Coupé de Grâce

A 20th Anniversary present for the CLS: Death.

2023 Mercedes CLS. Image: Autoblog

Amid the seemingly unstoppable backdrop of automotive colossi crumbling amid shifting regulatory and market tectonics, the announcement last week from Mercedes-Benz that CLS production will cease entirely in August appears something of a sideshow. It certainly is not one to elicit a great deal of garment-rending, for the CLS has never been a car one could take all that seriously.

Perhaps one reason for this is that neither did its maker. This of course is a rather disingenuous statement to make, given that Mercedes-Benz by necessity has to take all of its model lines very seriously indeed, but it can be stated that the CLS model line did suggest a more casual visual approach from Sindelfingen — representing the somewhat unedifying sight of the otherwise po-faced Swabian carmaker loosening its shirt collar, shedding its suit jacket and metaphorically at least, getting a wiggle on.

2004 C219 CLS. Image: carpixel

Billed as a “a thrilling symbiosis between the elegant design of a coupé and the functionality of a four-door luxury saloon”, the W211 E-Class-derived C219 was hailed by its maker as an entirely new concept, “a unique, pioneering vehicle” — the Daimler-Benz hyperbole generator really working overtime in this instance[1].

The CLS came into being out of a number of factors which had become apparent to Sindelfingen’s product strategists. Firstly, the median age of Mercedes-Benz customers was stubbornly high and needed to be lowered. Secondly, there existed what planners describe as ‘white space’ for a more indulgent four-door vehicle, aimed at affluent ‘empty nesters’[2] who not only wanted the sultry appearance of a coupé, but also the practicality of four doors (and four seats).

Their research also identified a subset of car buyers who were impervious to the three pointed star’s charms, viewing Mercedes as being too formal (or corporate) for their tastes, these people tending to gravitate towards the likes of Jaguar and their ilk. Mercedes’ strategists therefore believed that a car more in the XJ idiom had the potential to attract this customer. These were the matters C219 was schemed to address, Mercedes aiming to achieve what Audi had done with the TT — a transformative model line — both in sales and perception terms.

First shown as the Vision CLS concept at 2003’s Frankfurt motor show, the design attributed primarily to Michael Fink[3], with contributions from Peter Arcadipan[4] was a notable departure for the Swabian carmaker, albeit one which chimed with the more relaxed (some might suggest careless) styling themes emerging under Peter Pffeifer’s tenure as Sindelfingen studio leader.

Key themes included the slammed roofline (which did nothing for rear headroom) and the defined feature line which ran from ahead of the front wheels, terminating at the rear lamp units. This parabolic ‘bone line’, which reflected the shaping of the canopy, however gave the CLS an unfortunate banana-shaped silhouette. While traditional 2-door Mercedes coupés had always employed a pillarless DLO arrangement, the CLS, because of its two extra doors was unable to facilitate this; however, frameless side glazing provided some compensation.

Image: favcars

But the result was dramatic and for Mercedes, quite Avant-Garde, signalling the fact that the Stuttgart-based carmaker was not afraid of radical change. Press and public reaction to the concept was broadly enthusiastic[5], vindicating the decision to begin production in 2004. This was borne out by the car’s commercial fate, with sales for the model eclipsing that of the traditional E-Class coupé. However, demand for fashion items such as these would prove ephemeral and the aftermath of the financial crash of 2008 saw CLS sales nosedive markedly.

Two years later, a second generation model made its debut at that year’s Paris motor show. The C218[6] CLS was once more based on the platform and running gear of the equivalent E-Class saloon, in this case the W212 model. It was all change at Sindelfingen by then, with overall stylistic responsibility resting with Gorden Wagener. Responsibility for the C218’s chosen design theme was Hubert Lee, based (at the time) in the Mercedes studio in Carlsbad, CA.

Since the ‘parent’ W212 E-Class’ style was characterised by its rather forced reference to the 1953 Ponton model’s rear three-quarter ‘haunch’, the CLS (perhaps in sympathy) was in receipt of a similar retrospective treatment, with its sweeping feature line and arching rear three quarter ‘shoulder’[7].

