The Mercedes CLA is a swank-looking baby sedan whose coupe-like looks are going to win a lot of attention.
Pros: swoopy profile and engaging character lines, superb transmission.
Cons: Pert dimensions mean cramped cabin, is entry C-Class better value?
THINKING smaller is making Benz bigger here. Using the A-Class hatch as a template for other disparate cars, the GLA crossover and CLA sedan and wagon, has been a masterstroke for building the sales and customer base.
Have you see the sedan? Tested here in $80,400 four-wheel-drive 250 guise, it’s hard to miss, looking very much like an expert model maker’s three-quarter scale rendition of the trend-setting CLS coupe-like sedan.
Small sedans have been off the Kiwi menu for some time now; in fact, it probably all goes back to the 1980s when the arrival of Japanese hatchbacks – notably the Corolla – showed there was a more practical way.
Still, now the wee booted types are making a modest comeback, notably in premium circles, though potential is there to ultimately make huge impression.
A striking silhouette makes the CLA look like nothing else in its class. Those sweeping side creases, the tapered rear, the frameless windows. Yes, that blunt A-Class nose looks a bit too big with so much svelte stuff going on behind, yet it’s a total head-turner and the refreshing lack of straight, formal lines lends a distinct identity.
Sneak a look inside and the impression of it being a car plucked straight out of its concept stage continues. The dashboard is identical to that found in the A-Class, with eyeball air vents, a tablet-style screen and a textured leather multifunction steering wheel, yet because of its low roofline and low-slung driving position, the CLA provides a more futuristic and sportier impression. It’s a smart look too, so long as you determine to ignore the occasional considerations to cost, such as the budget plastic in the console between the seats.
Powertrain and performance:
The ‘250’ designation might confuse: It’s not a 2.5-litre under the bonnet here but a turbocharged four-cylinder 2.0-litre. Likewise, the transmission it operates through is not a pure automatic but a something smarter, a seven speed dual clutch automated manual. You’ll never know the difference is terms of refinement but will surely quickly note that this kind of box is more precise, offering neatly-timed shifting and generally behaving in a manner that is remarkably sensitive to driver requirements.
The box certainly keeps the ticking and buzzing along. Peak power and torque outputs are rated at 5500rpm and 1200-4000rpm respectively, which means it requires a firm foot to become fully motivated and more often than not you find yourself using the transmission in its sport mode and employing the paddle shifters to keep it on the boil.
It occasionally feels a little stretched – to the point where the official 0-100kmh sprint time of 6.6 seconds is almost too good to believe – yet Benz has found good mechanical refinement and, on top of this, spent up big on sound-proofing so it rarely sounds uncouth. Also, achieving close to the official fuel claim (6.6L/100km combined) seems fairly possible.
The CLA 250 is the cheapest all-wheel-drive Mercedes available, but it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Originally the distributor planned to restrict to the front-drive edition, but after signing off that plan the factory made the all-wheel-drive so inexpensive to add – it’s less than $2000 – that this became a deal too good to refuse. Accordingly, you now won’t see this car without drive going to all four wheels.Actually, a clarification here. Drive only does this when the car senses that extra pushing traction is required. In normal circumstances, it keeps all the kilowatts heading northward and providing pull purely through the same set of wheels that does the steering. Because, in case you’d forgotten, the smallest passenger Benz is front-drive. If you want rear-drive purity, that starts with the C-Class.
The four-wheel-drive trait is different. It’s a sporty car but not to the point of swaying as a cheaper alternate to the fullbown AMG; also lacking is some of the tactility that comes with BMW’s xDrive or even Audi’s Quattro.
For all that, it enjoys corners and though sometimes there’s a moment of understeer before it fully gathers, the grip from those Continental ContiSport tyres is excellent and the car tracks with real assurance. The steering takes easy points for accuracy but could do with more feel.
Ride, refinement and quality:
The suspension tune is curious. Around town this car is the modicum of calm, but try work it out on a decent secondary road and you sense the body control is endangered by a shortfall in total spring travel, to the point where it will bottom out. The car by then is also feeling a bit edgy. Surface textures also transmit through the driving wheels to the tiller, ad in turn into your forearms, which is tiring. This, and the roar over coarse chip, might well be the result of Benz having chosen run-flat rubber for the model. Maybe that’s all part of the bid to chase youth buyers, but it’s a risk that the more familiar buyer base might not wholly enjoy. Then again, it’s still not as unyielding as the AMG.
Practicality and packaging:
‘Snug’ is also a word that isn’t mis-applied here. While Benz have done well to sort out enough front cabin space to suit taller occupants, it’s obvious that this occurs through abject indifference to those seated behind. The driver’s seat perfect placement for my lanky frame basically left minimal foot space for anyone seated behind.
Still, chances are that even if they had been meted adequate footwell space, anyone taller than a child would have found the rear seat rather unfriendly anyway, for the roofline makes space quite tight. Taller passengers who have negotiated enough knee room run risk of banging their heads on the low door frame.
In theory this is a five-seater car but you’d really stop at four, because the seat in the middle of the rear bench is narrow and the wide transmission tunnel also creates problems.
Gone are the days when Benz scrimped on spec. The entry-level package has bi-Xenon headlamps, active park assist, a multi media screen with integrated sat nav, illuminated door sills and climate control air con and the $15k-dearer 250 Sport adds AMG-style 18-inch alloy wheels, red brake calipers and exterior highlights, anti-theft alarm, cornering headlamps, electric adjustment and heating for the front chairs and an AMG sports steering wheel. Oh yes, and at this price the leather is the real deal, not synthetic.
Mercedes brand prides itself on safety and CLA delivers fulsomely with nine airbags, stability control, traction control, collision prevention assist, an active bonnet for pedestrian protection and blind spot monitoring. Adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist functions are optional but if you are box-ticking these might be trumped by the 12-speaker Harman Kardon Logic 7 surround sound system fitted to our car.
How it compares:
The CLA is slightly longer than the next-size-up C-Class, but that’s about the only measurement by which the larger car comes up short. The desirous shape, the allure of all-wheel-drive and a decent specification all have immense appeal, but it’s hard to see how pragmatic purchasers still won’t shift their attention to something like the new C200, which offers for $9000 less in base, but still well-kitted, spec.