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First Drive

Mercedes-AMG CLE 53 Coupe review: AMG goes back to the script

£73,075 when new
810
Published: 28 Apr 2024
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SPEC HIGHLIGHTS

  • BHP

    442.5bhp

  • 0-62

    4.2s

  • Max Speed

    155Mph

Well this looks proper…

As well it should, wearing an AMG badge. Except the Mercedes-AMG CLE 53 ought, on paper, to be something of a halfway house. That’s where recent 53 (and 43) models have resided, offering a bit of sporting nous but much less bombast than a full-on 63. An indulgent treat on the company car list, perhaps.

Appearances alone suggest this new CLE 53 is something different. It takes the stock CLE coupe – a classy two-door like Mercedes typically knocks out of the park – and pumps it full of protein. Wider tracks (up 58mm front, 75mm rear) and stocky new 295-section rear tyres demand swollen arches, the resulting stance not dissimilar to an old C63 AMG coupe. This is one urgent looking car, especially with its optional matt paints and blackline trims.

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Is the engine urgent too?

Where that mighty old C63 had a knurled fist of a V8 up front, this CLE keeps with the 53 tradition by using an in-line six. A relief when the new C63 has such a flabbergasting 4cyl hybrid setup. So it’s a warm embrace to open its muscular bonnet to find a 3.0-litre turbo familiar from other Mercs (and Chinese-market Aston Martin DBXs) only here with strengthened components and new software for 443bhp and 413lb ft peaks (or 443lb ft on overboost).

It’s a mild hybrid, too, a 22bhp/151lb ft electric motor not only smoothing out the stop/start procedure but mitigating turbo lag and allowing a bigger, boostier exhaust-fed turbocharger to focus on higher performance further up the rev range. All four wheels are driven through a nine-speed automatic gearbox, though unlike old 53s, this one has a rear-wheel-drive Drift Mode… so long as you’ve ticked a pricey options box and learned the starting procedure.

So how fast, then?

Mercedes-AMG quotes a 0-62mph time of 4.2 seconds, which falls to 4.0s dead if you’ve utilised the Race Start launch control function of the £7,500 Pro Performance Package, which also raises the electronically limited top speed from the obligatory 155mph to an only marginally more exciting 168mph. Luckily ‘PPP’ adds Race mode to the drive select dial, too, within which you’ll find the hallowed/pointless Drift Mode, as well as sportier seats and a host of exterior styling flourishes.

Keeping its momentum in check – no mean feat, with a 2,000kg kerb weight – are ventilated brake discs (370mm front, 360mm rear) as well as bespoke compound Michelin tyres (even if you opt for winters). There’s adaptive ‘Ride Control’ suspension plus a whole suite of AMG Dynamics stuff that keeps the four-wheel drive, four-wheel steer (another 53 first) and stability control systems in check through a range of ‘difficulty levels’ from Basic to Master.

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These supplement the regular driving modes, toggled through either the touchscreen or snazzier steering wheel dials. Luckily you can settle on an Individual setup to shortcut to your ideal balance between comfort and agility.

Shouldn’t they have done that for me?

The idea is that this AMG operates across a broad spectrum between exactly that, comfort and agility; a car with multi talents which you prioritise yourself. Or, as I pull up at a set of traffic lights on the CLE 53’s Tenerife press launch, the bloke in a flatbed attempts to prioritise on my behalf. He excitedly mimes the spinning up of wheels, clearly eyeballing the C63-lite aesthetic and hoping – in vain – for those bespoke rear tyres to be bonfired on demand.

His expectation contrasts with the calm inside, the engine culled as I sail up to the lights before politely reawakening as I lift the brake pedal and the 6cyls thrum into life to deliver smooth, hushed progress out of town. This is a classy device in Comfort mode with suitably subtle inputs. It’s exactly as you’d hope a big Benz coupe to be, in fact, besides its disappointing inability to drop all four windows to take a hit out of the Canary Islands heat.

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A short, ensconcing stride up the motorway later and we turn off into the hills, climbing briskly from sea level to the 2,250m altitude of Teide National Park and its Martian topography. Each change in vista encourages a further ascent through the drive modes to unlock more of the AMG (and less of the Mercedes) in the drivetrain and chassis below.

Comfort lacks ultimate precision and lends the car a little hesitancy into corners but Sport and Sport+ bring sharper reactions and a resoluteness to the ride. The adaptive damping largely copes well, though there’s a definite tension to it – especially on gnarlier roads – that’ll need fully assessing in the UK. Especially when British-bound cars forgo the standard 19in wheels to solely wear 20s. Better for filling those muscular arches, of course...

Is it fun?

There’s a clear rear-bias to the variable 4Matic system – enough to negate any real need or desire to go hunting out Drift Mode, not least because you must switch the stability control completely off to activate it. Why not allow a fully rear-drive car with a marginal safety net? Perhaps it’s telling the CLE 53 feels in its comfort zone a little below such commitment, but there’s definitely a heck of a lot more attitude than the Mercedes-AMG E53 Coupe that came before it. Grip is strong and you can get a brisk and boisterous flow going with ease.

While evidently not a fully fledged AMG unit, the 3.0-litre still has some soul and really starts to sing with revs. Just a shame you can’t accrue all that many of them, with max power exhausted by 6,100rpm and the redline arriving in short order.

It's allied to a nicely calibrated gearbox, but stay in manual mode and you might lunge clumsily into the limiter before being admonished by a lazy, delayed upshift for trying to stretch the engine too far. It’s moments like this where the ultimate tenacity of a full 63 model is evidently out of reach, and further proof this CLE 53 stops just shy of being a bona fide BMW M4 rival. But with such a breadth of talents on display, will you mind? 

Satisfaction runs deep, with light, intuitive steering that belies the chunky and racy rim while the four-wheel steering is integrated seamlessly to chisel away a little of the car’s heft in corners without pivoting you aggressively at the apex.

It looks chockful of tech…

The toggleable rotary dials for its drive modes are now an AMG mainstay and play an admirable role in bringing dozens of configurations into sharp focus. They also help keep your eyes away from the otherwise distracting 11.9in slanted touchscreen. Its core functions are in relatively easy reach, however – including a swift extinguishing of the most bothersome active safety systems – while the overall interior ambience is top-notch. Everything feels and smells as luxurious as you’d hope given the £73,075 price tag.

That gets you 20in wheels, adaptive digital lights, a panoramic roof, 360deg parking cameras and a neat augmented-reality function for the sat nav directions. Albeit only if you’re using the car’s native navigation rather than, more likely, connecting to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto to use a smarter app.

A further £5,750 upgrades you to Premium Plus spec with an exterior black pack, carbon and faux-suede trim inside, fragranced air con and massaging seats (plus a system that cleverly combines the two), a thumping Burmester stereo and a head-up display. The racy ‘PPP’ pack is a £7,500 option on either trim. So yes, it’s the work of a mere moment to make this a ninety grand car if you also want nappa leather and Magno (aka matt) paint.

That’s still a healthy sliver less than a C63 hybrid now costs, though, and with a less frustrating driving experience emanating from the CLE 53’s slinkier kerb weight and less complex powertrain.

No need for a CLE 63, then?

You’d certainly think so given what a leap forwards the 53 badge has taken here, and how much additional effort AMG has poured into its drivetrain and chassis. Yet speak to its engineers and no doors are being slammed shut; a mystical ‘let’s see’ greets my probing questions about the likelihood of a CLE 63 and another use for this dramatic new bodyshell. Unless it has a V8, I’m not sure why you’d crave it. This CLE 53 contains plenty that we know and love AMG for, just infused with softer manners and a little more useability.

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