2010 C218 CLS. Image: autoweb

The second generation CLS was very much a fully-fledged Mercedes model line, coming with a full suite of powertains (down to a lowly 2.1 litre turbodiesel for those user-choosers on a budget) and for the first time, an estate model, dubbed shooting brake[8] owing to its less than commodious luggage compartment and roofline. Perhaps because of this latter feature, the CLS estate (X218 in Sindelfingen-speak) was the most coherent looking of the model line, its longer roofline allowing the classical styling tropes more room to breathe.

The CLS proved a useful model for the three-pointed star, giving buyers who looked down their noses at an E-Class but baulked at the sheer scale of an S-Class something which not only looked the part, but also provided a more youthful glow to go with their high-end athleisure apparel. Furthermore, it opened up markets like the far East, where traditional two-door coupés were not strong sellers.

Image: autoevolution

Where the CLS proved less successful than imagined (undoubtedly to the surprise of Mercedes’ strategists) was in the US, with Europe accounting for the bulk of sales over the car’s lifespan. The reasons for this are unclear, given that it was very much developed with that market in mind, but there will have been reasons. By now of course, Mercedes did not have it all to itself, with rivals Audi (A7), BMW (6 Series Gran Coupé) and Porsche (Panamera) offering the CLS stern opposition for hearts, minds and bank balances.

Following the usual Mercedes model cycles, the CLS received its third reinvention in 2017, with the introduction of the current (C257) model, which was to prove something of a pared-back stylistic homage to the original[9]. By now, Mercedes’ PR had cranked the hyperbole generator up to eleven, citing the 2003 model’s status as an archetype; the carmaker’s Instagram-happy design leader on hand to ladle further mirth onto an already unintentionally hilarious press release, citing the CLS design’s ‘eroticism’.

Image: carsdirect

But for all their efforts, both CLS and the sector itself was in decline and with weakening demand for the model, and Mercedes’ push towards SUV ‘coupés’ (which is where increasing numbers of CLS buyers are now shopping), the model’s demise, while slightly premature, was nevertheless inevitable. Mercedes cite the fact that its EQ models will fill the breach, but that appears doubtful, given that this market is predicated very much on appearances[10], and has proven remarkably fickle about it.

Image: automacha

The CLS has been a significant model line, not just for kickstarting a latent interest in four-door hardtop ‘coupés’, but for illustrating a point of inflection where Mercedes-Benz truly diverged from its conservative design principles. Once the CLS landed, it really was an all bets off scenario, the results of which are fully evident today. So yes, memorable the CLS certainly was. Whether it will be missed in death however is another question entirely.

[1] In 2004, Mercedes-Benz PR made a big deal of the CLS being a wholly new concept. Of course it was nothing of the kind — the US carmakers having built four door coupés and ‘hardtops’ since the 1950s — to say nothing of the likes of Rover or (arguably) Jaguar.

[2] Another distasteful marketing term.

[3] A design rendering from Fink dated 2000, illustrated what appears to be a very close approximation of the CLS, badged Maybach. Interestingly, Fink is also credited with the design for the post-Millennial Maybach models.

[4] Arcadipan has latterly laid claim to originating the CLS design, stating that he also drew up an estate version, which was not progressed with at the time. Success has many parents…

[5] Not all were onside however, Car magazine’s Phil McNamara giving its appearance an unequivocal thumbs-down in 2004.

[6] Strangely, and illogically for Mercedes, the later car’s model designation is a lower number than that of its predecessor.

[7] The C218 appeared to pay homage, not only to past Sindelfingen masters, but also in a sense to the Bill Mitchell-inspired 1980 Cadillac Seville in its post-modern flamboyance. This overworked design theme is very Gorden Wagener, the Mercedes-Benz design leader displaying a marked affinity in his taste for the overwrought with that of Bill Mitchell’s predecessor, Harley Earl.

