Twin test: Mercedes CLS vs Audi A7

In marketing, the holy grail is an ‘unmet need’. People want something, it isn’t out there, so when you provide it, you’ve hit the jackpot. Nothing much beyond basic food, shelter, warmth and human company is actually a need, it’s more of a want, but marketers do exaggerate. But, back in 2004, the Mercedes CLS certainly found an unmet need.

This feature was originally published in the February issue of Top Gear magazine

Pre-CLS, if you wanted a posh four-door, you got a boxy and prim saloon like an E-Class. But unless it's a minicab, you never see an E-Class with fully grown adults in the back. For most big-saloon owners, the back doors are just an affirmation to themselves that they're less selfish than a coupe buyer. But all along, they wanted a coupe, and the CLS squared the circle.
So it's been an influential car. It came along while the Jaguar XF was at the design phase, and Jaguar's designers immediately lowered the XF's rear roof by two inches. Over at BMW, they're now preparing a four-door version of the new 6-Series. And, just as the second-generation CLS arrives, Audi launches the A7.

Audi fervently wishes we'd think it a progressive company, yet this is a more cautious design than in the Mercedes. In answer to the CLS's trademark domed roof, squished-in window line, drooping boot and cartoon wheelarches, Audi gives us, well, a big hatchback. Its sheer length is striking, though, allowing the back half to be radically sloped - the roof and rear pillars form a continuous downward sweep from the driver's head aft. But then, a Vauxhall Insignia does the same thing.
That said, the Audi is one beautifully detailed, proportioned and surfaced hatchback. It's far simpler than most recent Audis, and the more elegant for it, in our view. It carries an air of not having to try too hard, a striking contrast with the CLS, which has so much going on along its flanks and around its nose that you can almost see the veins on its forehead bulging with the sheer effort of being so stylish, darling
The cabins are consistent with what's going on outside. Audi favours pared-back simplicity (see picture above); Benz takes a more ornate approach. Take your pick - one thing's for sure, you don't have to worry about the quality of the execution. Both are crafted with loving care, out of high-grade military-quality materials - if tanks were lined in contrast-stitched glove-soft leather anyway.

Surprisingly, there are small ergonomic glitches in the Mercedes (see above). Its silver instrument faces and silver switches have markings backlit in silvery-blue, so it's impossible to read them in wintry daylight or summer twilight. And the secondary colour screen in the middle of the Mercedes's speedo is too small for the overload of information it carries - the Audi's equivalent has vastly more real estate.
Both come as standard with big hi-res central screens bearing impressive satnav, connectivity and music functions, but with the inevitable Germano-luxo possibility of spending tens of thousands more. Our test Audi, for instance had infra-red night-vision with pedestrian recognition (as in ‘There's a pedestrian out there in the darkness', not as in ‘Hey, isn't that your mate Dave') and an upgraded satnav that displays 3D models of cities and instructs the transmission, headlamp beam and adaptive cruise control to the road ahead.

You can also spend thousands on upgrading the seats to give you an almost kinkily violent massage function. But life in the front of a big Benz or Audi was always going to be good and spacious. In these quasi-coupes, do those behind suffer for your sheet-metal art? The CLS's dragster side windows do limit back-seat vision, which might give you some sort of celeb-approved privacy, or might induce motion sickness in your passengers.
But there's plenty of legroom and headroom in both cars. The Mercedes (above) achieves this by moving the two passengers inboard under the domed roof, inserting a solid console between. The Audi's rear-seat occupants sit further apart on a normal bench seat, but still there's no third seatbelt. Huh? Well, in the German automobile hierarchy, hatchbacks are for the proles, and the A7 is a luxury sporty coupe so, by their impeccably consistent logic, it can't possibly have a fifth seat. To us, it's perverse.

