Why Mercedes is still betting on the CLS four-door coupe

Mercedes-Benz revealed a new version of its midsize four-door “coupe,” the 2019 Mercedes CLS Wednesday at the Los Angeles Auto Show. For better or for worse, Mercedes-Benz helped to usher into the lexicon this oxymoronic category of vehicle back in 2005. Until then, with a few reckless missteps, a coupe was a car that had two doors. This curvy fastback had twice that number. But the CLS also had a restraint and simplicity that ran contrary to some of the more baroque vehicles Benz was churning out at the time, with their proliferation of bulges and creases.

“The original CLS, when it came out, was a breakthrough,” says Gorden Wagener, Mercedes (and Daimler’s) global head of design. “Designers were finally allowed to do a car that looked like an exaggerated design sketch.”

It also created a relatively simple way to make the then-middling E-Class – the platform of which underpinned that CLS (and this one) – more elegant and upscale, without treading on the positioning of the stately, range-topping S-Class. Though its flowing roofline sacrificed headroom, trunk space, and visibility, Mercedes discovered that consumers would pay more money for a distinctive body style that offered less functionality. Sales in the US were strong and profitable.

At least initially. Falling off by half after the first few model years, they absolutely plummeted from there, recovering only slightly with a second-generation refresh in 2012, only to fall by half again since then.

Explanations abound. The decline mirrored the general downturn in sales of traditional cars as consumers abandoned them for higher riding crossovers. The initial popularity of the model and category spawned a host of lovelier copycats from competitors, like the Audi A7 and BMW 6-Series and 4-Series Gran Coupes, some of which had the added bonus of a more practical hatchback design. And then these two trends converged, and the luxury automakers began to create high-riding crossovers with a similarly truncated “coupe” body style, like the BMW X4 and X6 and Benz’s own GLC and GLE Coupes.

In addition, this shapely, wind-cheating bodystyle has proliferated and spiraled down-market, appearing on vehicles from Hyundai and Kia. In fact, it has come to dominate mass-market sedan design in general – witness the latest Honda Accord and Chevrolet Malibu. In producing an all-new CLS, Mercedes thus had a lot of challenges to address.

“Typically, cars differentiate in how they are done,” Wagener says, slyly. “First is proportion, and the new CLS has a perfect rear-wheel-drive proportion. A long hood, short overhangs, a long wheelbase, big wheels. And an essential purity of design, sculpted almost only with light and shadow. A beauty similar to that we see in the human body.”

In response to all of these trends, Mercedes seems to have doubled down on its dual heritage in an effort to distinguish itself. The new CLS brings exclusive luxury features from the big S-Class, especially on the exquisite interior. And it finds design inspiration in its performance wing. The four-door AMG-GT Concept Benz showed earlier this year in Geneva was, despite being named and styled after the brand’s top-tier sports car, built atop an E-Class platform. That concept car seems a direct progenitor of this new one.

“This goes to the essential DNA of the brand. Modern luxury is heart and brain, emotion and intellect,” Wagener says. “Like Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz. Daimler made sporting race cars. Benz made very functional carriage-like vehicles. And when they teamed up this became the two strains in our dual genetic code.”

With new alternative powertrains, and the liberation from the constraints of traditional exterior and interior shapes that they provide, all of this slicing and dicing and cross-breeding of automotive categories seems destined to continue unabated. Who knows what new meldings might result.

Wagener wouldn’t comment on our guesses to the forthcoming existence of a six-wheeled Metris van, an X-Class four door landaulet, or an AMG GT Westfalia pop-up sleeper top coupe. But he did give us a hint as to what might be next. “We have a good idea that I can’t talk about yet. But next year, we will unveil a new car in a new segment that doesn’t exist yet. It will happen some time between January and December,” he laughs. “That narrows it down.”

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