[8] This, like all five-door estates so called, is a misnomer. A shooting brake has traditionally been a three-door vehicle, as exemplified by David Brown’s definition of the breed, Aston Martin DB5.

[9] At the time of writing, there is no clarity on who bears design responsibility for the current-era C257 CLS model. Maybe we should just credit Barry White?

[10] Not the EQ series’ strong suit.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

36 thoughts on “Coupé de Grâce”

  1. I’m not surprised they’re dropping the CLS. The way Mercedes styling has been going, is there a need for both a sporty sedan (W214) and an alternative sportier sedan (C257)? While I see the need for them to kick-start a new styling direction 20 years ago, doing it with an additional model rather than risking alienating traditional Meredes buyers was a stroke of genius. Familiar formal or modern sporty – pay your money and take your choice. But it has really served its purpose. We’re accustomed to the newer style; the E looks so sporty now, there’s no need to offer a totally rebodied even sportier alternative. Especially considering the C257’s close resemblance to the C219 at first glance! Time to retire it.

    1. Good evening Peter. You’ve nailed the problem with the CLS: the regular E-Class has evolved into a pretty informal (and undistinguished) looking design, making the niche for the CLS pretty narrow. It’s the crazy obsession with ‘sportiness’ that’s to blame. Had the E-Class instead returned to the formality of the W124, then the CLS would have offered something genuinely different.

      Eóin, As to lowering the age demographic, I only know one CLS owner, and he’s in his mid-70s…

    2. Good morning Daniel. Yes, the styling gap between Mercedes’ basic sedan and the sporty alternate has narrowed quite noticeably over the past two generations. They either have to go more radical (I can’t imagine what that might even look like!) or backtrack into tastefulness, which is what they seem to have done. All this at a time when the market for sedans is by all accounts decreasing. So instead of having Sedan A and Sedan B styles (okay, Sedan E and Sedan C), now we just get the one.
      As to lowering the age demographic, to go by your figure I’m not old enough for a Mercedes yet. 🙂

  2. I was never a fan of the CLS. To these über-cynical eyes, it looked more like a big lump of semi-molten pus than something that could be taken seriously – ditto for its buyers. It was done no favors by its comically narrow side windows and the headlights that looked like cheap knock-offs of the units featured in contemporary Ferraris, which themselves were saddled with faces even a mother would have trouble loving. It simply looked immensely contrived and showy.

    Due to its styling, it wasn’t a car that told a story of success by merit and honest, intelligent, hard work; instead, it embodied the very worst demerits of Generation X: cheating in final exams and enabling others to do so in collusion with certain well-connected professors; brown-nosing to politicians in order to get promoted to high-ranking, posh posts; bribing corrupt politicians to secure no-bid, multi-million contracts; snitching against your co-workers and sabotaging them for your own agenda; and so on, in order to get rich before you turn forty.

    Ultimately, in the eyes of those Gen Xers who wouldn’t adopt such practices, it became inextricably connected with the worst representatives of this generation. Nowadays, it looks more like a car for Elizabeth Holmes or Peter Levashov, and not one for the likes of Linus Torvalds or Marcel Kolaja.

    1. Correctly described.
      A flying banana with a pair of old, smelly socks for headlights and absurdly small windows like a hot rodded Tin Lizzie.
      This would not have been acceptable for a Benz a couple of years before.

  3. Good article/obituary, Eóin. I really like the Mk1 CLS. When it came out, at first I was hesitant to accept it, thinking it was an unnecessary model in the lineup and worse, one that was inefficient in its use of space. I also found the shallow side glass too claustrophobic (of course now such a loss of visibility is the norm). But slowly I began to see it not as an uncomfortable saloon, but as a more practical coupe which allows dignified entry and egress to the occasional rear passengers. I still have issues with the blobby front end, with too much organic design baked in (large radii curves and surfaces and overall lack of tension), but that’s nitpicking actually and only because I like everything else so much, including the gorgeous interior. For me the Mk1 CLS works best as a full on top of the line version with Nappa leather, etc. and a beautiful shade of metallic paint (metallic red or blue for me 🙂 ).

