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Mercedes-AMG CLE 53 4MATIC+ Coupé 2024 review – 443bhp six-cylinder hybrid targets BMW M440i

The six-cylinder hybrid CLE 53 has the specs on paper, but it lacks the engagement to match its strong AMG looks

Evo rating
Price
from £73,075
  • Looks the part
  • Doesn’t drive the part

​​​​​​Twenty-two. That’s the number of AMG models offered across Mercedes-Benz’s entire portfolio, from A-class to S-class and seemingly everything in between regardless of whether it’s electric or petrol powered, or a combination of the two. And nearly 50 per cent are SUVs. That number has now swelled by one to 23 with a new six-cylinder, two-door coupe joining the family: the CLE 53 4MATIC+. 

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If news of AMG’s bulging portfolio is news, it possibly isn’t news to you that since we first drove the new Mercedes-AMG C63 way back in December 2022 it’s not been seen since in these pages. Granted, we didn’t think much of the direction AMG had headed down, replacing the growly 4-litre twin-turbocharged V8 with a harsh 2-litre four-cylinder turbo motor attached to a plug-in hybrid electric powertrain. Heavy, uninvolving and all just a little uninspiring considering all the goodness that we had feasted on previously. But we’d like to try it once more, to spend more time with the 600+bhp M3 rival, and Mercedes says we will. Just not yet.

> The Mercedes-AMG GT 63 S E Performance Coupe is the fastest AMG ever

In the meantime there’s another new AMG model that replaces another 63 badged product and at the same time creates a new model not previously offered: the CLE 53 4MATIC+. Its role is, for now, to replace the C43 and E53 coupes and, until a CLE 63 potentially arrives, is the only choice for those currently looking for a C63 coupe replacement. 

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Like the new C63, the CLE 53 forgoes a V8 engine instead opting for Mercedes’ 3-litre turbocharged straight-six mild hybrid motor; one of the benefits of the CLE having the front end of the new E-class is that engines with more than four-cylinders fit behind its AMG grille.

It’s not an especially charismatic engine, certainly not in the vain of its eight-cylinder predecessor, with a rather flat note to its delivery, no induction noise to startle your hairs and a rather muted exhaust tone, although that last one is no bad thing in a world where too many think that making their car sound like a filing cabinet full of spanners falling down a flight of stairs is a good thing.

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In its default drive mode, Comfort, it reacts in a similar way to how it sounds with lethargy and a slow response to throttle inputs that’s at odds with the AMG sports seats that pinch you in place. The controls and the car’s reactions feel languid, like it’s trying to fight its way out of the stickiest treacle. Its 450 cousin, powered by a lower state of tune of the same engine, feels more energetic at times. 

Twisting the steering wheel mounted drive mode control to Sport enlivens the 53, injecting it with some of the AMG DNA its wider front wheel arches, rear diffuser and oversized air-intakes promise. The responses are more alert, the throttle’s improved eagerness welcome, with it all building to providing the 53 with a more expected level of athleticism. Yet it’s not a quick engine, the revs take some time to build and it highlights that this isn’t a pure-bred AMG motor, rather a series unit that’s been tweaked by Affalterbach. To this end the M256 includes optimised combustion chambers, new piston rings, new inlet and outlet channels and a new turbocharger with the boost pressure increased to 1.5 bar, up from 0.4.

Through its mid-range there’s enough to energise the CLE’s chassis. Just. The Sport setting adds weight to the steering, it also feels keener to respond and while chassis feel isn’t a thing the CLE 53 proclaims to have much of, it’s precise when getting the nose into a corner with the standard fit Michelin Pilot 4 S tyres keen to find and hold their purchase. But the directness and responsiveness of a BMW M4 aren’t there, nor is there the precision of adjustment and it feels you’re wearing a pair of thick gloves compared to the BMW that feels that you're driving it with your fingertips exposed. 

