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Mercedes-Benz CLA (2013 onwards)
What: Mercedes-Benz CLA (2013 onwards)
Where: Marseilles, France
Date: March 2013
Price: from £24,355
Available: to order in March, arrives in June
Summary: compact and classy with eye-catching looks, yet practical and economical, too, the new Mercedes CLA is set to make a big impression
We like: sharp looks, fluid drive, funky interior, plenty of wow factor
We don’t like: sluggish automatic, low speed refinement, limited rear headroom
It’s certainly eye-catching, the new Mercedes CLA-Class. Representing a remarkably close road-going replication of the Concept Style Coupé from 2012 – no coincidence, that – this new baby four-door coupe joins the Mercedes range as a kind of junior CLS.
A very junior CLS, really, since the CLA starts at roughly half the price. For that you get a swoopy exterior design complete with LED lighting signatures and the option of an AMG styling package, and what many might find a pleasantly surprising degree of practicality.
The CLA is also the most aerodynamic production car ever sold – and don’t think that’s irrelevant posturing; the slippery shape is good news for fuel economy and refinement.
It’s based on the brand new A-Class platform, and naturally compared to that the CLA demands a slight premium. But consider how close it is in price to a number of prestige rivals’ boring old hatchbacks, and we think it’s going to prove popular indeed.
At launch there are two engines available to UK buyers: a 122hp 1.6-litre turbo petrol badged CLA180, and a 170hp 2.1-litre turbodiesel badged CLA220 CDI. Later this year these will be joined by a lesser CLA200 diesel and a CLA250 petrol with 211hp, topping the range until the 360hp CLA45 AMG arrives.
Sadly, the entry-level petrol was completely absent from the launch event, so we spent most of our time driving the CLA220 CDI. This will see off 0-62mph in 8.2 seconds, and with 258lb ft of torque there always seems to be extra urge when you need it – though overtaking on country lanes requires a little planning.
Less impressive is the racket the engine makes, which is especially noticeable at lower speeds around town. The CLA’s aero efficiency keeps wind noise to a minimum on the motorway, however, so overall it’s a very pleasant place to pass the time.
Or at least it would be, if it wasn’t for the gearbox. Unfortunately, the 220 CDI only comes with Mercedes’ seven-speed twin-clutch automatic – and while crisp enough when left to its own devices in day-to-day driving, use the paddleshifters to request a downshift when you’re in a hurry and it’ll often leave you hanging.
Shame. Especially since the same gearbox is fitted to the CLA250 petrol, where it suffers with the exact same problem. That aside, this is the engine to have if you can afford the running costs. It offers as much torque as the diesel over a wider rev range, a punchier top end and a much more satisfying aural experience.
Ride and handling
The UK is taking two flavours of CLA, which some bright spark has decided to label Sport and AMG Sport, which obviously isn’t going to be confusing at all. Adding fuel to that fire, Sport models get “comfort” suspension, while the AMG Sport gets “sport” suspension – as well as the tougher looks and some extra kit.
The thing about this is that we strongly suspect the comfort settings are going to be much more suitable to UK roads. But don’t half reckon a lot of buyers are going to want the AMG Sport’s appearance.
We drove both setups paired with the CLA220 CDI engine, and while you have to be going really rather quickly to appreciate the added agility of the Sport chassis’ 10-15mm ride height reduction and 30% stiffer spring rate, the firmer ride that comes with it is likely to be a literal pain over broken British tarmac.
The comfort spec car still felt great through the corners over the French mountain test route – with limited body roll, great traction and a pointy front end, it’s impressively fluid and surefooted. Compared to the A-Class, extra bushings at the back make it more refined, successfully giving it more of a grand touring vibe.
Being A-Class based, the CLA is front-wheel drive. But if you don’t like the sound of that, 4Matic four-wheel drive is coming later in the year. We tried it paired with the CLA250 petrol and found 4Matic made for an even more agile car – Mercedes says the difference in damp conditions is greater still.
The CLA’s A-Class origins are pretty clear on the inside, but we doubt many buyers will find this disappointing. Galvanised metal elements lend a classy touch, the central display screen is clearly reminiscent of an iPad, and if you option the leather dashboard finish it looks properly upmarket.
There are some flimsier areas of plastic, but these are well hidden, and easily overlooked. And in addition to the iPad-esque screen, Mercedes has an extremely comprehensive iPhone integration system available, complete with Siri voice control capability. This is very slick.
As you can probably guess from the roofline, rear headroom isn’t exactly brilliant – and even Mercedes describes the rear bench as 2+1 seating, so if you’re hoping to carry five adults, think again. We found the front seats rather unforgiving, too. But at 470 litres, the boot is generous, and the rear seat backs do fold flat.
Safety and economy
Mercedes is extremely hot on safety technology right now, and the CLA is no exception. In addition to watching out for obstacles ahead, it’ll help you stay in lane, make sure you don’t fall asleep at the wheel, and even attempt to protect you from rear-end impacts. Amongst other talents.
The standard stability control system is very nicely judged as well; being progressive and even handed when it needs to intervene, it actually allows you to drive the car faster in most circumstances. So while there is no Euro NCAP rating yet, we’re sure the CLA will do its utmost to look after you. Five stars beckon.
As for efficiency, Mercedes says the car is so aerodynamic – the official number is 0.23Cd, a new production car record – that to achieve the same fuel economy gains by weight reduction would mean removing 10s of kilos from the car. Not easily done if you want to maintain a decent degree of luxury.
The raw figures are a claimed 50.4mpg with 130g/km CO2 for the CLA180 petrol and a claimed 62.8mpg with 117g/km CO2 for the CLA220 CDI diesel – so it won’t cost much to tax, either. There’s more to come, too, with special BlueEfficiency variants set to join the range in the future.
MSN Cars verdict
The new CLA convincingly blends Mercedes coupe class with four-door practicality, a satisfying driving experience and a price that represents appealing value. As a result it potentially ticks a lot of boxes for a lot of people – becoming not so much a case of why would you as why wouldn’t you? Great car.
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