    The Mk2 CLS is a horrible monstruosity with a “Shooting Brake” that somehow looks less bad than the saloon. The Mk3 is a slight return to form, but ultimately too bland and similar to other Mercedes-Benz models, especially the CLA. It’s just not distinctive enough.

    In conclusion, I think the Mk1 CLS is the only modern Mercedes-Benz bound to become a classic in the future.

    1. I mean modern Mercedes-Benz saloons and coupes. The sports models like the AMG GT will of course be considered classics due to their performance, exclusivity, etc.

  4. “Semi-molten pus” – now cruel, how apt! But for me those “comically narrow side windows” seemed to be an attempt at paying homage to the more exotic car stylists of the 1930s and being just as impractical as the originals. I parked next to a CLS at our local supermarket a couple of days ago and although the interior was graced with pleasingly light (and therefore bright) colours, it still looked to be a cramped and claustrophobic place to be. I shall not mourn its passing.

  5. I’ve never liked this car, it seems an attempt to make a “looks above all else” car from someone who doesn’t actually know how to style a good looking car but does have a study aid booklet of lazy styling tropes. Their corporate styling reach far extended their grasp with this one.

    ar from the worst of Mercedes even from that era though, let alone today, but a cynical lump of a thing none the less.

  6. I had a bit of a soft spot for the original CLS. An AMG in black on big wheels was almost comically ‘Gangsta’ and I rather liked the bold sweep of the bone-line; I alway thought the ‘banana’ thing a bit unfair. I recall it being referred to as a ‘Jaguar-fighter’ when described by the press as a rumoured new model before launch – although Jaguar seemed quite able to trip itself up thank you very much at that time!

    A colleague at work had a MK2 shooting brake and I rather fell for it – sleek and sophisticated, in spite of the cack-handed ‘pontons’. As for the current car, I prefer the smaller (not by much) CLA, although that car is ruined by the rear lamps.

    Good article – overall, I will miss the CLS.

  7. I too liked the original CLS in profile (but not the bland front and rear views) and felt that it hinted at the way Jaguar should have gone at the time. However the subsequent XJ hinted at it better.

    But looking at all those sloping rooflines and side windows now, all I can think of is an alternative website, Driven To Take A Back Seat. This would be populated by the friends and relations of the owners of the many cars like the CLS, who would use the site to forever rail at being condemned to sit in the claustrophobic rears of such vehicles.

  8. The CLS always confirmed my worst fears (and most dismissive feelings) about Mercedes. Which they then proceeded to keep confirming over the last decade and a half, of course. I do, however, subscribe to the theory that it was a good decision at the time to introduce the “new” way of doing things in a separate model instead of the regular one. Mercedes probably (hopefully?) couldn’t foresee the tragic direction its designs would follow, making the CLS redundant.

    With the recent Jaguar post in mind: I would still prefer an XE (or second gen XF, since that is a more direct competitor) to the CLS. Especially since the CLS comes at the time when Mercedes stopped being a troublefree ownership proposition.

    Not as a criticism but an addition, I would like to add to your first footnote that the Japanese have arguably been building coupé versions – fully pillarles, even – of their saloon models pretty much until the early nineties’ asset bubble burst. The Nissan Cedric, for instance:

    Or the Honda Inspire:

    Any excuse to post pictures…😁

    1. Love that Cedric; it’s got that crazy 1980s JDM mix of classic, almost-brougham, and modern styles.

      As for the Honda Inspire, the wide body version was sold in the US as the Acura Vigor and had a longitudinal, inline 5 cylinder engine driving the front wheels. Notice in the pic how short the front overhang is. That’s because they managed to place the engine and transmission way back and then use a prop shaft to send the drive forward toward the front wheels, unlike similar 5 cylinder Audis at the time, that had their longitudinal engines sticking forward and creating long front overhangs.

