- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2006

Every once in a great while along comes an exceptionally stunning automotive design.

It doesn’t just turn heads; its styling accelerates heart rates, provokes stomach butterflies and strikes bystanding gawkers speechless.

It is nothing short of art.

This is the Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class.

Trying to describe it using cliches, such as poetry in motion, simply doesn’t do it justice. Neither do photos.

It must be viewed in the flesh to be truly appreciated.

There are subtle nuances in the design that are all but lost in a photo.

So fluid are its lines that after running a hand over its mirrored surface, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to pull it away damp. In other words, Mercedes-Benz nailed it.

In many instances beauty may be only skin deep, but it runs to the very bone of the CLS.

It is in what can be seen and in what can’t. Elegant, sporty and beautifully executed, the cabin fulfills every last expectation created by the striking exterior.

An extension of the front door panels, the dashboard is fashionable and refined.

Filling the driver’s hands, the meaty steering wheel has power adjustments for tilting and telescoping.

The automatic climate control is split up into four independently controlled zones. Ten-way power adjustable front seats provide excellent support and decadent comfort.

Leather or wood cover many surfaces. Ten speakers deliver concert-quality sound from either the radio or single-disc CD player. Ante up an extra $430 for the six-disc CD changer and another $1,240 for the DVD-based navigation system.

Other than the low ceiling necessitated by the swooping roofline, the back seat is spacious and inviting.

The only real caveat regarding the interior is the busy center stack. Looking as though it were lifted from the space shuttle, with audio and HVAC controls that are annoyingly complex enough to send a NASA engineer scrambling for the owner’s manual, the center stack is crammed full of buttons, knobs, screens and switches. Houston, we have a problem.

For 2006, the CLS-Class is available in two versions: CLS500 and CLS55.

With delivery and gas-guzzler penalty, the CLS500 is the more reasonably priced of the two at $66,975.

The CLS55 gets the AMG treatment with a more powerful engine, stiffer suspension, cosmetic enhancements and assorted other upgrades. It rings the register at $89,075.

It is possible to make a CLS500 look more like the CLS55 by spending a measly $4,950 for the AMG Sport Package. It includes 18-inch AMG double-spoke wheels wrapped in high-performance tires.

The CLS500 — the subject of this evaluation — has an adjustable, computer-controlled air suspension Mercedes calls Airmatic.

Its three settings range from comfort to performance. It is part of a fully independent suspension that even when set to comfort mode delivers highly controlled handling.

The CLS55 has the same basic system, but it has been lowered a bit, and recalibrated for a firmer ride and more acute handling.

The four-wheel antilock brake system includes Brake Assist and Electronic Stability Program (ESP).

The 5.0-liter V-8 found in the CLS500 is a brand-new engine that dots the Mercedes landscape, showing up in some other C-lettered sedans, as well as the E-, M- and S-Class.

It spits out 302 horsepower and 339 foot-pounds of peak torque. Power is hustled to the rear wheels via a slippery seven-speed automatic transmission with driver-shiftable capability.

This combo is good for reaching 60 mph from a standstill in about six seconds.

When respectably quick isn’t quick enough, the CLS55 crouches, straining at its bit, in the wings.

AMG turns up the heat with a supercharged 5.4-liter V-8, thus elevating output to a whopping 469 horsepower and 516 foot-pounds of peak torque.

The seven-speed automatic transmission is replaced with a beefed-up five-speed with steering wheel-mounted shift buttons.

Roughly a second and a half is knocked off the CLS500’s 0-60 mph time.

Both sedans are electronically limited to a maximum speed of 155 mph.

Earning its gas-guzzler stripes, the CLS-Class slurps a lot of fuel sprinting from here to there.

The Environmental Protection Agency rates the CLS500’s fuel consumption at 16 miles per gallon in the city and 22 on the highway, while the CLS55 gives up 2 mpg in each category.

While the CLS500 is loaded with luxury appointments, Mercedes-Benz has managed to find just a few more features to sweeten the CLS55 pot.

The enhanced audio system is a Harman Kardon surround setup, the seats have upgraded leather and the standard wheels are 19 inches.

With only a couple of trifling items triggering complaint, the CLS-Class — in either form — is a nearly perfect automobile.

Satisfying performance, outstanding passenger comfort and breathtaking good looks combine to deliver a supreme driving experience.

When money is no object in the showroom or at the gas pump, the CLS-Class is tough to beat. It’s everything a full-size luxury sedan that can perform should and can be.

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