"Wow, how much did this cost then?" That was most people's opening gambit when they saw us in this new, Shooting Brake body-style CLS. For what it's worth, the answer is that it starts at around 50 grand. But our car, with options, came out at more like £57,000. Which is a good chunk of cash.
But that's not the real point of mentioning the "how much" question. No, it's more to point out that this car is a talking point. It looks striking - and upon probing those who asked the question it seems they were asking because they thought it looked both expensive and special. Which, in short it is.
A split perspective
Whether that means it's a good piece of design is open to debate. There are two ways of looking at this car. The first, negative, one is that this is a gratuitously styled, shouty and somewhat bling looking car. Which perhaps sits ill at ease with the brand Mercedes, historically the most sober of the German premium brands. And also perhaps isn't quite so right for the austerity zeitgeist. Certainly, given our experience, if you don't want people to notice you, then don't buy one – it attracts much attention.
But the alternate view - and, we ought to point out, that which the majority of people we spoke to held - is that in a sea of samey-dull car designs, the CLS Shooting Brake really stands out, in a good way. It has real presence. The typology - the kind of car: hatch, saloon, SUV - has a certain novelty too.
A real shooting brake?
A shooting brake is actually an old-fashioned British car concept. A 3-door estate, designed for use in the country and which had a certain fashion or style derived from a coupe, but with a back end with space for carrying guns (for shooting game) - hence the name. Given its five doors, the CLS isn't strictly a shooting brake. But we can see where Merc is coming from - it's got a degree of style your average estate car does without. You can, however, have it with a wooden boot floor, which gives it an additional whiff of both class and authenticity.
Getting beyond naming semantics and the exterior design debate, what we can tell you after our week with it, is that it's hard not to be seduced by the CLS's charms.
A car of many talents
It has many talents - and a few flaws - but in short, it manages to drive with a quality that belies its size and which escapes most SUVs. It has space to spare for a growing family without looking like a van. It is quick enough to surprise the odd hot hatch, yet will achieve 50mpg when driven gently. And were you to tell us we had to drive to the other side of Europe tomorrow, we'd pick this to do it in, please - it is a hugely refined and relaxing long-distance car.
In addition, having spent a week exploring the extended menus and capabilities of the COMAND User Interface system, the tech is at least a match for Audi's MMI and BMW's iDrive.
We'd recommend anyone choosing this CLS, or, indeed the many other Mercs in which you can opt for the system, to choose this upgrade - on our test car still a £950 option. But it bags you a bigger screen and full colours, 10GB and SD card storage, the ability to connect all kinds of media devices and play music via Bluetooth plus a Harmon/Kardon Logic 7, 14-speaker sound system which is pretty decent sounding. And perhaps, most importantly, a satnav system which not only accepts full post codes which you can enter quickly and on the move via the rotary controller, but also appears to have a sixth-sense ability to dodge traffic via its TMC system.
It's the little things
What we really liked - and which perhaps in a nutshell sums up the Merc approach and makes this car so likeable and easy to live with - is that it all works both intuitively and unobtrusively. Traffic conditions changed on your route? It'll just tell you the traffic conditions have changed and re-route you the quickest way. No faffing about telling you the exact problem, or asking if you want to avoid it and demanding your input. Of course, you can get detail if you want - but if you're barrelling down the motorway you probably don't want to be reading details of the latest numpty that's rear-ended someone on the M1 and how it's caused a 5-mile queue.
Same story with the radio - which has an old fashioned-style station display scroller showing all the stations available left to right. You simply twist the control knob along until you land on whatever you want to listen to.
Alternatively, you can control and see all of this (nav, radio, trip data) in the digital screen that sits slap bang in the middle of the central speedo. Sounds a bit simplistic and small, but in reality it’s just what you need - and seems designed to distract you as little as possible.
Every little helps
And so it continues. You might not get a graphic plan of the car on the centre screen showing how close you are visually to other things when parking. But then when you're reversing, isn't it better to look where you're going? So Mercedes has sensibly (in our view) put the rear parking sensor display up in the ceiling above the rear seats - which means it's in your peripheral vision as you look backwards to reverse. And perhaps that's why they don’t feel the need to make the thing beep at you incessantly the minute you select reverse. Instead it only starts to audibly warn you when you get into the "red" zone - or less than a foot away from stuff.
If all this sounds a bit simple and "so what", we can understand your scepticism. But it's only when you spend time with a car, live it day and night, through sun, rain (and hail - in April) that you realise how all that thought, clever design and engineering thinking actually make for a car that's simply better. Better and easier to drive, less fatiguing, less distracting and thus hopefully, ultimately safer.
Not perfect, not dull
Of course, it's not perfect and all this comes at a price. The stalk layout will take some getting used to for most people (gear selector where the wipers are in most cars, wipers on the same stalk as the indicators - on the left). And the right-hand drive set-up leaves you ever so slightly offset in the driving position, because the transmission tunnel intrudes slightly into the footwell. Not that we ever found it uncomfortable, even after 4 hours at the wheel.
And in this guise - AMG Sport spec and with the four cylinder "250" diesel engine - we don't think the CLS is totally optimised. First, the 19-inch AMG wheels give it a harder ride than we would like, it's a little too firm over urban craggy roads. The four-cylinder diesel engine meanwhile, while very impressive in its power, considering the small displacement, and economy, nonetheless sounds a little uncultured and uncouth for such a prestige car.
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Unless you're really getting whacked by the company car tax stick, the six-cylinder 350 unit provides a bit more power but more importantly sounds a lot more cultured - which fits with the demeanour of the car far better overall. But beyond that, our gripes are few and far between.
So much is there to talk about with this car, that it seems hard to do it justice in a 1,000-word review. We could write an extended essay on the quality of the COMAND interface system. Similarly, we could debate the exterior styling whys and wherefores long into the night. One final noteworthy point on that front by the way, is that we can't remember the last time we drove a car which could clear the fast lane of a motorway so impressively.
There is much to like about the CLS Shooting Brake and considered in isolation it is fantastically well resolved and appealing prospect.
Its natural opposition is an Audi A7 or a BMW 6-Series Gran Coupe. Both have a quality that feels similar to the Merc, both feel special too but are arguably less shouty and attention grabbing. They're also palpably less practical. So perhaps the real opposition for this car is one of the league of much-maligned Chelsea tractor SUVs - Cayenne, X5 or Range Rover Sport.
They offer a significant advantage over the Mercedes in giving you a high-up, commanding driving position, but very little else. This shooting brake has more space, is a newer, different type of car, has a better performance/economy blend but perhaps most importantly, we reckon also feels more special.
We're not entirely sure who's going to buy one and it's far from the obvious choice. But we like that, we like different. Most of all it makes you feel special and has true "wow" factor. And that fact alone, makes it a very Pocket-lint kind of car.