Beautiful, fast and a little delicate

 

FirstDrive/car: You've met the Mercedes CLS already. It's the car for those people who crave something the size of an E-Class with the interior space of a C-Class Coupé.

On paper, the CLS's four-door coupé concept is as pointless as a paper umbrella, but in the metal, it suddenly makes a lot of sense. It's by far the most beautiful car to wear a three-pointed star in many, many years and that's fine by me, to be honest.

The Mercedes CLS 55 AMG takes that achingly desirable pointlessness to a whole other level. The ultra-high-performance CLS derivative packs a supercharged and intercooled 5.4-litre V8 that produces an astonishing 476 bhp and 700 NM of torque, blowing the 325 bhp Porsche 911 into the weeds and closing in fast on the mighty M5.

Needless to say, the pace at which it collects speed is nothing short of staggering, reaching 100 km/h in 4.7 seconds and 200 km/h in just 16.1 seconds.

Top speed is supposedly pegged at 250 kph, but AMG still saw fit to install a 320 km/h speedometer (hmmm...), while those massive cross-drilled discs and huge eight-piston callipers, can haul the 1920kg CLS to a halt with eye-popping force. In fact, just about everything about the way this car changes velocity is an assault on the senses.

Normally AMG (a separate, but Mercedes-owned, performance division) likes to stamp its distinctive look on the cars they've worked their magic on, but in the case of the CLS, they pretty much left it unmolested.

There are some tasteful 18-inch alloys, a subtle new front bumper, restrained side-skirts and the most unassuming rear spoiler ever.

The CLS 55 AMG makes its savagery known in subtle ways; like those four massive exhaust pipes and its low, wide stance, and because of this tasteful restraint, the CLS 55 AMG is even better looking than the car on which its based. And that, folks, is saying something!

Inside, the CLS is no less delightful, with suede and leather on just about every surface - even the headliner.

Standard toys include a huge stereo, four-zone climate control and heated electric front seats with adjustable side bolsters, but items like Satellite Navigation and a six-disc CD changer remain optional, which really is a bit rich in a €143,670 car.

That price tag isn't reflected in the quality of construction, either. The sunroof shade in our car slid forward and backwards with a "thud" under acceleration and braking; and the cheap, stretchy netting that holds the Owner's Manual Trilogy to the transmission tunnel pulled the carpet off, exposing the colourful sound-proofing underneath.

Then the adjustable seat bolsters packed in, probably caused by me inadvertently groping the exposed wires behind the switches, and even the key fob came apart at one point.

I'm not making any sweeping generalisations about Mercedes' build quality. I've had other Mercedes vehicles that were faultless. That's just the way this particular car was. Draw your own conclusions. And yet I can forgive its sorry build quality because the CLS 55 AMG is not only better looking than just about anything else on sale today, it's an absolute riot to drive.

It's taut and precise, with sharp and weighty steering that transmits genuine road feel to your hands. The steering wheel itself might be a bit too big and a bit of an eyesore, but it gets the driver involved in the fun like no Mercedes has before.

The transmission is as good, using just five ratios instead of the regular CLS's pointless seven, and shifting smoothly and reacting quickly to pokes of the steering-wheel mounted shifters. Even the "Airmatic" suspension has been firmed up considerably to keep the CLS AMG stable, even at crazy speeds, though its "comfort" setting is a bit of a mess, combining exaggerated body roll with a jittery, thumping ride.

You may as well leave it on its hardest setting and get the full-on AMG effect all the time.

And then there are the brakes, so much firmer and more reassuring than the standard machine's, but with lots of pedal feel and incredibly resistant to fade.

All in all, it's a fantastically well-rounded performance package wrapped up in a shape that couldn't turn more heads if it had Beyoncé strapped to the roof. It would look exquisite parked outside the golf club but then it would be no less at home sliding sideways around your favourite hairpins.

I would even be happy to tolerate all the rattle and bits falling off it just so I could hear and feel that brutal V8 every day.

It might be the answer to a question that nobody asked, but that doesn't stop it being a brilliant answer.