A niche-looking four-door luxury car has entered the realms of affordability with the new Mercedes-Benz CLA – a model that continues the three-pointed-star badge’s quest to lure younger buyers.
‘Younger’ is a relative term for a brand that has an average customer age that is one of the oldest in the industry, but the CLA has a visual dynamism that should perfectly complement the equally new A-Class hatchback.
The Mercedes-Benz CLA can be viewed as a downsized, ‘junior’ version of the German car maker’s much-heralded CLS that sparked a flurry of activity from rival product planners to copy the four-door ‘coupe’ concept.
The CLA, however, will cost less than a third than the CLS when it reaches Australia in late 2013 – a price tag that will start from about $50,000 and also position it below the C-Class (from $58,600).
Thank economies of scale. Where the CLS is based on the large E-Class sedan, the CLA skips the C-Class to share a modular platform with a new range of compact vehicles – including the new A-Class hatchback – that will eventually account for 400,000 units of production annually.
It makes the CLA unique for a four-door Mercedes; where the C-Class, E-Class and S-Class are rear-wheel drive as standard the CLA is front-drive (with the option of all-wheel drive in markets such as Europe).
The Mercedes-Benz CLA is actually slightly longer than the C-Class (which will grow in size again for the next-generation model due in 2014), though don’t expect similar levels of cabin space.
As with the sloping roofed CLS, rear headroom is restricted noticeably in the back seat of the CLA and taller passengers will also need to mind their heads when getting in and out.
Tight legroom also prevents the CLA from being a comfortable grand tourer for four adults, though it will still be sufficient for the vehicle’s main target market.
The interior situation gets better from here, too.
Boot space of 470 litres isn’t far off the C-Class and there’s a 60/40 split-fold seatback arrangement.
The yellow stripes and stitching of our CLA200 test car’s cabin brings a youthful, sportier look you wouldn’t find in the more conservative C-Class.
Hard plastics at the lower and mid level, some fake leather and some of the plastic dials reveal you’re not in a higher-end Mercedes but there are plenty of soft-touch materials and tactile surfaces, and the overall perception of quality is positive.
The excellent design is familiar from the A-Class and B-Class, with the CLA sharing the hatchback’s iPad-style infotainment screen and lower-set driving position that feels all the more enveloping as a result of the high dashboard cowl and window lines.
That tapering roofline reduces rear vision to an extent, though the shape of Mercedes-Benz CLA does bring drag-defying ability through its claim as the world’s most aerodynamic production car. (For the boffins, the coefficient of drag figure is 0.22 for the base model.)
Mercedes says just a 0.04 change in a car’s coefficient can have as much positive effect on improved fuel efficiency as taking 100kg out of the kerb weight.
Mercedes-Benz is still mulling over which of two turbo diesel variants, the most economical, of the CLA it may bring to the Australia.
For now, we went to the car’s international launch in the south of France to test two of the three petrol models that will comprise the Mercedes-Benz CLA line-up from late 2013.
The CLA200 will be the entry level, powered by a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine with 115kW (at 5300rpm) and 250Nm of torque (from 1250-4000rpm).
It’s a pleasantly flexible and refined engine, even if performance is respectable rather than sparkling.
The bigger-engined CLA250 makes use of its 155kW/350Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder to be the stronger alternative – literally.
The growly engine note is more enhanced compared with the 1.6 CLA200 and acceleration noticeably quicker off the mark and through the gears.
Both engines will be paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox as standard in Australia (as with the A-Class).
It’s a smooth-shifting gearbox that, if left to pick gears, will ensure the CLA’s momentum is maintained by keeping the engines in their sweet spots, though it’s not without some vices.
Upshifts are slightly ponderous compared with Volkswagen’s similar ‘DSG’ system if not as annoyingly hesitant at low speed, and the default Efficiency transmission mode is programmed to change up early for improved fuel economy but at the expense of a responsive throttle pedal.
Sport is a more agreeable mode, though it defies its label by refusing to hold gears – a problem that remains even if you select Manual mode and use the paddleshifts to flick between gear ratios.
But the Mercedes-Benz CLA is the latest car to prove that front-wheel-drives can be fun to drive, with the caveat that a (more expensive) rear-wheel-drive C-Class Coupe is ultimately a more involving steer for the most discerning of keen drivers.
The CLA will be available with a ‘Comfort’ suspension on the 200 base model, though both the CLA200 and CLA250 we tested in France sat on the lower, stiffer ‘Sport’ suspension.
(It’s worth noting, however, that Mercedes-Benz Australia may hold off for a CLA 250 Sport version – as it did with the A250 – that is yet to be confirmed but would bring sportier engine and gearbox calibration, AMG suspension plus camber adjustment, quicker steering rack and sports exhaust.)
As a front-wheel-drive car, there are two aspects particularly impressive about the CLA: its ability to offer a press-on driving experience that is surprisingly free of both torque steer (tugging of the wheel as power goes through the same wheels responsible for the car’s direction) and understeer (where the front end pushes wide as grip expires).
Tyre grip from the 18-inch wheels fitted to both our CLA200 and CLA250 was tenacious, while the stability control system never felt the need to engage.
The steering also pleases with its weighting, accuracy and offering of some genuine feedback.
Roll on the CLA45 AMG version that will reach local showrooms a month or two after the CLA200 and CLA250 and bring to the table a 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder that sends 265kW to all four wheels.
France’s roads are of markedly higher quality than Australia’s assortment of bitumen so a final judgement on ride and handling will need to be made when the CLA arrives later this year.
But even on the Sport suspension, while bigger bumps could send the occasional shimmer through the front end the CLA’s ride was admirably comfortable – never overly firm and with shock absorbers that lived up to their description.
The Mercedes-Benz CLA recalls the ‘baby Benz’ 190 of the early 1980s that some claimed would devalue the brand but were proved to be very wrong.
You can also dismiss such an issue for the CLA. It feels and looks like a proper Mercedes, yet one with a difference that goes beyond its eye-pleasing aesthetics.
Price: from $50,000 (estimated)
Engine: 1.6-litre turbo four-cylinder
Power: 115kW at 5300rpm
Torque: 250Nm at 1250-4000rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto
0-100km/h: 8.6 seconds (manual; DCT not quotes)
Fuel economy: 5.5-5.7L/100km
CO2 emissions: 127-131g/km
Engine: 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder
Power: 155kW at 5500rpm
Torque: 350Nm at 1200-4000rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto
0-100km/h: 6.7 seconds
Fuel economy: 6.1-6.2L/100km
CO2 emissions: 142-144g/km