      Here is a pic where you can somewhat see what I mean:

    2. Thanks Cesar, the things happening around the Cedric’s rear pillar (I don’t even quite know if it’s a b, c or d-pillar)…

      The engineering effort is quite something, up there with Volvo’s transverse five cylinder.

    3. Tom V: Quite right. Foolish of me to have neglected to mention them.

    4. Like I wrote, it was just an addition. And an excuse to post off-topic pictures…

    5. Post away, Tom! Those pictures are like soothing prescription eyedrops after seeing Mercedes’ flying bananas.
      One needs to be careful with Japanese hardtop sedans, as some sneakily hide B-pillars behind the side glass. I think I detect the shadow of a pillar behind the Aspire’s side glass, but I certainly wouldn’t kick it out of my garage for that.
      Nissan was quite fond of the fully pillarless look, and applied it to the smaller Skyline range as well; an R31 Passage GT is quite an attractive beast in an eighties boxy kind of way.

      Nissans’s Y31 Cedric and Cima are also rather attractive.
      Whatever you call these cars, they’re an attractive alternative a visibly-pillared sedan.

    6. I don’t like the Cedric. Too much weird stuff going on at the rear pillar. I always loved the look of this Honda though. There’s a little too much chrome and I would call this a saloon, rather than a 4 door coupé, but otherwise it’s great.

    7. Thanks Peter and Freerk! I think you’re both right about the Honda: it seems to have a sneaky b-pillar and I would call it a saloon as well, albeit of a more sporty bent than the regular Accord. The semantics of saloon, sporty saloon, four door coupé, etc. are a bit murky to me anyway. Hardtop saloon is reasonably well defined, though: four doors, no b-pillar. Which the Honda fails, then, as does this later Skyline (oh, go on, one more):

      I like it immensely, though.

      For the Inspire: if I squint enough, I think I can see a certain similarity to the E30 BMW 3 series (or maybe just “classic three box shape”) with exaggerated dimensions (lower, wider, “is that enough headlight for you?”). As Cesar points out, its wheel placement gives it an RWD stance through some technical wizardry.

    8. Even the cutaway picture doesn’t fully describe the weird Acura Vigor drivetrain. Here’s the words to go along:

      “So a curious transmission arrangement sent power forward, going through the very same bellhousing from whence it came. A longitudinal shaft sat beside the lower left side of the engine, transferring output to the front differential, which was nestled just under the middle cylinder. But wait, that’s not all; power coming from the differential to the right front wheel required an intermediate shaft that ran through the engine crankcase to reach its destination.”

      Not sure of itself, Honda (Acura) gave the Vigor five-cylinder engine the exact same stroke as the 2.0 litre Golf and current Audi 5 cylinder engine, 92.3 mm if I recall correctly. Just in case there was any magic in that, perhaps. It reeked of no confidence.

      I was driving an Audi at the time, and thought the Vigor might well suit me, and be more reliable than the quattro was proving to be. So off I went for a test drive, and I still imbibe morning coffee or tea every day from the free mug they gave me! The car itself was a complete disappointment, the 168 horsepower presumably frittered away in internal drivetrain friction. And it just wasn’t lively or free revving. It had more trouble getting up the steep motorway hill out of the city than my smogged 1987 115hp Audi 90 quattro, and was a positive slug of a barge compared to my Mitsubishi Eclipse AWD turbo with 195hp. And it handled ponderously. What a complete dud! But then I thought Accords were pretty awful as well, and wondered why LJKS thought Hondas so wonderful. The Audi was a far sharper car all-around, felt structurally much stronger, had a purposeful air about the way it went about things, so I didn’t succumb to Japanese reliability charms for another five years in a sedan. I turned the ’87 Audi quattro in for a ’94 quattro 90 in fact, but should have given it a longer test drive. It was a ponderous, highly oversprung and underdamped lump with an uninspiring V6. Nowhere near the car the ’87 was. Bad mistake, but luckily only a two-year lease, then I went Subaru and never looked back at my 22 years of Audi. No repair bills and a sprightly outlook can do that to a chap. Most cheerful car I ever owned, my first Impreza. And half the price. The change from Audi to Subaru was on the recommendation of the Audi/Subaru dealer’s chief mechanic! He said in his experience they were far better engineered for the real world, and so it proved.

