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Merc's amalgamated mid-sized coupé puts richness and refinement ahead of any dynamic cutting edge

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Picturing a mid-sized Mercedes luxury coupé like the new Mercedes-Benz CLE may not feel like an especially modern thing to do, two-door coupés being a relatively niche offering these days – mostly the preserve of the big three premium German manufacturers: Mercedes, Audi and BMW

Of them all, over the decades it's Mercedes that has most spoilt us for choice with plenty of desirable two-door GT cruisers. And yet, rather sadly, it can no longer afford to. A consolidation process of the company’s combustion-engined offerings has been creeping quietly forward for a while now, as Mercedes finds the R&D cash it needs for its electrified models by cutting others. It robbed us of a replacement for the pretty ‘C217’ S-Class Coupé as long ago as 2020, and it has now cut the firm’s smaller coupé and cabriolet model by half.

Mercedes UK has yet to announce equipment levels, and how much you need to spend to get a car with four-wheel steering – but if you want a car with much of a sense of agility, it will be worth having.

So instead of individual replacements for both C-Class and E-Class two-doors, we get this new CLE Coupé and Cabriolet. Based on the same model platform as both the C-Class and E-Class families, it’s intended to answer the desire of owners of the last-generation C-Class Coupé for a more spacious cabin, as well as that of owners of the outgoing E-Class Coupé for a slightly sportier and more engaging drive.

 

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DESIGN & STYLING

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mercedes benz cle review 2023 02 panning side

Built at Mercedes’ own Bremen factory - alongside the Mercedes-AMG SL convertible, no less - the Mercedes-Benz CLE was launched in the UK late in 2023 as a fixed-head coupé, and was soon followed by a cloth-top cabriolet that arrived in the spring of this year. 

The coupé is now offered in the UK market with a much wider choice of four- and six-cylinder mild-hybridised engines than we expected.

The CLE is actually a smidgeon longer than the outgoing E-Class two-door, with a clearer sense of elongated elegance about its proportions than the last, more cutesy C-Class Coupé had. It looks a little 'generic mid-sized Merc' – but I liked it.

The CLE 300 and 450 both come with 4Matic four-wheel drive and the cheaper, rear-driven CLE 200 petrol and the CLE 220d four-cylinder diesel were confirmed later.

That 220d is the only version we have so far driven in the UK, incidentally. The very existence of the CLE 450, meanwhile, confirms that there must be some E-Class under the skin of the CLE - because the current C-Class was famously the first car of its particular lineage to be designed for no engine larger than four cylinders. 

The cabriolet, meanwhile, is offered with the same choice of engines, with the CLE 300 and more potent CLE 450 six-cylinder likely to appeal the most to prospective drop-top owners. 

The CLE Cabriolet is the largest convertible in the mid-size segment, measuring just under five metres long with a wheelbase that is 25mm longer than that of the outgoing C-Class Cabriolet. Rear passengers therefore have 14mm more leg room, 22mm more shoulder room and 17mm more elbow room, according to Mercedes. 

Mercedes is working on a CLE 300e plug-in hybrid derivative for introduction in a year or so, but it will be a coupé-only powertrain when it comes. Although AMG performance versions are expected too, confirmation of their particular form remains to be made.

Engines mount in classic front, longitudinal fashion, with coil suspension and conventional steering fitted as standard; and adaptively damped suspension, with four-wheel steering, the preserve of upper-level models. Unlike on bigger Mercedes models, air suspension isn’t offered.

INTERIOR

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So to the first order of business: is this car more pumped-up C-Class or slimmed-down E-Class in its presence, layout and general character?

At the kerb, you might expect the former, because of its sheer size. But on the inside, the CLE’s fascia is obviously C-Class-derived. You may have already clocked the quartic, high-level air vents, the tapering fascia panel, and the glossy black union of centre stack and transmission tunnel that all give the game away, where perhaps you had hoped to see the E-Class’s wider- and more expansive-looking fascia.

The lower fascia plastics perhaps lack the tactile material quality you would expect of an E-Class, with just a hint of hard, reflectiveness about them, but as usual Mercedes seeks to draw your attention away with its typical, top-level razzle-dazzle chrome and gloss carbonfibre.

The overall ambience is rich enough that for the most part it works, too, and at that level I'd be disinclined too much to criticise the material quality.

The front seats are big, supportive and comfortable. The rear seats offer limited head room but if it was that or walk home in the rain, I reckon you would cope.

The boot’s 420 litres is 60 litres bigger than the previous C-Class coupé’s. Overall, the car is 4.85m long (so about 5cm longer than a BMW 4 Series and a thumb width longer than an old E-Class coupé), and 1.86m wide, the same as the E-Class, and sensible enough that you can open the doors wide enough in most car park spaces.

Then there's all of the car’s digital technology to consider - among which is the new E-Class’s third-generation, portrait-oriented MBUX infotainment system, which gets a more powerful processor, a simplified top-level menu system with bigger menu icons.

We would prefer more real buttons but it is, at least, relatively clear to navigate in its latest form, plus it has some very big icons that partly, but not entirely, make up for a paucity of the real things.

You can turn off the speed sign reader (and its tendency for incorrect reads) via voice control, but the steering assist (and ditto its false positive tendencies) must be done via a screen, but it’s swift and icons are big.

The touch-sensitive buttons on the attractive small steering wheel aren’t uniformly responsive. And we preferred also having that old Mercedes scroll wheel on the centre console, but there are many more onerous systems out there.

So while E-Class Coupé owners might not find material quality levels commensurate with their old car in the CLE, they will certainly find the digital technology on which Mercedes so squarely trades these days. Decent usable space too.

Up front, elbow and head room feel fairly generous even for taller adults, and in the back you will need to be a smaller adult or child to be comfortable for any length of time - but even that is progress from where the decidedly pokey precious C-Class Coupé left off, and probably marginally beats the four-seat practicality of key rivals (Audi A5 Coupé, BMW 4 Series Coupé).

The Cabriolet matches the Coupé in terms of refinement, comfort and technology, and even with a convertible roof it maintains a good level of isolation, roof up and roof down.

The convertible CLE comes as standard with Mercedes’ Aircap feature, which has been fine-tuned to further improve cabin isolation. This is formed of two parts: an airbrake-style shield that rises above the top of the windscreen, and a second one that extends from behind the rear seats.

The effect the system has is marginal. Although it reduces buffeting slightly, it seems to cause a bit of whistling when raised. Lower the Aircap and there’s a little more fluttering of air around your head, but less wind noise.

The CLE’s Airscarf neck warmers, which direct hot air from the headrests onto the driver’s and front passenger’s necks, are effective enough. As a no-cost option, they will be handy for those using their CLE for drop-top motoring in winter.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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We have so far tried three engine derivatives: the 300 and 450 on the car's international launch and the 220d diesel in the UK. 

As a concept, the diesel engine may have had a hard time of it recently, making up just 5% of UK sales, but it rather suits the CLE’s demeanour, particularly in this 48V mild-hybrid form.

The engine makes 197bhp and 325lb ft and the motor 23bhp and 151lb ft but as usual they don’t both make full steam at the same time, so the total is not as simple as adding the two together. 

At idle and even at low town speeds it’s sometimes hard to hear that the engine is spinning at all. The official consumption figure is 58.9mpg and in some limited testing I could just about match it.

On paper it’s as fast as the (7.4sec, 2.0-litre) CLE 200 petrol too, and in the real world I would bet at least as flexible. In some mild-hybrid cars you can barely tell there’s electrical assistance – here it’s evident, and often, but very neatly integrated. 

Although notably plainer-sounding than the straight-six CLE 450, the four-cylinder CLE 300 4Matic is likely to dominate the UK sales mix, and while it does lack the more seductive audible richness of its sibling model, it doesn’t want for good mechanical isolation, easy drivablity or respectable outright performance. 

There’s only a distant four-cylinder rasp about the turbocharged 2.0-litre engine, audible most at idle and when revving beyond 3500rpm. It’s not quite the soundtrack you expect of a car like this, but it’s an awfully long way from harsh or unpleasant.

Mercedes’ improved mild-hybrid drive assistance (it can now supply up to 23bhp and 151lb ft of boost, mostly as torque fill while the engine is off boost at low revs) doesn’t allow the car to run engine-off much.

But it does enable meaningful, accessible roll-on performance in give-and-take traffic, and often seems to keep the nine-speed automatic gearbox from downshifting under part-throttle acceleration.

