– Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain
Mercedes-Benz is probably most famous for its luxury sedans and the legendary G-Class SUV, but the automaker also steadfastly insists on having a four-seat coupe in its lineup. In fact, as recently as 2021, you could get each of the automaker’s core models as a two-door – the pillarless-hardtop S- and E-Class, as well as the compact C-Class.
But the S-Class coupe is gone, and the two smaller guys will soon be replaced with one nominally unified product: the 2024 Mercedes-Benz CLE-Class. The company says the CLE was borne of customer feedback: C-Class coupe owners asked for more cargo and passenger room, while E-Classers wanted a sportier driving experience.
Whether it delivers on Mercedes' intended goals is questionable based on the specs. The new coupe larger outside yet smaller inside than the outgoing E. And those expansive dimensions might make for a less nimble experience than old C-Class, especially on narrow roads. But the proof of the pudding is in the tasting, and the proof of the CLE is in the driving.
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|2024 Mercedes-Benz CLE450
|Turbocharged 3.0-Liter I6
|375 Horsepower / 369 Pound-Feet
|0-60 Miles Per Hour
|4.3 Seconds (est.)
|130 Miles Per Hour
Gallery: 2024 Mercedes-Benz CLE-Class First Drive
My overall skepticism extended to the styling, at least until I saw it up close. In photos, the longish front overhang and aggressively tapered greenhouse left me somewhat cold, with none of the understated grandness of the outgoing E-Class. And that car’s appealing pillarless-hardtop design is gone, with the CLE getting a fixed B-pillar and rear quarter glass. Mercedes says that offering the open-air experience of the last E coupe within the CLE’s fastback design would have required heavy, costly reinforcements to meet safety and rigidity goals.
However, viewed in person and set against the 18th-century backdrop of Spain’s Basque region, the CLE looks more attractive. Up front, the SL roadster’s shark-nose grille motif is used to great effect, and the bumper corner vents are much less fussy than in the outgoing C43 and E450 coupes. The hood’s double-bubble design is as nice here as it is on the GLC-Class, linking the CLE to such legendary autos as the 300SL Gullwing and contemporary AMG GT coupe.
There are some pleasant creases in the smooth sheet metal, such as interesting negative-space “flares” over the front and rear wheel arches and a rising accent along the doors, all of which collect light and create shadow for more visual interest. The rising beltline and stubby trunklid give the coupe a two-box shape, which may not appeal to everyone, but the broad hips and rear diffuser make the car look planted.
The cabin design appears to be cribbed right from the C-Class sedan, with a wing-shaped lower dashboard that juts out from the driver-oriented center console. Atop the dash lie three oblong HVAC outlets, with another two joining from near the base of each A-pillar, with a bullseye vent design livening things up a bit. Materials in the cabin are acceptable, though much like the C- and GLC-Class, there’s a fair amount of hard plastic around your knees, including the chintzy-feeling door pull.
An 11.9-inch infotainment display rises out of the console, and it pairs with a 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster. The CLE has one of the automaker’s first applications of its newest MBUX infotainment system that now runs on the new Mercedes-Benz Operating System (MB.OS). That means third-party applications – Zoom teleconferencing, Angry Birds, Sudoku, TikTok, and more – are available from the car’s app store. I put the car in park and played a square of Sudoku, and although I’m not sure I can see the long-term appeal of in-car video games and social media, it’s a neat goo-gaw for new owners.
Once settled into the driver’s seat, I appreciated the CLE’s spacious cabin. As on most Mercedes products, the front buckets are firm, well-shaped, and supportive, and there was enough space for my 32-inch inseam and 6-foot frame to get comfortable. There’s more front legroom and front and rear shoulder room in the CLE than in the old E-Class coupe, although headroom is down for everyone, as is legroom in back. True to its tweener marketing, however, all occupants have more space in the CLE than they would in a C-Class coupe, with rear-seat passengers getting a whopping 2.2 inches of additional legroom and 0.4 inches more headroom.
In contrast to the four-cylinder-only C-Class sedan, the entry-level CLE300 offers a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four, while the upmarket CLE450’s turbo 3.0-liter inline-six is a paragon of torquey smoothness, with both getting standard all-wheel drive. I spent most of my time in the flagship and fell in love all over again with Mercedes’ straightened six-pot. Producing 375 horsepower and 369 pound-feet, the engine is up 13 ponies over the old E450 coupe, and its EQ Boost 48-volt mild-hybrid system can add 151 lb-ft to help backfill turbo lag, smooth out gear shifts, and provide some regen when braking.
