As I approached the all-new 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class, I was filled with a mix of elation and bona-fide terror. It's similar to when you walk into a very nice home and the first thing you say to your children is, "Don't touch anything!" The CLS550 is so luxurious and well-equipped that it's easy to get intimidated by it, especially with kids in tow. Add in the twin-turbo V-8 engine and you may be a little spooked, but you won't be spooked for long.
You may have to endure some teasing and raised eyebrows as you proclaim the seemingly impractical 2012 Mercedes CLS550 a fantastic family car, but just as some women spend their nine months of pregnancy in stilettos without even flinching, the CLS550 performs well in this role.
With a surprising amount of cabin space and storage along with luxury features that end up being incredibly convenient for passengers big or small, the CLS-Class can do your family right -- if you can afford it. Oh, and you should also be willing to sacrifice some function for form and not have a need to transport more than four people at a time, either. Buyers beware: The CLS550 is quite a seductress, and it does have the ability to distort your priorities (Yes, I do need a massaging driver's seat!). It also makes a convincing case as a way to transport your family while integrating your desires for power, safety and style all into one amazing package.
Driving a CLS550 is thrilling. Its V-8 engine is beefy, but it doesn't roar like a muscle car. It's fast but smooth, handles beautifully and never leaves you feeling unsafe behind the wheel. In tight corners, the active seat bolsters wrap around you to keep you from sliding in your seat, and if you want to feel even more adventurous, there's the option of switching to Sport mode to really take things up a notch. If you'd rather revel in its luxury, you can use Mercedes-Benz's Distronic Plus technology, which is more than just a cruise control feature; it will accelerate and brake for you, maintaining a safe distance between you and the car ahead.
The 2012 Mercedes-Benz CLS550 starts at $71,300. My test car, which had all-wheel drive, was priced at $84,875.
From the outside, the CLS550 is a knockout. I lost count of how many times the word "stunning" was used when people saw my family and I pull up in it. Called a "four-door coupe," it's got all the sportiness of a two-door car minus most of the hassles. The long hood and giant grille can come off a little menacing, but its gorgeous sculpted frame and sleek rear end balance things out to make the CLS a top choice for anyone with a penchant for style.
What's controversial about the CLS550 is its low-slung body and roof height. It plays a big part in why the car looks so great, but it's a deal-breaker for some. My family is on the short side so it didn't bother us, and I was so enamored with the exterior design that I didn't mind taking extra care when getting the baby in and out of her child-safety seat. For those less enamored with the CLS550's looks, ducking to enter the vehicle will be a drag, and you'll most likely get a few complaints from those who are a little less limber. However, the silver lining here is the low step-in height definitely makes entries and exits easy for the kiddos.
The trunk's family friendliness is also subjective. I found it to be cavernous for a sedan. It fit my stroller, portable crib, plus my workout gear and grocery bags, so I had no complaints. However, my husband seemed irritated by it. Due to the ultra-sleek styling, the cargo area tapers toward the back. He found the trunk opening and height to be too shallow. Everything fit in it, though, which was all that mattered to me.
Under the hood, you'll find an eye-popping 402-horsepower, twin-turbocharged 4.6-liter V-8 engine. With those kinds of specs, there may be a few fights over who gets the keys. At first, I thought this much power was excessive, but Mercedes managed to tame this monster to make it less daredevil and more refined. For such a beefy engine, its EPA-estimated 16/25 mpg city/highway was a surprise. I averaged just about 18 mpg for the week. You do need to keep up with appearances at the pump, though -- the CLS550 requires premium gasoline.
SENSE AND STYLE
Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Fair-Great
Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Groove-On
In stark contrast to the fresh, forward-thinking exterior styling, the CLS550's interior comes off as stodgy and conservative. Frankly, it's got quite the boys-club feel inside. No luxury has been overlooked inside the CLS550's cabin. Allow me to gush about a few of its most hedonistic features: available heated and cooled leather seats, a massaging driver's seat and active seat bolsters that automatically adjust to "hug" you and prevent you from sliding in your seat as you turn a corner. All I needed was a robot under the dash painting my toenails and it would be a spa on wheels.
The CLS does have more down-to-earth features that can make it a great family car. First, the cabin is roomy, and whether transporting infants in rear-facing seats or adults, everybody's got ample personal space in front or back. There's also a generous storage-to-passenger ratio. Along with the usual storage spaces, there's a sizable covered storage bin in back that was perfect for hiding all my daughter's toys, and in front of it there are cupholders. Underneath the front seats there's concealed storage that can stash a small purse.
The CLS-Class only seats two in the backseat. The front row's center console flows into the rear seats and acts as a barrier between them. It could lessen the "Mom, he's touching me!" battles on long trips. My favorite surprise feature was an optional power sunshade for the rear window. It eliminates the beating sun on those poor rear-facing infants and toddlers.
Mercedes-Benz definitely delivers when it comes to its luxury features that help make the CLS550 an absolute dream to drive. However, its multimedia system has a learning curve and I was underwhelmed by its antiquated displays. Controlling functions via the knob in the front row's center console wasn't exactly intuitive.
IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT
Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample
Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample
The CLS550's two sets of lower Latch anchors make child-safety seat installation a piece of cake. There's no searching or digging for the anchors since they sit out in the open. Just flip the rubber cover and easily attach the restraint to the Latch anchor. If every car had a Latch system like this, our world would instantly be free of an astounding amount of aggravation and despair. Rear- and forward-facing car seats fit well in the CLS.
The CLS has standard rear-wheel drive, all-disc antilock brakes with brake assist, an electronic stability system, traction control and 10 airbags, including knee airbags for the front row and side curtains for both rows. Also standard are Mercedes' Pre-Safe system, which closes the sunroof and windows, tightens seat belts and adjusts seats to their safest positions if the car senses that there's about to be a collision, and Attention Assist, a driver-drowsiness monitor.
Optional safety features include all-wheel drive, rear-seat side-impact airbags, adaptive headlights, a blind spot monitoring system and a lane departure warning system. Distronic Plus, also known as adaptive cruise control, brakes and accelerates the car to maintain a safe distance between you and the car ahead.
Starting MSRP $71,300--$94,900
City: 16 -- 17
402-hp, 4.6-liter V-8 (premium)
518-hp, 5.5-liter V-8 (premium)
550-hp, 5.5-liter V-8 (premium)
7-speed automatic w/OD and auto-manual
New or Notable
* Redesigned for 2011
* New V-6 (300) or Hemi V-8 (300C)
* Available all-wheel-drive (300C)
* Related to Dodge Charger
* Standard touch-screen multimedia system
What We Like
* Handsome interior
* Much-improved crash-test ratings
* Handling with Touring suspension
* Brake-pedal feel
* Well-appointed base model
What We Don't
* So-so gas mileage
* Lazy five-speed automatic
* Backseat not as roomy as some competitors
* Clumsy navigation system
* Small side mirrors