Both CLS and A7 (above) are slicked-back versions of their makers' regular saloons. The CLS is related to the two-year-old E-Class. Audi, clearly in a hurry to plug the long-standing CLS-shaped gap in its range, has got the A7 out before its mechanical twin, the 2011 A6.
We're testing the V6 diesels of each, which will be the big sellers because they're effortlessly fast, remarkably economical and likely to be bought on the company-car quid. The Mercedes is a 3.0, despite the 350CDI badge, but then you can't begrudge it fiddling its CV, given the stonking 265bhp and 457lb ft of torque. A seven-speed auto is standard, and rear-drive. The Audi's 3.0-litre comes in two outputs: 204bhp for the FWD, and 245bhp for this quattro version. This too has a seven-speed transmission, but it's a twin-clutch S-tronic, which, as we'll see, has consequences.

The Audi has a bit less power and quite a bit less torque, but despite the quattro drive, it weighs less than the Mercedes - both have largely steel structures, but most of the exterior panels are aluminium. Their all-out performance justifies the 50 grand.
But they go about it differently. The Mercedes engine is almost uncannily quiet, tending to silence at a motorway cruise, and it delivers its torque without much of a trough at either end of the rev scale. The shove in the back is insistent. The full-auto transmission weaves its way through both town and highway with feathery softness, but like all Benzes, it isn't so co-operative when you feel like taking control.

The Audi V6 TDI was the benchmark for smoothness, but this Mercedes has it beaten. Never mind, it's hardly shabby. Just a fraction peakier and little bit more audibly insistent - though the snare-drum racket from the big tyres drowns it out on a motorway. The S-tronic transmission isn't a luxury-car 'box. At town speeds, especially when the oil's cold, its efforts to impersonate a proper auto aren't much cop. It manoeuvres grabbily, and holds onto first because it doesn't have a torque converter to ease it into second. In slow traffic, it's crude. But there's a pay-off. On an interesting road when you're driving more actively, it gives you snappier shifts and more complete manual control.
But that'd be no use without a sporty chassis. The Audi has firm springing and, on the test car, oversized 265/35 20 tyres, as well as four-wheel drive. Cornering grip, then, is hardly going to be an issue. But it's not all rosy. For a start, those tyres tramline badly, and corrupt the steering. Ah well, if you can feel the ridges, you ought to be able to feel what you do want, the friction of the surface and edge of the grip envelope. But you can't. The A7 corners highly effectively, but with no particular spirit.
By the way, the car in these shots is on the optional adaptively damped air-sprung chassis. We actually did rather more miles in a second car with steel springs and passive dampers, on the standard 19s. It tramlined less, kicked up slightly less of a road-noise assault and frankly, even compared with the adaptive car in ‘comfort' mode, there wasn't much in it for ride. But it too was numb to the helm. Maybe it's the electric power steering, which is making its way up from small cars to big ones. The A8, which has the same air-sprung chassis but hydraulic steering, is better.
Mercedes too has switched to electric steering for the CLS. Manufacturers fit it because it saves fuel and complexity, allows more tuning of weight at different speeds, and can include extra functions like self-parking and pulling you back into a motorway lane if you drift. But it nearly always sacrifices ultimate feel, as the Audi proves. At all normal speeds, the CLS wheel is weighted just like any other Benz, with a deliberate action and lots of self-centring. On our greasy test roads, it didn't give us enough feel to be entirely confident, even on winter tyres, but when we did the first drive in a sunnier place, it did the job.
One thing's for sure. The CLS is a very close match to the Audi for agility, yet it's a league ahead for ride. A long-wavelength plushness has it floating regally over big bumps, and there's little secondary shudder. And yet the damping keeps it all neatly tied down. The Audi sits on the thumpy, jiggly side of firm, and a slight shudder through the steering column undermines that tank-like integrity.

The Mercedes is the luxury car here, but then you'd expect a Mercedes to be just that. It's quieter, smoother and better-riding. You relax into it like you do in a hot bath. The Audi looks for all the world the chiselled, lean athlete, and its responsive gearbox and suction-pad traction bear it out. But it doesn't have the sense of fun to press home that advantage. If you prefer the Audi's style or could use its hatchback, fair enough, but beside the Mk2 CLS, the A7 feels like what it is: a first attempt.
The verdict
Hat-tip to the Audi A7 for bringing back elegant minimalism to Audi design. But it’s the Mercedes CLS that best marries the comfort of a limo-barge with the driving smarts of a coupe.

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