Pushing on the skinny pedal while pulling out into Donostia’s heavy urban traffic was a drama-free affair thanks to the inline-six’s impressive and smooth torque delivery, allowing me to squirt into gaps without shocking my co-driver too much. Mercedes claims the CLE450 can hit 62 miles per hour (100 kilometers an hour) in 4.4 seconds, a spry number that feels totally realistic. On the way to that speed, you’ll notice a pleasant, turbine-like whir emanating from the exhaust, typical of an inline-six and appropriate for the Benz coupe’s sporty-ish mission.
Cruising down Spain’s impeccably maintained freeways, there’s little to complain about with the CLE. Wind and road noise are well controlled, and the two-door dispatches expansion joints and minor imperfections with a solid, Autobahn-ready thump. Apocalyptically rough pavement sends some gritty noises through the rear suspension, so folks who live in the Snow Belt may want to consider the base CLE for its smaller wheels, thicker tire sidewalls, and softer suspension tune.
Speaking of tuning, the model I drove was a European-spec car that featured adaptive dampers, which we won’t get in the US. Mercedes engineers told me that the car’s Comfort drive mode would roughly match up with the compliance of the standard shocks and springs, while Sport would be close to the AMG suspenders that will be standard on the US-spec CLE450 and optional on the 300. Toggling between the two settings made it clear that I would likely rather have the optional setup, as it offered decent ride smoothness even over Spanish cobblestones, while maintaining some handling verve on a twisty road.
For proof of those talents, I motored the CLE450 away from the highway and toward some tight, narrow seaside roads. Plunging up and down alongside sheer cliffs and rocky faces, the CLE would have to thread a narrow needle to avoid disaster. Luckily, we both made it through no worse for the wear, the sport mode livening up the throttle and providing crackling downshifts when braking for corners. The suspension is also well-tuned for such jaunts, providing neutral handling behavior that gradually transitions toward safe understeer – not even mid-corner downshifts could upset the CLE’s demeanor.
As torquey as the CLE450 is when driving hard through these kinds of roads, the CLE300 is more engaging. Mercedes hasn’t released curb weights for either trim, but it’s likely the four-cylinder will be lighter than the six (especially up front). That makes for even more balanced handling and better body control in fast corner transitions, making the CLE300 feel almost frisky and playful.
If the CLE coupe fails to live up to its mission brief in any respect, it’s the steering, which feels utterly disconnected from the road. There’s too much power assist and not enough feel to figure out what the tires are up to, so only those with mechanical telepathy will be able to enjoy the helm. To its credit, the CLE’s turn-in is sharp and accurate, making it easy to correct the driving line on the fly. But as one of the car’s primary interfaces between driver and road, the steering leaves a lot to be desired.
As much as I might bemoan the loss of the pillarless E450 coupe, it’s hard to deny the appeal of the CLE – especially in torque-rich 450 trim. Its styling is more emotive than the somewhat staid E-Class, and the interior space portends great things for people looking to trade up from their C300s and C43s. The driving experience is about what you’d expect from a non-AMG Mercedes – a balanced blend of ride comfort and handling competence – and the tech suite is typical Benz, with a logical layout and a few neat baubles. Pricing may fall between the old C- and E-Class coupes, starting at around $55,000 for the CLE300 and $61,000 for the CLE450.
What’s more, the 2024 CLE300 and CLE450 coupes are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Mercedes-Benz has already announced the CLE cabriolet, and it’s all but guaranteed that higher-performance versions of both body styles will come soon – here’s hoping a high-output inline-six will find its way into a theoretical Mercedes-AMG CLE63. Heck, even though the V8 rumor's been debunked for the C-Class AMG, it’s possible the base SL55 will donate its twin-turbo 4.0-liter to the CLE.
Until then, I can at least say that the CLE is indeed a bit sportier than the two-door E-Class it replaces, as well as more spacious than the C-Class coupe. Once the AMG variants arrive with more aggressive handling and (hopefully) improved steering, I’ll give the 2024 Mercedes-Benz CLE-Class an unqualified thumbs-up.
2024 Mercedes-Benz CLE450 4Matic