Mercedes-AMG CLE 53 Coupé review: petrol power perfectly matches this sumptuous roadburner

Mercedes-AMG CLE 53 Coupé
If nothing else, the CLE 53 is a damn good-looking machine - Mercedes-Benz AG

Park this car against one of the traditional whitewashed walls on Tenerife and take a few paces backwards. Damn, it’s a good-looking machine; a four-seat, two-door performance coupé of a type that isn’t made any more as we all switch to the Pushmi Pullyu weirdness of the SUV coupé. Did any of you actually demand those things? Discuss.

Welcome to heartland Mercedes-AMG, modifying Mercedes-Benz models with more powerful engines and uprated suspension and brakes. Hence the CLE 53 Coupé is based on the regular production two-door CLE coupé, but only the roof and the boot panels are carried over. The wings are wider, the bonnet is unique to the AMG car and the front is modified to cool the beast while the rear gains more exhaust pipes to jet the spent combustion gases into the atmosphere.

Old-world tech

That’s right folks, this is combustion tech, with a 3.0-litre straight-six engine, although it gains a bit of 48 volt-powered assistance. First in the form of an electronic turbocharger, which spools up quickly to pre-pressurise the intake air before it gets to the mechanical exhaust-driven turbocharger proper. Second, in the form of a 22bhp integrated starter/generator in the gearbox bellhousing, to fill in the torque gaps that even a twin-turbo petrol engine will have.

The 53 used to be a (very) warm version to the distinctly hot 63 AMG models, both of them thundering V8s, but with legislation starting to call time on such roadburners this might be the only version we’ll be getting.

Engine of the Mercedes-AMG
The CLE 53 is fitted with a 3.0-litre straight-six engine - Mercedes-Benz

Certainly, the writing appears to be faintly etched on the wall for the V8, especially since AMG swapped the V8 of this car’s C63S saloon sister, fitting a four-cylinder hybrid and calling it a “technology leader”. No one seems convinced, with several pundits questioning AMG’s sanity. There are strong rumours that Mercedes is planning a volte face on this strange new direction, with an all-new V8 vaunted for 2026.

For the moment, then, if you are seeking (relatively) affordable combustible high performance bearing the renowned three-pointed star badge, this appears to be it.

Is it worth it? For a certain type of AMG customer, anything without a clamorous V8 under the bonnet doesn’t really warrant the badge, which shows the Affalterbach coat of arms on one side to represent AMG’s home town, with a camshaft, valve and valve spring on the other for perhaps obvious reasons.

Worth the cost?

The fact is that, as road cars, the “lesser” 53 AMGs were often the more useable, although still pricey. The standard Mercedes version of this car, the CLE 450 4MATIC Coupé, costs £66,320. Its 2,999cc six-cylinder in-line engine delivers 376bhp and 369lb ft-plus, giving 0-62mph in 4.4sec and  to speed limited to 155mph.

The AMG version starts at £73,075 featuring (as you’d hope and expect) a much-modified version of the same M256 six-cylinder engine. The tuning meisters have worked their magic on its breathing, including much work on the combustion chambers and manifolding, as well as revised injectors and new exhaust and electric turbochargers. The turbo boost is up 0.4 bar to 1.5 bar.

It produces 443bhp and 413lb ft of torque, with 443lb ft available for a short in overboost mode, which will propel the car from 0-62mph in 4.2sec and to a top speed limited to 155mph. The £7,555 price difference seems rather a lot for 0.2sec off the 0-62mph time, doesn’t it?

CLE 53
The CLE 53 can go from 0-62mph in just four seconds

Even more so if you opt for the £78,825 Night Edition Premium Plus model, then tick the box for the optional £7,500 AMG Dynamic Plus package, which basically takes the shackles off this remarkable engine. Its Race Program includes a tyre-smoking race-start function, a drift mode for those keen on even more tyre smoke, stiffer engine mountings and a host of styling details including a larger rear boot spoiler and performance seats, along with a special steering wheel and red brake calipers, all of which are catnip to the typical AMG buyer.