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It corners flat and through quick turns feels confident and assured, if not exactly enthralling. It feels hugely competent and well within itself as you build speed and extend its performance, but its personality feels deeply buried beyond its high levels of reassuring traction and the solid connection it has with the surface. Its speed impresses as you make progress across country but the combination of its flat engine tone and almost one dimensional high-speed handling traits make it perilously close to being one dimensional. 

Turn the dial up to Sport+ and the 53 locks down further still, the even sharper throttle, stiffer damper rate and quicker gear shift times feeling like they’ve been driven by the need to show an ‘improvement’ in an algorithm rather than add anything to the driving experience. 

At lower speeds, on a tighter course it feels more impressive. It’s not a small car - and at over 2000kg it’s not a light one either - but the rate at which it gets into the heart of a lower speed turn is unexpected, the car waking up from its numb high-speed slumber. With the front tyres hooked-in the rest of the car pivots round you, the rear wheel steering adding more to the car's agility other than assisting during manoeuvring in tight spaces. It encourages you to open the throttle much earlier to get out of the corner as spritely as possible. Which is where you miss the great slug of V8 torque of old to measure out and balance the car’s trajectory. 

This crystallises what was missing on those quicker roads, where the corners flowed and the road ran away from you: the powertrain doesn’t have enough going for it for you to extract from the CLE 53 what it’s been set up to achieve. From the moment you see it, with its larger four-piston calipers, dark finished alloy wheels, gurney spoiler on the rear deck and muscular proportions you’re expecting much more. 

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And once you have set yourself up inside, you’re ready, but little happens. The optional AMG sports seats look and feel the part, so too the standard chairs, and there’s carbonfibre and leather where you expect it, a flat-bottomed steering wheel and those two rotary dials on the bottom of it to adjust drive, damper settings and ESC modes. You can even configure the instrument display to an uninterpretable mess if you wish.

Changes to the steel spring’s rates, damper loads and chassis kinematics have all been designed to sharpen responses, deliver more feedback and offer more control. The standard steel brakes have good modulation and strong repeatable stopping performance, the variable four-wheel drive system is totally unobtrusive yet instinctive as it deploys torque to where it’s needed and there’s also a drift mode for when leaving a cars and coffee meet. It looks better than both the C and E-class coupe it replaces, too.

The CLE 53 has all of this but is let down by its engine. Writing this less than a week after driving it and the notepad is pretty empty on the page marked ‘engine positives’. At the top end of the rev range there’s a whiff of excitement but on reflection that’s down to there being next to nothing to raise the pulse before this. There’s no discernable performance boost from the mild-hybrid 48-volt system the CLE 53 is equipped with, its hardware a millstone holding its potential back.

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Strip away the AMG-ness and the CLE 53 would be a desirable six-cylinder coupe with the credentials to make progress under the radar. Your expectations would be lower and therefore the experience you got back more unexpected and rewarding as a consequence. Instead it’s a car that wants you to believe it’s a fully-fledged AMG but that’s quite the stretch from the reality and another example of why AMG needs to get to grips with its small engine portfolio as a matter of urgency. Or make use of the engine bay’s dimensions and slip the V8 back in.

Price and rivals

It’s a shallow pool of rivals for the CLE 53, with BMW providing two close competitors. The M440i xDrive coupe, with its turbocharged straight-six and xDrive four-wheel drive powertrain is the obvious direct rival. That it costs £61,600 compared to the £73,075 AMG charges for the CLE 53 4MATIC+ makes the Munich machine harder to ignore. If four-wheel drive isn’t a priority, BMW also has the 840i M Sport in its armoury. Powered by the same engine as the M440i it costs £83,990 before you’ve negotiated a sizable discount.

Mercedes-AMG CLE 53 4MATIC+ Coupé specs

Engine3-litre twin-turbocharged in-line six-cylinder
Power443bhp
Torque413lb ft (443lb ft with overboost)
0-62mph4.2sec 
Top speed155mph
Price£72,990
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