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An arrow through the heart

Naming a new car model is never easy. Automakers invest millions in what are essentially metaphors and, despite all the vetting by linguists and focus groups, these loose cannons of language often have severe blow-back. In 2003, for example, General Motors learned -- only after naming its new high-volume mid-size Buick LaCrosse -- that in Canada “lacrosse” is slang for sexual solitaire. Oh, too bad, eh?

No wonder car companies increasingly resort to alphanumeric ciphers: The BMW 645Ci, the Audi A3. But there are sharks in these waters too. At the recent Geneva Auto Show, Cadillac unveiled the BLS, which is a fine name except if you happen to take shorthand.

Likewise, the Mercedes-Benz CLS500 will forever be known as the “Cialis” 500 -- which sounds like a NASCAR event and, come to think of it, probably is.

I wonder if this is art or accident. Described as a four-door “coupe” and essentially a re-skin of the E500, the CLS500 is an unbelievably sexy sedan -- sleek and wide, dangerous and exclusive -- that, with an arched beltline paying out from the tops of the front wheel wells, looks as tensed as Artemus’ bow. The sheet metal cavorts nose-to-tail in glowing rhythms that converge at the knife-edge deck lid like that of the CL coupes. This car threatens the gorgeous Maserati Quattroporte on my current “if-I-could-have-any-car” list.

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Where the E-class and even S-class designs dutifully preserve optimum sightlines and trunk space, the CLS500 is profligate. The car’s “greenhouse” -- that glassy part above the fuselage -- is narrow and swept rearward, elongating the hood and shortening the trunk to enhance the visual cues of a luxury coupe (the central window pillar is blacked out). The execution is flawless: prowling, predatory, concupiscent.

If descriptions of car designs last more than four hours, see your doctor.

Transmuting the E-class into the CLS required losing the center rear seat position; a central floor console separates the two rear buckets set deep in the aft compartment, which is comfortable but by no means spacious. If this seems a sacrifice, bear in mind that the CLS has just as many seat positions as the Maybach 62 costing five times as much.

Not too long ago, under pressure from animal activists such as Sir Paul McCartney, Mercedes-Benz agreed to offer a no-leather option in all its cars. The CLS makes me wonder if another such detente may be necessary with friends of the forest: The CLS has more wood than ... no, I’m not going there. Suffice to say, a lot of wood. In our test car, a handsome hunk of matte burl walnut the size (and shape) of a Cypress Garden slalom ski stretched across the dashboard; the central rear floor console uses similar cabinetry. Meanwhile, the dash-top, doors, gussets and console surrounds were all hide-bound in French stitched leather.

The instrument panel, gauges and mirror controls are limned in chrome bezels. The effect is lovely and lux, though it does put some of the cheaper pieces of switch gear in bold relief, like the transistor-radio

dials used for the climate control.

The $64,900 CLS500 offers an expressive alternative to the E500 ($58,520) and the S500 ($86,770), but given this car is such a knockout, I wonder why anybody would opt for the S-class. The CLS is fairly well equipped, with a seven-speed automatic transmission, adaptive air suspension and chairs more endowed than the ones at Cambridge.

The usual phalanx of safety systems, including anti-lock, anti-skid, traction control, and multiple air bags front and rear, are standard. Among the options is the Distronic adaptive cruise control, Parktronic distance sensing parking aid and DVD navigation.

About the only thing you will miss in the CLS is Mercedes’ Active Body Control (ABS), a dynamic suspension system available on the S-class that helps keep the car level in hard cornering (BMW’s 645Ci uses a different kind of system, with active roll bars, to achieve the same effect).

Under the wind-carved hood is Mercedes’ familiar 5.0-liter, 302-hp V8 whose power is shunted through the seven-speed transmission. This powertrain combination is better at big, tromping throttle actions like on-ramp acceleration from the freeway meter, where it propels the car to 60 mph in six seconds. In the stumble-step of in-town traffic, the transmission feels a little finicky about picking gears, shuffling into the upper gears, of which there are many. In Sport mode, the tranny can have a bit of a thunk at shift points, quite a bit more shift shock than in some of the competitors.

As for driving dynamics, the CLS handles like the grosse Mercedes it is, with a fullback’s, not a halfback’s, agility and easy strength. The car is several inches longer, slightly wider and a couple of hundred pounds heavier than the E-class it shares greasy bits with. At 3,992 pounds, this is nobody’s tossable toy, so that driving hard requires a deliberate and committed style; bend the car into a corner, let it take a set and roll on the power until the 18- by 8.5-inch tires start to sing. With the air suspension on Sport, the car has a slightly edgy, tensile ride, but the spring rates and damping are cleverly tuned so that the car maintains composure even when cornering on choppy pavement, which can make other cars feel a little heaving in the rear.

If you feel that the CLS500 doesn’t increase circulation sufficiently, you can always opt for the CLS55 AMG, the high-performance factory variant of the car, powered by a supercharged 5.5-liter, 469-hp V8 and the five-speed automatic that can handle the motor’s 516 pound-feet of twist. Like all AMG models, everything is scaled up in the CLS55 AMG to supercar levels, like brakes, suspension, wheels and tires.

Shakespeare asked: What’s in a name? In the case of the CLS, quite a lot.

Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

2006 Mercedes-Benz CLS500

Base price: $64,900

Price, as tested: $76,740

Powertrain: 5.0-liter, 24-valve SOHC V8, seven-speed adaptive automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive

Horsepower: 302 at 5,600 rpm

Torque: 339 pound-feet at 2,700-4,250 rpm

Curb weight: 3,992 pounds

0-60 mph: Six seconds

Wheelbase: 112.4 inches

Overall length: 193.0 inches

EPA mileage: 17 miles per gallon city, 22 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Three-pointed star power


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