That model can really shift, with a 4sec 0-62mph time and an unleashed top speed of 168mph. Before you point it out, such speeds are still legal on parts of the autobahn network in Germany, where the government has declared that it will keep this dispensation.

But you’ve now paid £86,325 for a coupé that is available for £46,620 albeit in its lowliest CLE 200 201bhp 2.0-litre form. Can any performance hike be worth almost twice the price?

Such are the economics of the motor industry, where more often costs more squared.

Climb inside

Despite the rather gloomy grey upholstery there’s enough head room inside, if not for a stovepipe hat at least for a fedora. If you get a chance, buy the lovely and supportive wrap-around AMG seats. They will further restrict the limited leg room in the twin individual rear seats, although most owners will likely use the rear perches as additional luggage space.

The layout and instrumentation are clearly from the standard CLE, with the same oblong instrument binnacle and large touchscreen in the middle, along with Mercedes’ distinctive jet-nacelle circular air vents. That means a complicated steering wheel, with quite a lot of thumb work required to get what you want on the two screens. Fortunately, the Mercedes Me voice control is getting better, though it begs the question as to what sort of progress is being made when you need to have a conversation with the car to turn down the heating.

There’s lots of fake carbon-fibre on the dashboard and the chrome rings and finishers glint in the sun. If you didn’t realise this was a high-performance variant, one glance at the interior tells you everything you need to know about it.

Interior of the Mercedes-AMG CLE 53
A simple glance at the dashboard shows off the high tech of the CLE-53 - Mercedes

On the road

The suspension is a twin multi-link system front and rear with AMG’s ride-control adjustable dampers. The rear axle incorporates rear-wheel steering, where hydraulic rams push the rear wheels against their bushings by up to 2.5 degrees when parking to aid manoeuvrability and up to 0.7 degrees in the opposite direction above 62mph to aid stability. It’s known technology and works very well, but all this and the 4Matic 4x4 system adds weight, so the C53 stands in its underwear at two tonnes.

“This is the first 53 model to have optical differentiation,” says engineer Lukas Mathe, “and we were also pleased this new bodyshell allowed us to get even larger tyres in the arches.”

The track width is 58mm wider than the standard CLE at the front and 75mm at the back. The tyres are specially developed Michelin Sport Pilot 5s; standard is 19 inches but all the launch cars had the optional 20-inch items.

Start her up and the exhaust boom is surprisingly muted. There is a button for a louder exhaust, but the 53’s more muted wakening suits the car – and your neighbours. The 4x4 system uses AMG’s own software package, which also controls the engine’s electronic turbo. The transmission, though, is Mercedes-Benz’s nine-speed automatic with a normal torque converter. I’ll come back to this.

For various reasons I didn’t get much time in the car. First impressions are of weight and well, heft. There’s a lot of torque from the engine and it responds quickly to the accelerator pedal. You sit quite low and stare down the long bonnet and its rear-facing air intake nostril. To be honest the impression is that it’s a bit of brute.

Not helping is the on-centre steering response, which is numb to non-existent. Dialling in ever more extreme chassis settings merely adds weight rather than feel. But if the chassis feels distant and uncommunicative, the ride is pretty good. The mountain roads are smooth, but the village streets aren’t and this big car rode the sleeping policemen and potholes well and there’s enough ground clearance to not worry too much about grounding the body.

While there’s less Sturm und Drang than more radical AMG models, on empty roads the C53 turned into a colossus of the volcano, monstering up the long straights and cornering like a fairground waltzer. You need to trust the steering and simply turn in and the car will follow.

By the time I’d dialled in the race mode the engine was wailing up the rev counter with the exhausts bouncing off the basalt. What a machine. At the top I stopped and as it ticked and cooled in the car park, I really did have to gather my breath. Baby supercar or souped-up golf-club coupé, either way this is some machine.

Back of the CLE 53
'By the time I got out of the car, I needed to gather my breath' - Mercedes-Benz AG

Stand on the brakes and the nose dips and the car slows as if you’d driven into a compost heap. The pedal faded a little on the way down, but the slowing was still valiant and strong.

But on the way down the car showed its Achilles heel. In its normal mode the gearbox is too reluctant to change down for overtaking so you need to use the steering-wheel paddles or dial in a more sporting setting, which means you end up driving everywhere in a lower gear than desirable. And the torque overboost means you’ll need a care, as it would chirp and spin the rear tyres on bone dry tarmac before the traction control got a hand on things.

The Telegraph verdict

This high-performance end of the coupé market is popular with German manufacturers but not others; the Lexus RC-F hasn’t pulled up many trees and Jaguar has withdrawn its F-Type from sale as it ponders how to make electric cars. So, it’s no surprise that Mercedes wanted its AMG division to have a viable contender and that’s why the CLE has as its basis the outgoing E-class chassis, so that it can have a six-cylinder engine.

That such a portmanteau car (a blend of the E-class structure with interior of the slightly smaller C-class to save costs) works as well as it does is a testament to the development team. But having two distinct characters is always going to be a bit of a compromise and that’s the case with the CLE 53. But while it might be a mongrel, it’s a darn good looking mongrel and it certainly has some bite. I thought it was really rather good fun.

The facts

On test: Mercedes-AMG CLE 53 4MATIC+ Coupé

Body style: two-plus-two coupé

On sale: now

How much? from £73,075 (£86,325 as tested)

How fast? 155mph, 0-62mph in 4.2sec (4sec in race mode)

How economical? 29.4mpg (WLTP Combined), 21.6mpg on test

Engine & gearbox: 2,999cc, six cylinder in-line mild hybrid turbo petrol with electric supplementary turbo and integrated starter/generator (ISG), nine-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel drive.

Maximum power/torque: 443bhp at 5,800rpm/413lb ft at 2,200, plus 23bhp from ISG

CO2 emissions: 217g/km (WLTP Combined)

VED: £1,650 first year, £600 next five years, then £190

Warranty: 3 years/unlimited mileage

The rivals

BMW M4 Competition XDrive, from £90,520

BMW M4 Competition XDrive
BMW M4 Competition XDrive: can travel up to 155mph - UWE FISCHER

A very serious machine, with a 30-litre 523bhp/479lb ft twin-turbo straight-six, eight-speed automatic and four-wheel drive giving a top speed limited to 155mph and 0-62mph in 3.5sec. Its 28mpg fuel consumption and 217g/km CO2 emissions take this sleek coupé into the next up VED bracket, so that’s £2,340 for the first year’s VED.

Audi RS5 coupé, from £77,520

Audi RS5 coupé
Audi RS5 coupé: not overly stylish, but is topped off with a slick interior - Audi

This is just the start of the 4x4 RS5 coupé journey (the Carbon Black version is £80,765, the top, 174mph Vorsprung £92,265) along with an excruciatingly pricey options list. The 2,894cc engine punches out 444bhp and 443lb ft, which gives a 155mph top speed and 0-62mph in 3.9sec. At 1.8 tonnes this 4x4 is lighter than the AMG but that isn’t much reflected in the 29.7mpg fuel economy or the 215g/km CO2 emissions. Not as stylish to look at as the previous generation, but a lovely interior.

Lexus RC-F, from £77,910

Lexus RC-F
Lexus RC-F: muscular and has a lovely, pulsating roar whilst driving - Richard Parsons

A hand-built, naturally-aspirated 5.0-litre V8 pumping out 457bhp and 383lb ft of torque means this old-school coupé is pleasingly muscular – and it sounds great. And, with a top speed governed at 168mph and a 0-62mph time of 4.3sec, it certainly has the numbers to belong in this club. So, too, the costs. The Track pack runs to £93,950; the fuel consumption is 23.9mpg and CO2 output is 268g/km, which puts it in a higher VED bracket than the turbocharged AMG.