all-wheel-drive system ensured impressive sure-footedness, automatically transferring power forward and between the wheels to maximize grip and momentum. Willing partners in crime, the performance brakes were a model of perfection all day, from feel and modulation to their ability to withstand abuse.
These are the conditions under which the CLS 53 is most enjoyable to drive, where its performance-tuned components come together to perform a speed-induced symphony. In cities and suburbs, the CLS 53 is less agreeable, the low driving position, restricted visibility, and borderline harsh ride are steep prices to pay for the car’s styling and perceived superiority.
Given my experience driving the less expensive and more practical Mercedes-AMG E 53 Sedan on this same trip, it would be my personal preference between the two. With a higher driving position, better outward visibility, and a curb weight lighter by 106 pounds, I liked it better.
But maybe I was simply in a happier, more relaxed mood on the day I drove it.
* “Emotion and Decision Making” by Jennifer S. Lerner, Ye Li, Piercarlo Valdesolo, Karim Kassam, as submitted for publication in the Annual Review of Psychology