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Mercedes CLS: Sexy, but a little weird

'Four-door coupe' looks great and drives well, too. But there's a price for fashion.

September 16, 2005; Posted: 8:28 a.m. EDT (1228 GMT)

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN/Money staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Looks aren't everything. But they sure can make up for a lot.

Take the Mercedes-Benz CLS sedan, for example. This sexy and dramatic-looking car makes an awe-inspiring entrance with its swooping, windswept appearance.

The reason it makes such an impression, of course, is that most large four-door cars aren't shaped that way. And there's a good reason they're not. But, oh my, it sure looks sweet.

The design of the CLS does have some drawbacks and, for those who are less enamored of a striking appearance, there are four-door luxury sedans that are easier to see out of and easier on your back seat passengers.

Your friends will need supple spines to fit through the CLS's low, sloping back doors. They'd better not be too tall, either, because there isn't much room back there for anyone of above-average height.

In the front seat, though, things are pretty much fine except that the top of the narrow side windows might seem a bit close to your head. Visibility to the sides and back is somewhat crimped. That takes a little getting used to.

The version of the car I drove for a few days was not your ordinary CLS sedan, by the way, if one could call this hyper-stylized machine ordinary. I had the AMG version, the CLS55, meaning it was more expensive, used more high-test gas and went faster than the standard-issue CLS500.

For about $20,000 more than the CLS500 -- prices for the CLS55 start at about $89,000 -- you get a 469-horsepower supercharged engine, big wheels wrapped in tires so thin-sided they look like black rubber bands and, on the inside, some pretty amazing seats.

You also get a $1,700 gas guzzler tax. With the current price of premium gas, required by the CLS55's supercharged engine, the extra tax seems almost redundant. If you cared about $1,700 you wouldn't be studying the window sticker on a car like this, now would you?

Including that gas tax and some fancy options, like adaptive cruise control that automatically maintains a following distance behind the car ahead of you, my test unit gently poked through the six-figure barrier.

The car's leather seats, the front ones at least, adjust about every imaginable way. They heat you, they cool you, they even massage you. If you turn a corner hard the side bolsters automatically move in to hold you tight. The effect is startling at first but oddly comforting once you get used to it.

The CLS55's driving personality is easily changeable. Buttons below the gearshift can make the shock absorbers stiffen up for high-speed handling or soften for urban cruising. The gearshift itself can be set to "comfort" mode -- which doesn't even bother using first gear -- or "sport" mode which uses all five gears and holds each of them as long as it can.

Touch a button, flick the shifter, and the CLS55 AMG goes from "cruiser" to "screamer" in moments and without stopping.

In "Sport" mode acceleration is startlingly fast. In this country, at least, you'd better be ready to lift off the gas pedal quickly because you'll be breaking the law before you can say "I can explain, officer...."

With the suspension drawn up tight, the car stays smooth, flat and easily controllable. The toughest turns are taken with aplomb as the driver's seat gives you an appreciative embrace.

The CLS55 is a fairly big car and the small windows can exaggerate its size from the driver's seat, but it moves like a pocket rocket and sounds like a muscle car.

Interface plant

Unfortunately, few things in a Mercedes-Benz are as easy to control as the performance settings on an AMG car.

Mercedes-Benz cars feature an amazing variety of badly designed interfaces for controlling various vehicle functions.

For some reason, Mercedes' cruise control is on a steering wheel stalk that is placed within easier reach than the turn signal. Perhaps that makes sense on the Autobahn, but not where I live.

Some things, like settings for the lights and trip meters, are manipulated through buttons on the steering wheel. Even reading the manual doesn't help much with figuring out how they work.

Other things, like the navigation system and stereo, are controlled through an array of buttons surrounding an LCD screen in the center of the console.

Either way, the controls are as clear as a triple thick milkshake and figuring out how to do one thing is absolutely no help when it comes to figuring out the next thing.

The earth-shaking AMG performance features aside, the CLS is a strange creature: a four-door luxury car that shares some back-seat access issues with the coupes it's styled to look like. One could consider the inconvenient access part of the price of fashion.

But, for those who care more about seeing out than being seen, there are cars from BMW, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz itself that offer plenty of power and performance without putting the squeeze on your guests.

Mercedes CLS55 AMG details, prices and photos

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