      Anyway, those who didn’t buy a Vigor/Aspire whatever it was, missed absolutely nothing, in my view.

  9. The Mk1 CLS was once memorably described as the car Darth Vader would drive. I think it’s the best of the three generations.

    1. My favourite comment was by Anthony ffrench-Constant in Car, referring to the underpinnings belonging to the previous generation E-Class “mutton dressed up as banana”.

  10. I recall being pretty impressed when these first came out, especially as one of the first ones I saw was operating as a taxi in Switzerland (Lausanne, I think).

    I like coupaloons, as I suppose they could be called. The Passat CC was always much more interesting than the standard saloon model, to my eyes.

    However, I think it’s a shame that Mercedes-Benz’s ‘normal’ saloons went down this styling route – they all look the same to me and bland, too.

  11. I remember when the first CLS came out, seeing a newspaper photo of Bernie Ecclestones’ one up on blocks, after thieves had borrowed the wheels. I found the second gen ‘Shooting Brake’ particularly attractive, but then I’ve always liked 4-door Coupes, especially the Japanese ones that proliferated in the 80s and 90s.

    1. Normally, I’d be outraged for the victim of such a crime. In the case of the poison dwarf of F1 infamy, not so much…😁

      In my City days, my boss ordered a top of the range W124 company car with stupidly large alloy wheels. He lived Battersea and the car was parked in the street overnight. He only had the car a few weeks when he was awoken by a disturbance and ran downstairs to discover miscreants making off with three of the wheels, having been interrupted before they could remove the fourth wheel.

      He reported the theft to the police and they advised him to have all four wheels replaced and leave the remaining original wheel by the kerb, as the thieves would certainly be back to complete the set! 😮

  12. I always thought that Peter Arcardipane’s greatest contribution to Mercedes Benz was the C215 big coupe. And that the first proposal for a CLS was merely a longer wheelbase four door version of this.
    That, I would like, but the addition of the ‘banana bone line’ and reduction of the DLO completely destroys those roots.

    This styling mildly stretched, with four doors would have been perfect. And more Jaguar than Jaguar.

    The C215 styling covered here also,

    1. Oh yes, the C215 is sublime, especially when looking at the rear 3/4. The way the roof flows into the rear pillar (I was going to write C-pillar!) is my favorite feature. Like on the CLS, the front is not its best feature and here I would add the dashboard too, which I think lacks the elegance and drama of the exterior:

    2. Well spotted, David . That had completely passed me by. 👍

  13. It’s just natural that when the demographic for the Jaguar drops out from under them that the Jaguar from Sindelfingen should meet the same demise. This is not on either the CLS or the Jaguars itself, but on an entire market that is on its way to disappear completely, it is synptomatic for a great shift in consumer behavior all across the board.

  14. Nice write-up of the CLS. I thought them all contrived-looking from the start.

    When the last new model came out in 2017, it was thoroughly panned as structurally deficient by Car and Driver. Obvious steering wheel and scuttle shake, not in any way in keeping with Mercedes tradition. The car did not impress them compared to the saloon, or even the E.

    You will not find this review on the C/D website. It was excised very early and disappeared without trace. Since my friend was about to purchase the E coupe, but waiting for the new inline six instead of V6, we read that CLS review carefully. And chuckled at Mercedes being caught out. Four door pillarless designs are not the recipe for a stiff structure. I’m sure Mercedes had that review removed, or else no more advertising.

  15. I think the first CLS was not a bad design and it is still an attractive car. One thing I dont like about the exterior is the side line that is maybe way too pointy, making the car look like it is never at peace resting on the road and trying to scrape the surface.

    Never been inside one, but I would agree the interior might feel claustrophobic .

  16. I had forgotten that the CLS was made redundant in 2018.

    In a sense it lives on in a more purposeful, overtly performance oriented form.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: