First things first. The new Mercedes CLS doesn't have quite the same dramatic visual impact that the old one did - but that would probably have been asking too much. Almost everybody, including traditional Mercedes fans who didn't like the other niche models the company produced after it started expanding its range at the end of the Nineties, loved that car.

I have to admit I wasn't particularly keen on the new one when I saw it in natural light for the first time. During my first UK test of the original CLS, I was followed for miles along the M6 and into a service station car park by eager enthusiasts who wanted to take photographs of it and ask me questions about it. It's difficult to imagine the new car attracting that sort of attention, if only because the concept of the slopey-roofed coupé-style four-door saloon pioneered by the first CLS is now so familiar. The Volkswagen Passat CC, Vauxhall Insignia and Jaguar's latest XF and XJ all fit the mould to some extent.

The connection with the Passat CC – instantly dubbed the poor man's CLS when it appeared in 2008 - is interesting. If imitation is the sincerest from of flattery then the new CLS, whether deliberately or nor, repays the compliment in full. Because like the Passat CC, the second-generation CLS has a swooping roof-line that resembles that of the great original, but combines it with a more orthodox, upright nose. The latest CLS's rounded, slanted tail-lights, too, are more like those of the Passat CC than those of its predecessor as well. One point of difference is that the CLS now has the bulging “Ponton”-style rear wheel-arch detailing, drawn from Mercedes' 1950s saloons, that was first seen in reborn form on the current E-Class. That is one of the elements that makes the new CLS look a bit heavier, but also more muscular than, the old one.

The overall effect is actually rather handsome, and after a day or two, I came to like it very much. That said, the distance between the new CLS and Mercedes' mainstream models, in design terms at least, is much smaller than it was. As well as those rear wheel arches, which resemble those of the E-Class, the nose of the second-generation CLS is very similar to that of the recently face-lifted CL coupé. In some colours, silver in particular, it doesn't particularly stand out, but in darker shades, especially reds, it looks magnificent.

The new model's bodywork also incorporates some worthwhile practical improvements. About 72% of the latest car's panels are made of rigid and ultra-rigid steel alloys, while the doors, which have a frameless design, are now made of aluminium, a measure that produces a weight saving of 24 kg. The new body also ten percent more slippery in terms of aerodynamic drag.

Of course, it's what the customers think about the new car's looks that's important – and more so in the case of the CLS than most other models. Mercedes says that a very high percentage of past CLS customers bought the car because of its design, so it's essential that they like the new one, too. After all, anyone who is just interested in enjoying Mercedes engineering can avoid the CLS premium by buying the new car's mechanically similar, although not identical, sister model, the E-Class.

If the merits of the changes to the CLS's styling are bound to be debated endlessly, there can't be too much doubt about the advances that have been made in other areas. The new interiors are magnificent, with some very attractive leather and wood trim choices, including an aubergine leather colour option, a sort of very dark purple that is almost black. As in the case of the exterior, though, the cabin is more in the Mercedes mainstream than that of the old CLS; the sweeping single-piece wooden dash panel that was a characteristic of the original car is now interrupted by the relocated sat nav screen, for example.

Four engines will be offered in the new CLS, two petrol and two diesel. All are badged BlueEFFICIENCY which in Mercedes-speak means they have undergone a substantial programme of efficiency measures, including the adoption of a fuel-saving stop-start system. The petrol engines are a V6 (350) and a V8 (500) ; the 350 really does have a capacity of 3.5 litres but the 500 is a 4.4. Nobody need feel short-changed, though; the 500 has twin turbochargers, which give the CLS real heft. As in the previous version, the most popular engine is expected to be the six-cylinder diesel in the 350CDI.

The eight and the two sixes all perform well; Mercedes has resisted the temptation to suppress the noise that they make too much, which is a plus. Engines with six or more cylinders are an aural delight but are becoming far less common as manufacturers downsize their power-plants in the pursuit of fuel-efficiency. That brings us to the fourth engine option for the CLS, the 250CDI. This uses a 2.15-litre four-cylinder diesel engine producing over 200 horsepower. Mercedes hasn't made this available for testing in the new CLS yet but the 250CDI engine already performs impressively in C-Class and the E-Class. It should easily be good enough to provide convincing power for the CLS, even if some customers, accustomed to using engine size as a guide to performance, are likely to be sceptical at first. One big change is that the 250CDI engine will finally be paired with Mercedes' modern 7G-TRONIC seven-speed automatic gearbox which has previously been offered only in conjunction with the company's larger engines – in the C-Class and E-Class, 250CDIs have so far only been available with the older five-speeder.

The latest CLS also has a new fuel-saving electro-mechanical steering system, which works well. The air suspension now has two, rather than three settings – experience with early cars on continental roads suggests that the Sport option makes the car noticeably more agile without really damaging ride comfort too much, although, as ever, things may work out differently under UK conditions.

The new CLS goes on sale in the UK at the beginning of March 2011, and there should be plenty of takers. There will be two model lines; the standard car will be designed to appeal to luxury-minded buyers but there will be a separate Sport variant for keener drivers. Precise specifications and pricing for UK market cars will be released later but the company has already said that the 4MATIC all-wheel drive version won't be offered to British buyers.

Mercedes CLS (second-generation model)

On sale: March 2011 (UK)

Price: to be announced

Top speed: 155 mph (artificially limited)

Acceleration: 0-100km/h (62mph): 6.2 seconds

Fuel consumption: (official combined cycle test): 46.3 to 47.1 mpg

CO2 emissions: 159-160 g/km

(Data apply to the 350 CDI model)

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