Mercedes-Benz CLE-Class (US) review: the only thing new is its name Reviews 2023 | Top Gear
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Mercedes-Benz CLE-Class (US) review: the only thing new is its name

Published: 12 Sep 2023

Wait, CLE? Great. More alphabet soup.

Whoa, whoa. Before you work yourself into a tizzy, know this: the new Mercedes-Benz CLE is an incredibly straightforward car. It’s a soft-edged two-door meant to compete with the Audi A5 and BMW 4 Series, effectively replacing both the C-Class and E-Class coupes. The engines are familiar and you’ve definitely seen these interior bits before. It’s just two cars becoming one. You know, like that Spice Girls song. 

So is it more C-Class or E-Class?

Dimensionally, the CLE is nearly identical in size to the outgoing E-Class coupe. The CLE’s wheelbase is a smidge shorter, but it’s longer overall, and there’s but a 2.5-millimeter difference in width.

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Visually, however, the CLE has a closer link to the C-Class. Maybe it’s the squinty headlights or arched taillights, but the real bummer is the fact that the CLE doesn’t have the E-Class’ cool pillarless profile – a design trait that’s a hallmark of Mercedes’ stateliest coupes. Company engineers listed frivolous things like “structural integrity” and “safety” as reasons why the CLE needed to have its B-pillar intact. Psh, rats. Nothing says elegance like a pillarless coupe.

What about inside?

Lots more C-Class. Like, almost identically so. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: both the C and CLE have seats that’ll coddle your bum and hug your hips, and the dashboard inlays look good. Just don’t touch the trim. The glossy panels creak and easily pick up dust and smudges, and you’ll find lots of cheap plastic below, say, hip level. This cabin has all kinds of visual gee-whiz-ness – especially with those big screens and all that Miami nightclub ambient lighting – but the devil’s in the details.

Speaking of screens, every CLE has two of ‘em. A 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster can be reconfigured to your heart’s content with all sorts of colorful themes, and the 11.6-inch tablet-like touchscreen atop the center stack has an updated version of Mercedes’ MBUX (pronounce it “M-bucks,” it’s fun) infotainment suite, the highlight of which is larger menu icons. Fancy. Naturally, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are included – wirelessly, natch – and the eager-to-chime-in “Hey, Mercedes” voice-command AI lady can help you do all sorts of tasks.

Complaints? The rear seats are cramped and difficult to access, given the CLE’s curvaceous roofline (pillarless coupes are also easier to get in and out of, just saying). Also, the dumb thumbpads on the steering wheel remain a chore to use, especially when trying to scroll through menus on the instrument cluster. Good news, though: the CLE’s trunk is bigger than both the C-Class and E-Class coupes.

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Is the CLE any good to drive?

The CLE is a pleasant thing, but I wouldn’t call it a particularly good driver’s car. It’s a comfy cruiser that eats up highway miles and is perfectly content putzing around the city. But get this coupe on a winding road and it starts to come undone. The steering is super light and numb, even in the CLE’s most aggressive Sport drive mode, and the brakes feel mushy. You’ve really got to dig deep into the pedal travel to slow this big two-door down.

Europeans can choose between electronically adaptive comfort or sport suspensions, and the CLE can be optioned with 2.5-degree rear-axle steering for a skosh more agility. Americans get neither option, however: the US-spec CLE has comfort and sport chassis tunes with fixed damper rates, and there’s no rear-wheel steering. Mercedes-Benz says American consumers don’t want these features, and honestly, I’m not sure they’d make this meh-handler any more lively.

Are there lots of engine options?

Three different engines are available globally, but the 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-6 in the CLE450 is the star of the lineup. It’s got an integrated starter-generator that smooths out operation of the stop-start system and gives you a bit of an electric push before the turbo spools up. On its own, the straight-6 makes 375hp and 369lb ft, but that 48-volt mild-hybrid system can add a maximum of 23hp and 151lb ft. This engine is used widely across the Mercedes-Benz portfolio, and it’s a sweetie. The E-Class-sized CLE definitely performs at its best with this engine underhood.

But given the totally unsporty nature of this coupe – to say nothing of its target customers – the 2.0-liter turbo I4 in the CLE300 will almost certainly be fine for most buyers. It’s got the same 48-volt starter generator, but the inline-4 makes just 255hp and 295lb ft of torque. This engine doesn’t sound particularly good under full throttle, but you can drown that out with a kickin’ Dolby Atmos audio system. Both the CLE300 and CLE450 come standard with 4Matic all-wheel drive, as well as a buttery smooth nine-speed automatic gearbox.

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Customers outside of the USA can get a less-powerful version of the mild-hybrid inline-4 in the rear-wheel-drive CLE200 or all-wheel-drive CLE200 4Matic, making 201hp and 236lb ft. There's also a diesel-fed CLE220d, with 194hp and 325lb ft, but being American, Mercedes kindly asked that I focus on the CLE300 and CLE450 during my drive time in Spain. I'm sure these other engines are fine; less power isn't going to change the CLE's demeanor.

How about a plug-in? Or some kind of ballistic AMG?

Both are coming, I promise. The Mercedes-AMG CLE63 should be particularly interesting, since it’ll use the C63 sedan’s mega-boosted 2.0-liter turbo I4 hybrid setup. That means we could see a CLE63 with 671hp and 752lb ft of torque. From a four-banger. Wild.

So do you like the CLE?

I mean, I guess. There’s nothing outright bad about this car, aside from a few interior issues. And I’ll admit, on a sunny day wafting along the coast of Spain’s Basque Country, with the windows down and sunroof open, the CLE is a doll.

That said, there’s nothing about the new CLE that truly stands out as extraordinary or even noteworthy, and it definitely won’t raise your heart rate. It’s an okay coupe that replaces two other okay coupes while keeping those same okay rhythms alive. And given the personal luxury coupe’s shrinking market share, maybe that’s all the CLE needs to be.

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