Mercedes marks the end of an era with new diesel CLE

Impressively refined and powered by a quality engine, can it justify the price hike over rivals?

Mercedes Benz CLE coupe

Diesel seems a dirty word these days. In polite society, telling folks you drive a diesel is akin to firing up a cigarette while cradling a newborn.

How the world has turned. It was not so long ago we were financially penalised if we didn’t drive a diesel.

Electric cars (EVs) are destined to be the future of motoring. We’ve come to love some of the new EVs on offer, with Mercedes EQE saloon amongst the best of the bunch. Yet, for now, there remains a case for diesel to serve the high-mileage motorists.

Week-in, week-out we are driving EVs, so it’s rare to be behind the wheel of a diesel car. Yet there is something incredibly reassuring about a fuel gauge that estimates you have 800km of range left in the tank. And knowing that when that figure hits 100km or so, you’ll likely have a dozen refuelling options where you can fill up in five minutes.

And while car makers aren’t investing on diesel development, the engines driving the latest cars would have been award winners in a previous age.

If there’s a touch of nostalgia in our tone, that’s because this new CLE marks the end of an era for Mercedes Benz. The company that patented the motor car in 1886 has committed to an electric future and that means this car is likely to be the last model developed with only combustion engines in mind.

That means the engineers have been able to focus on the old format, with a heavy engine hanging over the front axle, a central body to house the well-heeled owners and a bit of bootspace to carry their designer luggage.

In return for using their well-honed talents, the CLE’s engineers had to create one car to replace two outgoing ones: the C-Class and E-Class coupes. It’s too early to call it right now, but car fans are rightly concerned for the future of coupes amid the mass rush to SUVs, and this is yet another worrying development in that direction.

Mercedes Benz CLE coupe

Can the CLE bridge that gap between C and E? For all the marketing promise, in reality it’s more akin to the C-Class Coupe than the E-Class, from the exterior styling to the interior space. The old E-Class coupe was a glorious car, built upon the underpinnings of a much-praised platform that delivered refinement, dynamic driving and ample cabin space.

The figures look promising, with the CLE measuring in slightly longer than the E-Class coupe, but the roofline doesn’t help those in the back. Once inside, however, the CLE delivers that old Tardis trick of being far more spacious than it seems. While rear seat access is as awkward as ever for a coupé, once ensconced in the back, there’s actually ample legroom and it’s a decent place to be, even for an adult.

The front cabin is taken largely intact from the new C-Class, with the 12.3-inch digital display for the driver and the 11.9-inch touchscreen dominating the central console that sweeps through the cabin in the front seats.

Mercedes Benz CLE coupe

When it comes to looks, buyers may see a lot more C-Class than E-Class here, but inside there shouldn’t be any grumbles about being shortchanged.

On the road, the 2-litre diesel is really impressive. This is a tried and trusted engine and is rightly much-admired by critics. The decision to include 48-volt mild-hybrid support to boost the engine’s output by 17kW means you get an extra acceleration poke when needed for overtaking. It also helps deliver a credible fuel economy of 4.8l/100km (58.9 mpg). And unlike a lot of overly ambitious EV range estimates, that’s a figure that’s entirely reachable with some sedate driving.

When you opt to forgo that sedate driving style, the CLE proves itself to be fun. While the steering is light, it’s quick to respond and very accurate. The ride is adept enough to cruise along the motorway stretches but tightens up nicely when you challenge it through the curves. Clearly, over 138 years of engineering motor cars some lessons have been learned, as delivering a car weighing in at nearly 1.9 tonnes that can still feel agile is quite a coup.

For those coming from the C-Class coupe, there is certainly enough here to make it feel like a significant step up, while those moving from the E-Class will get enough from the effortless motoring and cabin refinement so they don’t feel too shortchanged.

Mercedes Benz CLE coupe

Which brings us to the CLE’s biggest challenge. Starting at €73,215 it is carrying a hefty price tag. By the time our test car added a few trim options like metallic paint and a sliding panoramic roof, it had topped €85,000.

Given the hyperinflation of new car prices in the last few years, that might not seem too outlandish, particularly when contrasted with the world of expensive EVs. But for a 2-litre diesel coupe that seems to be high, even accepting how good that diesel engine is.

Compared to rivals like the BMW 4 Series – albeit a petrol – at €62,525 for the entry petrol version or €59,540 for the Audi A5 Sportback TDI diesel, Mercedes seems to be coming in at a very premium price point.

The German brand has been very open about its desire to move away from the premium market and pitch tent in the luxury car camp. It sees its future in lower volume but higher profit margin luxury models.

To make that a credible brand shift, it’s likely to mean a cull of some of its premium “mass market” models in the future. Or else a significant price rise.

But to make the leap from premium to luxury requires not just a higher price point; Mercedes also needs to deliver a significantly better offering than rivals.

The CLE is a really impressive coupe, for current C-Class coupe customers it struggles to justify the price difference over rivals, particularly the BMW 4 Series, while E-Class coupe fans may feel it has more traits of the smaller Merc than they appreciate for the price.

Lowdown: Mercedes Benz CLE 220d Coupe

Power: 1,993cc four-cylinder diesel with a mild hybrid system, putting out 197hp and 440Nm of torque courtesy of its nine-speed G-Tronic transmission

Emissions (Motor tax): 125 g/km (€200)

0-100km/h: 7.5 seconds

Price: €85,850 as tested (CLE prices start at €73,215)

Our rating: 3/5

Our verdict: Smart-looking coupe that’s generously equipped and powered by a smooth diesel engine, but carrying a heft price tag.

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