The car doesn’t exactly feel urgent at full power, especially when revving above 4000rpm, but it will be quick enough for buyers who have probably turned down sportier options in any case in favour of a more classically Mercedes luxury dynamic vibe.

The CLE 450, meanwhile, feels surprisingly brisk on the road: torquey and responsive from lowish revs, but also considerably keener to rev than the four-pot CLE 300 - and much sweeter on the ear.

The straight six’s greater richness of performance is actually what customers will be paying for, you would imagine. And digitally enhanced or not, the 3.0-litre unit really does sound quite blue-blooded, and it’s predictably smooth-revving and enticing even in its milder moments.

RIDE & HANDLING

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CLE buyers will get what they are likely to be expecting in the car’s supple ride. Every CLE we have tested so far has been in AMG Line Premium trim, on 20in wheels. 

A simple menu of drive modes combining powertrain, driveline, suspension, stability control and steering calibration offers you Eco, Comfort, Sport and Individual settings.

In Comfort, the car rides gently and with a hint of wafting suppleness, tripping up only over sharper edges that bite through what protection is afforded by the car’s low-profile tyres. 

Sport mode adds enough steering weight and body control to let you hurry the car along with plenty of precision and assurance when you want to and delivers clearer high-speed composure than the loping old E-Class Coupé had.

It stops short of introducing much distinguishing cornering balance or handling athleticism into the driving experience but, without compromising the car’s comfort levels much or making it much more demanding to drive, it may be just the right dynamic compromise for the car’s target market.

Refinement is of the sort you would expect of a luxury car at the price and is a fairly strong suit for the car, although not quite exceptionally so.

On 20in wheels, the Coupé’s ride is isolated, comfortable and quiet over most kinds of asphalt, although the very coarsest can begin to rumble and roar its way into the cabin occasionally and on the roughest UK roads - and we have a few - it thumps over some sharper bumps. 

The Cabriolet will appeal most to those who enjoy laid-back cruising. Adopt a suitably relaxed pace and the CLE rewards you with a smooth, easy-going and comfortable driving experience.

The ride is pliant and composed, ironing out larger lumps and bumps and expansion joints well. Although you wouldn’t call it soft or pillowy, it filters out most imperfections very well, with only sharper edges escaping the net somewhat.

Scuttle shake isn’t a cause for concern. There is a little wobble from around the windscreen frame and running up to the rear-view mirror when riding over severe imperfections, but it's barely noticeable, with only the odd vibration occasionally apparent in some of the cabin fittings.

The convertible can be driven more quickly, but adopting a more hurried approach on a twisty B-road soon tests vertical body control beyond its comfort zone. Despite some body lean through corners, it still handles well, steering with a good level of accuracy.

 

VERDICT

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mercedes benz cle review 2023 22 static rear

In seeking to amalgamate the customer bases of two distinct predecessor models, the Mercedes-Benz CLE was always likely to leave some owners wanting more.

But in practice, in its understated prioritisation of luxurious dynamic qualities over sporting ones, as well as with its decent four-seat usability, desirability and kerbside appeal, it feels like a particularly traditional kind of Mercedes has come along at a time when there may be considerable appetite for one.

Although there’s more of the C-Class about how this car looks inside and out, then, there are certainly clear notes of the E-Class about how the CLE rides, handles and performs. Think of it as one of the segment’s more practical, comfortable options, a car that meets a mature, laid-back, boulevardier-style brief rather well. 

The CLE Cabriolet, meanwhile, feels like a well-composed convertible with just enough material richness and cabin isolation to match its luxury billing. It’s no great drop-top sports car but, at a cruise, it’s a solid performer that can be enjoyed roof up or roof down. 

Without quite hitting the luxurious high notes of some of its famous predecessors, the new CLE should easily find a home in both coupé and cabriolet markets made up of rivals of more sporting priorities.

Sam Phillips

Sam Phillips
Title: Staff Writer

Sam has been part of the Autocar team since 2021 and is often tasked with writing new car stories and more recently conducting first drive reviews.

Most of his time is spent leading sister-title Move Electric, which covers the entire spectrum of electric vehicles, from cars to boats – and even trucks. He is an expert in electric cars, new car news, microbility and classic cars. 

Sam graduated from Nottingham Trent University in 2021 with a BA in Journalism. In his final year he produced an in-depth feature on the automotive industry’s transition to electric cars and interviewed a number of leading experts to assess our readiness for the impending ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.