Aubergine. Not a word you'll come across in the pages of Top Gear very often, but here it is nevertheless. There's a white Mercedes CLS 500 in front of me, and its interior trim is officially known as ‘aubergine'.
Yes, I know, it sounds like one of Noel Edmonds's jumpers. Nor can I imagine ticking the box marked ‘aubergine' - ‘deep purple' has a better ring to it - on the online configurator, but it really works. The seats are beautifully sculpted jobs with the sort of vertical ribbing effect that was once the preserve of, say, a Fifties Mulliner Bentley. But as this is a fully optioned, contemporary top-of-the-range Merc, the front chairs have that massage and pulse function, which can make a spirited back-road blast feel like a 70mph arse-kicking at the hands of a small but surprisingly strong Thai lady.
Aubergine or not, the new CLS is one of those cars you just have to fondle. There are several reasons for this. The first is that design boss Professor Gorden Wagener wanted this second-generation version of Merc's break-out four-door coupe hit (170,000 sold since 2004) to have a properly bespoke quality. So the nod to an old-school Mulliner isn't as off-beam as it might seem, and the CLS really does smell and feel that good. The second, and more important, reason is that the new car confirms what the latest E-Class it's closely related to has already suggested: Merc's remembered how to build cars properly again, and - AMG notwithstanding - has willingly ceded the market for boorish, rough-riding hot-rods to its rivals at Audi and BMW.
This is a cool car, in every sense. A bit of a lounge lizard, before the idea was hijacked by predatory Eurotrash.
Which isn't to say that the CLS is a lazy, foul-handling, land yacht. Not even a tiny bit. With its 406bhp,4.6-litre V8, the 500 in particular has the necessary chops to worry a supercar in terms of handling and performance. This engine really is a bit of a masterpiece: sonorous, smooth and effortlessly powerful. There'll be a bi-turbo, 537bhp 5.5-litre V8 AMG CLS any day now too, which promises to be cosmically fast. But the fact is that the really clever stuff is happening elsewhere in the range, including an upcoming four-cylinder diesel (55mpg!) and a slightly gruff but super-efficient six-pot petrol. The smart money, though, is on the six-cylinder, 3.0-litre turbo diesel, more of which in a moment.
Of course, you buy a CLS because it looks good. The previous model, which Mercedes repeatedly refers to as an icon without realising that an ‘icon' is technically a religious painting, polarised opinion. Mainly mine, actually, because I hated its bendy styling and niche-busting opportunism at first, before coming round to the idea. The new car reconciles Mercedes's current mission to marry a pointy snout with a curvy arse much better than the E-Class manages. From here on in, Merc's sportier cars and its more formal products will go their separate ways visually, and the CLS's aggressive nose ushers in the new ‘sporty' corporate look, complete with powerful LED headlights (71of them, in fact), for increased safety and a distinctive night-time signature. So get used to it. There are 37 people in Mercedes's lighting division with families to feed.
There's an awful lot happening on the rear doors, too, and as usual much depends on colour, paint finish and wheel choice. But, trust me, if a car can get away with white paint over an aubergine interior, it must be fundamentally right. There's also a particularly tasty satin silver finish, which is a nuisance to touch up if you ding it in the car park but probably worth the grief and the extra £1,000 it costs. More strident is a new Zircon red, the aim of which is to bust Mercedes out of the predictable silver/grey/black trap. Looks good, too. But not as good as the silver, grey or black.
Both interior quality and architecture have taken a big leap forward. The options list is bigger than an Argos catalogue, but even the most crass vulgarian wouldn't be able to ruin what is a very nicely conceived and beautifully executed cabin. The dash-top has immaculately stitched leather, there are matt-silver inlays around the air vents, and though some of the wood finishes are of questionable taste, they're all classily made. The centre console opens with an extravagantly damped hush.
It all feels incredibly thorough. Even the (optional) Harman Kardon Logic 7 audio had the positioning of its 14 speakers determined at the body-in-white stage. And, though the main instruments are analogue, the digital display within the speedo is now in colour, and bulges with so much information that it's effectively a second Comand system, along with the one that governs the multi-media. Mercedes has seemingly attached the -Assist or -Tronic suffix to virtually everything - traction control, distance control, blind spot detection, lane departure (these two also brake the outside rear wheel and work in conjunction with the ESP), night view, parking, climate, etc - that one wonders if it's on the verge of creating a car and driver mindset that's too helplessly paranoid to leave the driveway in the morning. Assist? Desist, more like. That said, it would be churlish to argue with Merc's commitment to active and passive safety, and reckless hedonists can always reach for the off button.
This is a much more athletic car than CLS v1.0. It uses broadly the same architecture and has an identical wheelbase to the current E-Class, which is no bad thing. But there are some key alterations. The frameless doors are all-aluminium - which generates a weight-saving of 24kg compared to steel - and aluminium is used extensively elsewhere, though the 350 diesel still weighs 1,815kg. The CLS is very slippery, though, with a drag co-efficient of 0.26. Back in the early 1980s, a figure like that was the stuff of science fiction.
And that's not all. At first glance, the numbers on Mercedes's latest powerplants are so good they look like typographic errors. The 3.5-litre petrol-engined 350 six-cylinder delivers 41.5mpg, and CO2 emissions of 159g/km, and even the CLS 500 can manage 31.5mpg on average and coughs out less than 210g/km. The start-stop ‘Eco' option helps, and works unobtrusively. We're getting into cake-and-eat-it territory here, surely.
As for the 3.0-litre diesel 350, well how does 264bhp and 457lb ft of torque sound? Or 47mpg? Around 90 per cent of UK CLS sales are diesel, and though the six and eight-cylinder petrol cars are both terrific, this might be the final tipping point. The CLS's chassis is so accomplished that even the heavier powertrain doesn't blunt its handling or behaviour. It uses a tuned version of the E's multi-link front and rear suspension set-up, so it rides beautifully. The steering is a new electric system, chosen primarily because it only uses energy ‘on-demand', which helps reduce fuel consumption and emissions. Most electric set-ups are synthetic at best, utterly rubbish at worst. But this one works. There's plenty of feel, and it's perfectly linear. For a big car, the CLS can really be hustled along, and it's unbelievably sure-footed, even on the damp, up- and downhill Italian mountain roads we drove it on.
The seven-speed automatic can be a little hesitant on kick-down, but flipping it into manual mode and using the paddles circumvents this problem. The mechanical refinement on all three versions we tried was exemplary, and wind noise around the door mirrors and pillars was minimal too. Nor could I spot any significant difference between the adjustable air suspension on one model and the steel springs on another, however the control freak in me generally prefers a conventionally optimised set-up, though maybe not on Britain's rubbish roads.
The new CLS is a cool, covetable, and highly intelligent car. I loved it. In fact, it's that rare thing, a car about which I could find nothing wrong. Unless you count naming an interior after a daft fruit.
On your drive for: £1,184pcm
Performance: 0-62mph in 6.2secs,max speed 155mph, 47.0mpg
Tech: 2987cc, 6cyl, RWD, 264bhp, 457lb ft, 1815kg, 159g/km CO2