New this year are five seats inside and a wide array of ambient lighting options. Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg
INTERNATIONAL - I must admit to feeling some apathy about driving the 2019 Mercedes-Benz CLS.

After all, this is a simple refresh on a midsize mass-market luxury sedan, a segment notorious for offering safe, reliable, and relatively interchangeable vehicles to an upper-middle-class public.

As expected, yes, the act of driving the CLS 450 around the horse farms of New Jersey was pleasant, placid, peaceful—you name it. Warmer than lukewarm and not quite forgettable. In a word: unobtrusive.

But as for the car’s exterior and interior, including under the hood, I was surprised by some significant new features that should lend themselves to genuine delight for prospective buyers.

The CLS line traces its history to 2003. It became Mercedes’s first foray into four-door “coupe” territory, a slight misnomer that’s taken hold with other brands courting consumers who want performance and space, like in BMW’s Gran Coupes. More than half of CLS buyers have been conquests from other brands. They are, on average, 11 years younger than the typical Mercedes buyer, according to the carmaker.

“The formula for success in this industry is pretty simple: Attract younger customers to the brand and keep them for life,” Mercedes President and Chief Executive Officer Dietmar Exler said last week in Brooklyn. 

The CLS has a 362-horsepower inline-six engine that gets an extra 21-hpower boost from a unique integrated starter-generator, called EQ for short. Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg


Interior Treasures

Key among the car’s surprise delights is that the CLS now comes standard with five seats, rather than four, and has as many as two 12.3-inch touchscreens. (One comes standard; if you choose to pay several hundred more for two, they join in the middle to create one long surfboard screen that spans the bulk of the dash.) They were a joy. I used them to navigate from the Jersey back roads to Brooklyn’s Dumbo area and found them well-balanced in combining modern touchscreen functionalities with some tactile old-world controls, including a big center knob, buttons set in the steering wheel, and cool turbine vents.

Meanwhile, the new heads-up display is startling in its clarity. The sporty three-spoke steering wheel comes standard; inductive cellphone charging, Apple CarPlay, and a big sunroof do, too. And the CLS now incorporates 64 different colors of ambient lighting, including inside the turbine-style air vents, which change brilliance and hue as you adjust the temperature. Effectively, that means you can have a red-tinged interior if you like. Or blue, etc.

You can also run any of multiple “spa on wheels” experiences.

These are pretty wacky and possibly effective in their stated goals, if you’re not embarrassed to do them with your driving partner. They work by adjusting music, lighting, temperature, and massage functions to achieve a certain effect, like “energizing comfort” or “vitality.” They’ll even have the car talk to you; one, called “comfort/well-being,” requested that listeners “scrunch up your face into the shape of a smile … regardless of how you feel.” Another, aimed at “training,” told us to make ever-smaller circles with our shoulders as we drove hands-on-wheel. I’m not ashamed to say I ran through the entire program, six 10-minute sessions, and can report at least a placebo effect of improved circulation along my spine. (It might also have been caused by my giggling following these prompts.)

More seriously, the inline six-cylinder engine marks the first time in two decades that Mercedes will put an inline-six in a vehicle. It gets 362 horsepower plus a 21-hp boost from a unique integrated starter-generator, called EQ for short.

Another completely new invention, EQ works by using a 48-volt electrical system that powers an integrated starter-generator that amplifies acceleration at all speeds and can take over for the engine when cruising. It basically evens out lag times to help improve fuel economy. Mercedes says the performance of the new powertrain with EQ is akin to what you’d find with a 402-horsepower, 4.7-liter V-8. Frankly, I couldn’t tell the difference. From acceleration to steering to braking, the CLS 450 does everything you ask of it with not a peep of protest.

The nine-speed automatic transmission gets to 60 mph in 5.1 seconds in the rear-wheel-drive CLS 450, and 4.8 seconds in the all-wheel-drive CLS 450 4MATIC.

Some Good Angles

You might also like to know that the CLS was the first car the brand introduced with the now unmistakable design language of modern Mercedes sedans everywhere. This week’s debut was no different: Its swooped roofline and A-shaped grille with intricate diamond detail, flared low front grille, and rounded rear end follow chief designer Gordon Wagner’s famous philosophy. 

“If you remove an edge and still like how it looks, remove another one,” he says.

The new CLS 450 has frameless doors and novel intelligent LED headlights set with ultrawide high beams that adjust to lighting levels and follow the road as you drive. They allow drivers to use activated main beams without dazzling other road users by automatically switching off when they detect oncoming traffic.

There is one brand-new surprise that’s particularly worth noting: an optional “pre-safe” impulse system that pushes front-seat occupants toward the center of the car if it senses an impact. The idea is to protect against side collisions and collateral damage. 

Like what you hear? I’d be surprised if you didn’t—the CLS 450 is mild enough to be inoffensive yet manages class-topping performance with a thoughtfully well-made feel throughout the car. Pricing for all of this has yet to be announced, but it’ll likely start around $70,000. Look for it in U.S. showrooms by the end of the year.

- BLOOMBERG