Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class Review: CLA250 Sport 4MATIC

The new Mercedes-Benz CLA250 Sport 4MATIC has launched in Australia priced from $64,900 – $1500 more than the front-wheel-drive CLA250 Sport originally planned to be sold locally.

Available for order since February, the CLA250 Sport is powered by a lightly tuned version of the same turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine found in the GLA250 Sport 4MATIC and front-wheel drive A250 Sport.

The all-wheel drive four-door 'coupe' has 155kW (at 5500rpm) and 350Nm (between 1200-4000rpm). Combined with its price, this neatly places the 250 Sport between the $49,900 entry-level CLA200 (with 115kW and 250Nm) and $86,900 CLA45 AMG flagship (265kW and 450Nm).

Where better to test out the Mercedes-Benz CLA250 Sport 4MATIC’s package than a wet and windy New Zealand. Starting in Tauranga – New Zealand's fifth-largest city – our launch drive would see us head a tick over 200km northwest to Auckland.

Coming standard with a silver studded 'diamond' grille, red-accented AMG bumpers, black exterior wing mirrors, ‘Sport’ front fender badging and 18-inch AMG five-spoke alloy wheels, the sharp-looking Benz needs no help in drawing the eye of locals young and old.

The CLA's range-wide standard equipment list includes climate control, satellite navigation and a reverse-view camera, while this model adds intelligent light system (with cornering lights and adaptive high-beams) and a panoramic glass sunroof.

Red stitching on the semi-perforated flat-bottomed multifunction leather steering wheel extends to the heated and electric leather front sports seats, centre armrest, doors, dash top and 'Sport'-stamped floor mats.

An aluminium dash panel, brushed stainless steel sports pedals and red seat belts (black belts are available as a no-cost delete option) round out the aesthetics list. Though a standard item on the top-spec CLA45 AMG, Mercedes’ driving assistance package with Distronic Plus and Lane Keep Assist is a $2490 option.

Spruiked as being engineered from the ground up by the Affalterbach-based team at AMG, the CLA250’s under-skin highlights include its model-specific engine, transmission and stability control configurations, a modified exhaust system minus a centre silencer and, of course, its variable all-wheel-drive system.

Similar to that in the also-freshly-launched GLA250 Sport, the CLA250’s 4MATIC unit is able to distribute up to 50 per cent of drive to the rear wheels via a trick torque-on-demand rear axle in as little as 100 milliseconds.

More responsive when the car is in ‘Sport’ or ‘Manual’ mode, the multi-disc clutch-based system has been designed to reduce fuel consumption by only employing rear drive assistance when required, based on conditions and driving style.

And on slippery Kiwi-land roads the system proves excellent, seamlessly juggling drive to the four 18-inch wheels clad in 235mm-wide 40-aspect Continental tyres with only the slightest hint of understeer present when pushing hard through tighter bends.

From a standing start, Mercedes-Benz claims the 1540-kilogram CLA250 Sport will hit 100km/h in 6.6 seconds – one tenth quicker than the 1480kg front-drive 250 and two full seconds behind the ballistic CLA45 AMG. However, the mid-spec model also matches its AMG-ed bigger brother with a 250km/h top speed.

The 4MATIC’s 60kg weight penalty does, however, result in combined cycle fuel consumption rising from a claimed 6.2 litres per 100km to 6.6L/100km. We averaged 12.3L/100km over our single drive day – the result of some spirited driving – though, averages of 8.7L/100km are also seen.

Covering ground over roads of varying quality, the CLA250 Sport 4MATIC generally rides very well.

Sitting flat on 15mm lower sports suspension, the ride is definitely firmer than in the CLA200 but it’s highly compliant and never harsh or uncomfortable (something the the more hardcore CLA45 cannot claim).

It can feel busy over chopped surfaces, transmitting small potholes and road imperfections through the chassis and into the cabin. While its body control and stiffness impress, things can get a little lofty and bouncy over crests and large undulations.

Featuring an AMG-fettled set-up that includes negative three degrees of front camber and a 2mm thicker anti-roll bar, the CLA250 4MATIC has excellent turn in, with direction changes handled with ease. Loads of mid-corner grip further boost confidence and fun, despite our test day’s exceptionally wet conditions.

The steering is nicely weighted and plenty sharp, though driver feedback appears to have been sacrificed in favour of a more ‘luxury’ focus.

Partnered with a mostly obliging paddle-shifter-equipped seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission – which can run in ‘Eco’, ‘Sport’ or ‘Manual’ modes – the turbocharged engine is smooth and impressively flexible.

Offering a wealth of low- to mid-range poke from between 1600rpm to just north of 5000rpm, the 2.0-litre is at its meatiest around 3000rpm, with things only dropping off slightly when nearing its 6200rpm rev limit. Sounding much less restricted than in the GLA250 Sport, the CLA250 ensures high-rev shifts are always accompanied by exhaust pops.

The brakes are another reminder of the German car maker’s engineering prowess – luckily too given New Zealand’s apparent dislike of advisory signage.

Larger up front than on the CLA200 and joined by additional cooling vents, the CLA250 Sport’s strong and consistent set-up comprises 320mm ventilated and cross-drilled front discs and solid 295mm rears. Both ends employ single piston floating calipers, while the front receives red Mercedes-Benz-stamped items that hold up fuss free all day – even in the face of the odd stray sheep emergency.

Doing their best to hang onto both driver and passenger in such situations are the semi-bucketed front sports seats with fixed headrests. These chairs provide reasonable levels of support and comfort for the back, but seat base bolstering and under-thigh support is lacking.

Thick B- and C-pillars make vision challenging from up front where headroom is also somewhat restricted by the glass roof’s frame. The compact rear vision mirror doesn't help for rearward vision, either.

Further souring the overall premium-feeling and well laid out cabin is the afterthought-esque central dash-mounted screen and high road and wind noise penetration levels. Tyre roar, particularly over coarse-chipped surfaces, is far too intrusive for a near-$65k Mercedes, though, vibrations from cats eyes and rumble strips are less of an issue and are never accompanied by creaks or rattles.

It’s a mixed bag for rear occupants too. Adequate rear legroom, rear vents and a fold-down centre seat/rear armrest with twin cup holders are all wins, but headroom for anyone approaching 180cm is strictly limited. The CLA's 470-litre boot capacity, on the other hand, is a decent step up from 341L offered in the A-Class hatch.

Mercedes-Benz Australia says it expects the CLA250 Sport 4MATIC to outsell its CLA-Class siblings, and while it executes many key attributes exceptionally well, its combination of performance, real-world practicality and price may struggle to appease discerning buyers. After all, it’s A-Class equivalent comes at a $14,500 saving.

And looking outside the three-pointed star, the Volkswagen Golf R ($54,490) and mechanically identical Audi S3 sedan ($62,200), equally pack 2.0-litre turbo engines, four-wheel-drive and dual-clutch automatic gearboxes. Up 51kW and 30Nm on the CLA250 Sport, the two rival Germans are also 1.6sec faster to 100km/h, which could indeed prove too tempting for some…