In today’s marketplace there are very few niches that the auto business has not filled, or at least made an ill-attempted concept car to do so. Everything from convertible SUV’s to saloon cars which can hit 200 mph are available for buyers, if not the ones with an average sized budget. But even just 10 years ago it seemed inconceivable that customers would want anything other than the rather full line ups that manufacturers were offering. Mercedes Benz, often called the king of niche vehicles had on sale a pretty reasonable 14 passenger models (including estate variants of 2 cars), yet a mere 3 years later that number had grown to 18 and by next year will reach 25! But whilst some of this expansion has been into established segments, a large chunk of these models have been one-of-a-kind models, which at least to begin with have had no immediate rivals.
Probably the most successful (so far) has been the CLS, a 4 door coupe which features the looks of a coupe combined with the increased practicality that an extra pair of doors provides. Of course that is all marketing-jibe, and in fact underneath the car is a bog standard E-Class which has been given a dramatic new body and slightly posher (albeit less practical) cabin. Wisely Mercedes pitched the CLS at those who may otherwise have bought a sportier version of one of the cars German rivals, as the E Class itself can be seen as a more traditional choice compared with the A6 or 5 Series. With a smooth V6’s (diesel and petrol) as well as several powerful V8’s, the CLS quickly became a hit with golf players everywhere, as well as with those wishing for something a little different from the normal options.
I actually really like the CLS, and with the V6 diesel it can make a lot of sense for a second hand buyer wanting a desirable and relatively fuel efficient option. Yes the 530d will handle better and seats 5, and an A6 might come with all important LED running lights, but for some (like myself), the exclusivity and sportiness of the big Merc along with the undeniable class of the three-pointed star badge mean that for £10k there are few better choices. Negative points? Well like I have said the car only seats 4, so those who want to seat 5 will need to rule out the CLS immediately. Also the COMAND system that Mercedes puts in its cars has never met the same acclaim as those from other manufacturers, and handling is more akin to the E Class than anything sportier.
4-door coupe’s have become big business since the CLS’ success story but it took a while for rivals to materialise; first came Volkswagen’s Passat CC, which mirrored much of the CLS at a lower price point (but ultimately without the premium badge or powerful engine). Audi’s A7 hatchback delivers similarly dramatic looks and a better interior but did not arrive until 2011, by which time Mercedes were launching the second generation CLS. BMW have only just launched the 6 Series GranCoupe, which is similar in execution but at quite a large premium compared even to the Mercedes and Audi. An interesting alternative is the Jaguar XF, which whilst aimed more at the mainstream still manages to offer dramatic looks and a relaxed drive at a lower price point.
Most agree that the merits of the CLS make it the best all-rounder in this now-large niche, and with the introduction of both the Shooting Brake (read estate) version and now the much smaller (but visually similar) CLA, it seems that Mercedes are still on their game.