2024 Mercedes-Benz CLE 450 Coupe First Drive Review: A satisfying blend of C and E

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In a time when many cars are discontinued in order to make way for electric replacements, Mercedes is taking a different path with the C-Class and E-Class coupes and convertibles. Rather, it is merging those two paths into one, and keeping it powered by internal combustion. The new CLE Class replaces both the C and E Coupes, streamlining the lineup with a car that blends the best of both predecessors. As such, there’s a lot of familiarity despite this being an all-new model.

The CLE is on the big side, even bigger in some ways than the E-Class. It’s 0.6 inches longer than the E-Class Coupe, but with a 0.3-inch decrease in wheelbase. The body is 0.1 inches wider than the E, with a 0.3-inch rear track advantage, and 0.1 inches lower in height. It’s long and low-slung, but substantial, an appropriately shapely silhouette for a sporty luxury coupe. Its grille, décor, character lines and lighting all tie it neatly into the family DNA. Our CLE 450 tester came in a Manufaktur Graphite Grey Magno paint that accentuated the CLE’s athletic exterior.

Inside, we were welcomed by Mercedes’ Multicountour seats in red leather, facing a fairly familiar dash setup. There’s a pair of screens — infotainment and driver display — in this case flanked by metal weave trim (it looks like carbon fiber, but brighter). Sinking into the seats, the driving position is low and long, allowing for good extension of the legs, while the wheel telescopes to meet the driver. We felt wrapped up by the CLE’s cockpit, putting us in the mood to drive. Visibility isn’t bad, despite the high beltline, but placing the corners of the vehicle requires some guesswork on the road, and a whole lotta caution in a crowded parking lot.

The second row of seating is accessed with a strong tug of the “Nappa loop” — a hitch of leather extending from the front seat shoulder — which allows you to lean the seatback forward while the whole chair slides forward automatically to allow ingress. There are two individual seats in the rear, each as sporty, if not as adjustable, as the front chairs. It’s comfy, except for the lack of headroom. Mercedes puts CLE Coupe headroom right between that of the cars it replaces — 0.4 inches more than the C-Class Coupe, but 0.4 inches less than the E. At 6 feet tall, my legs, hips and shoulders were all settled and secure with plenty of space, but the back of my head rested against the headliner, eliciting an initial tinge of claustrophobia. My tall, almost-9-year-old son had no complaints back there, however, and he jumped at every opportunity to take a ride.

While the CLE 300 uses a mild-hybrid 2.0-liter turbo-four good for 255 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque going to all four wheels, the CLE 450 comes with a mild-hybrid, turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine, providing a hearty 375 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. Up to 23 of that horsepower and 151 pound-feet come from the 48-volt mild-hybrid system’s integrated electric starter/generator, which also serves to recharge the battery through regenerative braking. The result is a 0-60 sprint of 4.2 seconds.

And though it’s quick, everything happens smoothly. The extra help from the mild-hybrid system eliminates turbo lag, and the entire run up the rev ladder is quite linear. That linearity applies to the nine-speed automatic transmission as well, which does a good job of providing a seamless transition between gears. That said, we wouldn’t mind a little more urgency from the transmission when tickling the paddles in manual mode — it doesn’t provide the gratifying feedback we look for when selecting our own gears. No mind, just leave it in automatic, let it sort the gears itself, and focus on the rest of the drive.

How do you feel about fake engine sounds? The CLE 450 features piped-in “Progressive Sport Sound” that adds a bit more substance — and bass in particular — to the engine note. The sound was developed by AMG, who thought it too good for the lesser CLE 300. Without it, there’s very little of the inline-six to hear from within the cabin, at least with the windows up. With it turned on, it provides a nice little rumble while cruising around town. In more aggressive driving, it provides more audible feedback corresponding with the accelerative experience. It just sounds a little artificial, but not bad. If you don’t like it, you can toggle it off in the menu and be done with it.

The CLE 450 features a standard “sport” suspension (optional on the 300). It offers a pleasantly smooth ride, regardless of what you’re doing with it. It seriously softens the thumps and crashes of a jacked-up road, and almost hovers down smoother roads. It’s not totally anesthetized, with just enough high-frequency chatter and road-hugging to feel like we always knew what was going on beneath us. It doesn’t wallow around when flogged but even in Sport mode feels like comfort is its priority. Combined with easy but precise steering, we didn’t find ourselves working up a sweat or whitening our knuckles even as we pushed the limits of the car’s lateral grip.

Perhaps we can attribute some of that lack of stress to the massage function of those Multicontour seats, though.

The latest MBUX operating system covers infotainment, including the “zero-layer” technology we’ve become familiar with from Mercedes’ electric EQ cars. The CLE doesn’t employ the whole overwhelming Hyperscreen setup. Instead, there’s a portrait-oriented infotainment touchscreen measuring a completely reasonable 11.9 inches diagonally. In front of the driver is a 12.3-inch digital instrument display. There’s a bit of a learning curve, both for the human and the car, but once you get to know each other, the infotainment menus become easier to navigate, with the zero-layer system putting the items you’re most likely to use on the main screen.

The CLE 450 includes a “Routines” feature in the infotainment system. This allows you to set conditions (like time, temperature or others, alone or in combination) that will trigger some sort of vehicle function. Think of it as an if-this-then-that program. For instance, you can have the CLE automatically turn on the ventilated seats whenever the interior temperature rises above, say, 74 degrees, or you can have the car tune to a specific radio station at a specific time so you don’t miss your favorite program. Eventually, Mercedes will automate the system further by employing AI-generated routines, starting with seat heat, ventilation and massage, and expanding from there.

Speaking of routines, not all of our driving was for the sheer sport of it. We had to run a few errands, too, and nothing about the CLE made us shy away from using it for these more mundane duties. There’d be a lot of getting in and out, which wasn’t really a problem from the driver’s seat. Even without room to open the door all the way, we found ingress and egress to be mercifully easy for a car this low. Getting a kid in and out of the back seat was a little trickier — it requires some arm strength to reach and pull the leather loop to move the seat. But when it came time to load up the groceries, the CLE’s trunk (a modest-on-paper 11.2 cubic feet) swallowed our big tote bags easily, with just enough clearance overhead and plenty of depth to spare. The hard part would be overcoming the urge to take the long, winding way home lest we spill the bags’ contents all over the trunk.

The CLE Coupe starts at $57,650 (including destination) for the four-cylinder 300, while the 450 and its I6 starts at $66,800. Our CLE 450 tester rang in at $77,700 thanks to some expensive options like that matte grey paint ($3,250), red leather (1,620), 20-inch wheels ($1,150), Driver Assistance Package ($1,950) and Multicontour massaging seats ($950), among a few others. That said, it looks and feels every bit of that price tag, and the couple of people we asked guessed it would cost more. The one big option package ours lacked was the Pinnacle Trim ($2,600), which adds “Digital Light” headlights, augmented video for the navigation, the AMG head-up display and Dolby Atmos audio.

If you want to take things further — particularly performance — there will be a Mercedes-AMG CLE 53 Coupe ($73,950) with 443 horsepower, 413 pound-feet of torque. We’ll be interested to see whether it can strike the same balance between luxury and athleticism as the 450 (and if it makes the Progressive Sport Sound moot). There’s comfort to spare that could be sacrificed for performance, but as it stands, the CLE 450 is a hard-charging but easy-driving coupe that provides a high dose of luxury and style.

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