A benchmark aerodynamics performance for a production car probably isn’t the reason the Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class is set to slide quickly into the garages of first-time buyers of the three-pointed-star brand.
Being rated at a slippery 0.23 Cd may help the CLA-Class ‘four-door coupe’ achieve better economy figures than the A-Class (0.28 Cd) with which it shares its engines, transmissions and chassis, but Mercedes-Benz acknowledge that this car will sell on its looks – and because it isn’t a hatch.
Priced from $49,900, the entry-level CLA200 tested here (read the full price and specifications here) is the cheapest way to get into a Mercedes-Benz sedan. Although it undercuts the base C-Class by around $10K, it is actually the larger car, eclipsing that six-year-old and soon-replaced model by 39mm in length and 15mm in width. The CLA200 also costs $8500 more than the A200 hatchback on which it’s heavily based.
Besides getting a longer car, with greater rear overhang and a larger boot – 470 litres for CLA-Class versus 341L for A-Class – the CLA200 also includes bi-xenon headlights, blind-spot monitor, Becker pilot satellite navigation and dual-zone climate control as standard over its A200 cousin.
Both share a 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol four-cylinder engine that produces 115kW of power at 5300rpm and 250Nm of torque between 1250-4000rpm. Sending drive to the front wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, the 1395kg CL200 claims an 8.6 second 0-100km/h and 5.7L/100km combined consumption. (That slippery shape means it’s 0.4L/100km more frugal than A200, despite being heavier.)
Despite the quick-ish performance claims, the CLA200 feels dull of the mark. In Comfort mode, which the car defaults to each time it is switched on, the auto slurs into the tallest possible ratio, often requiring an aggressive throttle kickdown that flares revs and affects refinement.
The noise the small four-cylinder makes is then louder and less pleasant than the performance it delivers. Switch to Sport mode and the auto is more incisive and willing to hold onto lower gears, probably at the expense of laboratory economy tests, but it definitely improves real-world driveability and quite possibly economy, too.
When kept on the ball, the engine feels as willing and torquey as you’d expect from a modern, small turbocharged four-cylinder, but it doesn’t feel up to the standards expected of a $50,000 car. To put that point into context, Mercedes-Benz offers the A250 Sport hatchback for just $90 more than this CLA200, and it gets a healthier 155kW of power and 350Nm of torque for a sub-seven-second 0-100km/h.
The CLA200 also needs to be optioned to feel like a $50,000 car. The standard interior has some nice touches, like the circular air vents and ‘floating’ colour display, but the standard Becker satellite navigation looks aftermarket – though we’ve only tried it in the C200 sedan, not the CLA200 tested here, as they were all optioned with Merc’s proper, and far superior Comand navigation that costs $2264 extra if bundled with digital radio and Harman Kardon audio.
The single-bucket ‘tombstone’ front seats are comfortable but are manually adjustable, and the Artico – or artificial cow, no joke – trim feels barely a shade above vinyl.
Although all forms of luggage will feel right at home in the boot of the CLA-Class compared with the smaller A-Class, the opposite is true for rear passengers.
Although rear air vents are standard and the front-wheel-drive layout means there’s no big centre tunnel and therefore adequate legroom is provided even for the centre rear passenger, headroom is poor. That sloping roofline that so aids aerodynamics – and, subjectively, looks – also means the dome of this 178cm-tall tester is wedged firmly against the rear headlining.
Impressively, however, there are nine airbags standard, including one each for the front passengers’ knees, while auto-braking assistance means the cushions are less likely to be needed.
Seatbelts will tighten before a crash, and little lights will flash up on the wing mirrors if a car is lurking in the rear-view mirror – handy when everyone does 109km/h beside each other on the Hume highway. In terms of safety equipment, this Mercedes-Benz truly feels premium.
The driving excellence shared betweeen the modern-day Mercedes-Benz range means everything between a C-Class and S-Class are posessed of the same steering and ride quality characteristics, in particular, which are almost always the benchmark in their respective classes. The CLA-Class joins the A-Class and B-Class in being the first Benz models in recent years that don’t feel quite born from the same stuff.
The difference isn’t down to the front-wheel-drive layout, although it may be the culprit that has made the steering a little less direct and consistent than those in loftier Mercedes-Benz models.
As with the A- and B-Class, but unlike the C-Class, E-Class and others, the CLA-Class rides on run-flat tyres. Although the technology that allows drivers to get a flat and continue driving means that Mercedes-Benz can ditch a spare tyre, it’s also the technology that plagued the ride quality of rival BMWs in the mid-2000s.
Perhaps predictably, the CLA200 on 18-inch tyres doesn’t ride with great finesse. It’s generally decent at lower speeds and calm on smooth surfaces, but it is irritated by changes in road surface and thumps over sharp-edged imperfections like pot holes.
When the road gets twisty, though, the CLA-Class comes good, partially justifying its average ride quality. That’s especially true of the limited edition CLA200 Edition 1 that costs $4990 above the regular car and includes among interior trim upgrades including a stitched faux-leather dashboard, 18-inch alloy wheels and sports suspension.
The rebound damping on the Edition 1 – which is only available till December 2013 – is particularly tight, occasionally causing the driver to bounce around in the seat as the body hugs tightly to the road.
But the front-end turns in crisply, and the chassis delivers the same sense of front-to-rear balance delivered by the mega-CLA-Class, the CLA45, only at much lower speeds. Quick changes of direction reveal fine agility, too.
The Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class isn’t a pragmatic car, which is particularly obvious when the A-Class is better packaged, much cheaper and drives largely the same. It does, however, deliver torquey performance and great handling, even if the steering and ride quality aren’t quite to Benz’s usual lofty standards.
There’s no doubting the claim that 75 per cent of Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class buyers will be new to the brand, such is its combination of style and dynamics, but if you can cop a hatchback, the A250 Sport that can be had for the same money is ultimately the better car.