Curvy yet muscly, the new Mercedes is like an E-class dressed up for a grand evening out

It was a surprise that the first CLS reached the showrooms at all.

The banana-profile coupé-saloon with the crescent-shaped side windows might have been understandable as a concept car. But as a real car in a real price list? Surely not.

However, it was. And, paradoxically, it worked because staid old Mercedes was the creator. The three-pointed star on the nose gave it substance and intent, enough for the company to have made 170,000 CLSs since 2003. It has hardly dated, but time passes and the previous-generation E-class saloon, on which the CLS was partly based, gave way to a new one over a year ago.

Time, then, for a new CLS. Once again a confection of convergent, convex curves but with a side-window outline slightly less squeezed than before. The curves are a little corrupted, too, as muscular presence ousts porcelain purity. There's a prominent, upright front grille, the make-the-best-of-a-bad-job response to pedestrian-protection laws, and a nod to the current Mercedes motif of retro-looking bulges around the rear wheel arches.

Close up, the meeting of bulge with flank looks like the result of an unfortunate encounter with an envious boot. Stand back, however, and the shape starts to make sense. The CLS is a good-looking car with an air of substance slightly lacking before, even if the bonnet, boot, front wings, frameless doors and rear shelf are now all of lightweight aluminium.

There's a fashion among buyers of high-end cars for satin-look, almost matt, paint. A new CLS finished in a gunmetal hue of such low gloss looks almost menacing, as though a piece of military equipment. It contrasts with the sumptuousness inside, where the point is cosy (but not cramped) luxury for four.

This is a lovely cabin. Every surface is made of what it looks to be made of, and there's a particularly pleasing, square-faced central clock. Separate rear seats flank a central tunnel with roller-shutter storage boxes, while the front seats can have the Active Multicontour package which massages your back.

Technology-rich safety systems abound, and the CLS sees the début of LED high performance headlamps. These automatically dip and return to main beam; they even sense the car in front and dip the minimum required to avoid dazzle. As the CLS draws near, the beam moves towards the centre of the road to help illuminate the overtaking path. Clever stuff.

The CLS is the first large Mercedes to have electric power steering. Unless you knew this, you would not guess. It feels like a good conventional system yet uses much less energy. Air suspension is optional. Set to Comfort, the CLS moves serenely. Set to Sport, progress is bumpier and steering is slightly sharper; on the whole, more is lost than gained.

Priced at approximately £50,000, four engines are offered to begin with, all matched to seven-speed automatic gearboxes. Most modest is a four-cylinder, 2.1-litre turbodiesel bafflingly designated 250. It produces an impressive 204bhp and emits 134g/km CO2. Two V6s bear 350 numbering, a 3.0-litre diesel with 265bhp and an epic 457lb ft of torque, and a 3.5-litre petrol engine with 306bhp. Topping the range is the CLS 500 with 408bhp from its 4,663cc V8. Its peak torque, however, is lower than the 350 CDI's.

The V8 makes the best sound and gives the greatest pace. I haven't tried the 250 diesel yet, but the petrol V6 is smooth and keen, the diesel V6 barely less smooth and substantially more muscular. This last is the obvious real-world choice; it does 155mph, it reaches 62mph in 6.2 effortless seconds yet is rated at 159g/km CO2. Remarkably, thanks to its stop-start system the petrol V6 achieves the same CO2 figure.

Don't expect such parity in the real world, unless you spend a lot of time driving in cities. City or inter-city, though, the CLS cuts a major dash. It's an E-class dressed up for a grand evening out, and it's delightful.

The Rivals

Audi A5 3.0 TDI quattro: from £35,780

This Audi is a conventional two-door albeit still quite roomy. Less power and higher CO2 emissions but still an impressive engine.

Jaguar XF 3.0 DS: from £39,900

A four-door saloon but fastback tail makes it look like a big, elegant coupé. Beautiful interior, great to drive, rapid and refined with twin-turbo engine.

VW Passat CC 3.6 V6 GT 4Motion: £32,995

The CLS-inspired "Comfort Coupé" is opulent and handsome. Petrol V6 is thirsty, four-wheel drive gives secure handling.

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