Bend me, shape me

Mercedes Benz has decided to embrace style as well as substance with its new CLS four-door coupe. Sean O'Grady is swayed by its striking looks
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Indy Lifestyle Online

OK, then; let's get the gags out of the way first, shall we? Yes, Mercedes-Benz may go bananas when they read this. The Mercedes-Benz CLS is a car with a (banana) split personality. Do they do them in banana yellow? They'll bend the rules to do that for you. Is that a banana-shaped car you're driving, or are you just pleased to see me? Is this the result of an illicit love affair between DaimlerChrysler and Fyffes?

OK, then; let's get the gags out of the way first, shall we? Yes, Mercedes-Benz may go bananas when they read this. The Mercedes-Benz CLS is a car with a (banana) split personality. Do they do them in banana yellow? They'll bend the rules to do that for you. Is that a banana-shaped car you're driving, or are you just pleased to see me? Is this the result of an illicit love affair between DaimlerChrysler and Fyffes?

Well, it's true. The banana splits - Bingo, Snorky, Fleegle and Drooper, in case you don't remember - would love the new Merc. It is, well, banana-shaped. It is banana-shaped in the arc of its roof, and in the long styling line that follows the curve of the wings right through to the rear indicators. The boot line reminds me of a famous yellow fruit.

Even in the interior there is a big, curvy shape that sweeps from the front console to the rear seats. Plenty spacious enough to carry five, the CLS is obviously designed as a four-seater, with individually shaped rear seat cushions separated by a bulky storage box.

But that isn't people's initial reaction when they see this striking vehicle. Their first thoughts are (and I have documentary evidence of this): "What a beautiful car"; "What a gorgeous car"; "What the Benz is that?" and "That is the sexiest car Mercedes have made in 10 years".

For me, that last remark was the most telling, because it goes to the heart of what Mercedes must now do in the face of competition from old foes such as BMW and Audi, a battle that has never been tougher.

For too long, Mercedes have been churning out cars that, whatever their other vices and virtues, have been pretty unexciting lookers. With the exception of the McLaren Mercedes SLR and, perhaps, the SLs, Mercs have been true to their traditional approach of understatement, classic elegance, historic design cues and general conservatism.

But something has put the wind up Mercedes lately. Maybe it's the new generation of BMWs, styled so controversially by Chris Bangle. Ugly they may well be to some eyes, and outlandish to others, but they at least prised BMW out of the design language that the Munich firm had been locked into for so long.

Audi, too, has been showing a little more flair lately, with those full-length grilles lending their previously anonymous saloons a touch of distinctiveness. Even Volvo seems to be picking up some pace on the style front. Not to mention the likes of Honda and Mazda, once hardly to be thought of in the same breath as the mighty European names, but now creeping up in quality and style.

Then there is the in-house example of Mercedes' own subsidiary, Chrysler. Look at the PT Cruiser, the Crossfire and, more to the point, the new 300C saloon. That, too, is a slightly menacing-looking affair, like the CLS, but with much more of an American-retro appeal, with its heavy, chrome-laden, muscular looks.

The CLS, by contrast, looks svelte, sleek and sexy in a much more contemporary vein. It looks like nothing else on the road, too.

Mercedes have cracked it, if only because of the sheer terror of being perceived as "an old man's car", like Rover. Mercs are, obviously, a very long way off that brand's bankruptcy, and the three-pointed star bestows an aura of success and prestige. Still, sex appeal never did any harm, and this is a bit of a rude Merc, and all the better for it.

Mercedes say the car is aimed at people in their forties who are pretty successful, who want more than their traditional conservative (usually German) executive saloon, but find most of the coupes on the market too small. Perhaps their children have grown up and they don't want to be labelled "boring". They want style and, at the moment, they might be more inclined to look at a BMW 5 series than Mercedes' E-Class. Now they have another option.

Most of Mercedes' recent announcements have demonstrated this new consciousness about style. We may not have much of an indigenously owned car industry left in the UK, but British designers certainly punch above their weight when it comes to design. Steve Mattin, for example, born in Bedford and educated at Coventry University (the city where Rover started), is the man behind much of the Mercedes-Benz design revival. Mattin was the man behind the new M-Class, the forthcoming R-Class, B-Class and the SLR. Now, however, he has gone to Volvo, and this CLS, while clearly in the Mattin mould, is actually the work of Peter Pfeiffer.

Evidently, Pfeiffer believes that Benzes need to be more emotional and sensuous than they have been recently. They need to recapture that ability to stimulate the "must have" glands in the new-car buyer.

The SL has usually been able to do that, and sometimes the saloons, such as the fin-tail in the early 1960s and the E-Class coupe built from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. This CLS, too, is a car that you really would be able to fall in love with, not just respect or envy; the sort of car that you'd want to buy, own, polish and cherish for many a long year, just like Mercedes of old that were built to last, and be owned, for 20 years.

It's not perfect, mind you, for £64,000. The door mirrors are just a fraction too highly placed, the rear view mirror vibrates on bad motorway surfaces at speed, and I don't much care for the veneer on the woodwork. It looks like the kind you see on a Hyundai Elantra, and that's not good. Yet the V8 on my CLS 500 delivered its vast power as effortlessly and smoothly as you'd every right to expect. The handling was superb and every gadget worked perfectly.

The CLS may be banana-shaped, but there's nothing wrong with that, and bananas are good for you. Bend me, shape me anyway you want me, long as you love me, it's all right.

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