2015 Mercedes-Benz CLA200 Shooting Brake Review

Rating: 7.5
$25,810 $30,690 Dealer
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The entry-level CLA 200 Shooting Brake brings brand cache at a handy price. But does the 1.6-litre front-driver deliver on the sporty promise?
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Could there be a more unorthodox three-pointed-star model than the Mercedes-Benz CLA200 Shooting Brake? Well, outside the GLA range, perhaps not. The baby wagon is well left of field for a brand so often planted in the middle of the road, to an extend that that some sceptics struggle to accept it as a ‘real’ Mercedes-Benz.

If the current, reinvented A-Class formulae, eradicating its city car past, twisted the Benz mould in traditionalist eyes, the four-door coupe version of the CLA nearly broke it. But the Shooting Brake drops further from the tree: a small-segment, front-driven, five-door coupe-roofed wagon landing right at Mercedes-Benz’s model range fringes.

Even the Shooting Brake name takes liberties with convention. Somewhere there’s a chap in a tweed coat and flat cap – whose surname isn’t Costello – who’ll tell you that a ‘shooting brake’ was once a two-door estate designed (ad-hoc) to haul guns and dogs for hunting in an era well before Cecil the Lion became a household name. And he'd argue that nothing has changed. Regardless, you can chalk this coupe-wagon’s namesake up as a victory for Merc’s marketing department.

When you cross paths with the CLA ‘SB’ on the road, you certainly don’t mistake it for a C-Class Estate, or any normal wagon for that matter. And that, of course, is exactly the point. This isn’t your Dad’s Merc – it’s aimed squarely at young Merc buyers, or buyers who are simply young at heart, and as a practically packaged entry point to the brand.

That entry point is $52,400 plus on-roads for the base ‘200’ version here on test, which is sharp in Mercedes money, if suitably rich if you view the CLA 200 SB as a 1.6-litre-powered, front-drive, small-segment station wagon. That the neighbours won’t see it as a bottom-dragging small car is, well, precisely the point of the Shooting Brake’s appeal.

This modest powertrain format might make Mercedes-Benz’s Shooting Brake marketing tagline ‘Call of the wild’ a little ambitious for this variant, though you might have climb onto the shoulders of the 155kW/350Nm 250 Sport version ($66,400 plus on-roads) and reach for the mighty 265kW/450Nm CLA45 AMG to get a properly wicked Shooting Brake experience, which wants for an equally lairy $89,510 before on-roads for the privilege.

Check out our pricing and specifications of the full range here.

We’ve had seat time in the pricier Shooting Brake variants, though this is our first spin in the version making do with 115kW of peak power and 250Nm of maximum torque. Ours isn’t standard, though: the Seat Comfort Package adds fully electric memory function and heated front seats ($990); an AMG Exclusive Package ($1490) incorporating black ‘Red Cut’ leather with red double stitching plus Artico man-made leather on the dash and beltline; the AMG Line ($1490) adds a whole host of look-faster styling tweaks, from the diamond-patterned grille to 18-inch AMG wheels; and there’s also a panoramic electric sunroof ($1490).

Call it $57,860 plus on-roads as it sits, or around five grand pricier than a proper 2.0-litre all-wheel-driven rocketship in Volkswagen’s Golf R. Or, for that matter, Merc’s own, more-potent A250 Sport hatchback. That is, if pace is priority and packaging be damned.

Neither, however, has wagon-esque practicality, let alone makes such a flamboyant styling statement. And the statement is a suitably bold one given that it’s not much of a stretch to the $63,400 list price for a roomier and more pragmatic Benz C200 Estate.

Essentially, then, this Shooting Brake concept ideally wants to be both sensible and emotional, both in decent measures, all wrapped in inimitable and desirable schtick.

Beyond its dramatic exterior, the coupe-wagon doesn’t disappoint inside. At least when it comes to dressing for success. From the satin alloy-look dash garnish to the classic instrumentation, cabin presentation is superb and something of a small-car benchmark. It’s sporty without being too try-hard, nothing appears made-to-a-cost and all the touch points have a suitably premium feel.

It does, though, take a bit of effort to get comfortable, at least for my 175cm frame. The footwell seems a bit short, the brake pedal is a touch high, and to get requisite under-thigh support in the bucket seats requires moving the driver’s seats rearward, extending the steering reach dramatically. Which, of course, cuts into the second-row room of what is quickly discovered as hardly the roomiest small car cabin space out there, let alone that of a wagon.

Despite the efforts of designers to milk extra headroom in the rear over its CLA four-door brethren, the rear two-plus-two-look seating is tight in every direction for larger adults (though it seemed a perfect fit for my five-year-old son). There is a middle seating position in the rear but, with the faux-four-seat arrangement, it’s no proper five-seater in any practicable sense.

The cabin dimensions shrink incrementally from the B-pillar rearward, a result of the taper of its coupe-like body contours. It certainly seems more fittingly sized for families with small kids rather than those with teens though, thankfully, unlike so many of today’s SUVs, the Shooting Brake offers rear air vents and cupholders (armrest down) aplenty.

The boot isn’t huge, though at 495 litres on paper (seats up) it’s actually, surprisingly, slightly larger than that of the C-Class Estate. With its 60:40 split-fold rear seat backs folded (not-really-all-that) flat, there’s a serviceable though hardly commodious 1354L, though here are plenty of tie-downs, stowage bins in either side of the load space and neat alloy-look floor rails. Powered tailgate functionality is standard.

All-round vision, too, is a bit of a trade-off: achieving that swooping rear glass area in profile does obscure vision around the C-pillar area, and the view through the rear-view mirror is quite limited. That said, Merc’s clever front and rear sensor system – separating the visual and audio alerts in the respective ends of the cabin – remains a class act, the reversing camera display large and clear in the floating tablet infotainment screen.

The basic Audio 20 multimedia system itself lacks the full bells-and-whistles slickness of Merc’s higher-end Comand designs with HDD navigation, though the Garmin Map Pilot sat-nav works perfectly fine, if comparatively a little clunky in operation and not as upmarket in the graphic department. Otherwise, electronic systems and conveniences are, as you’d expect from Mercedes-Benz, thoroughly resolved and idiot-proof…

…All except the Collision Prevention Assist Plus. I’m no tailgater, but not a leisurely trip went by without the system panicking at an imminent-yet-false collision, occasionally without any traffic in front of its sensors. The Merc’s alert system feels to be a little conservatively tuned for Aussie urban warfare. It’s the only (mild) downshot in what’s otherwise a grand suite of standard-fitment safety systems that includes nine airbags, an active bonnet, semi-autonomous braking and a long list of other functions.

Progress is surprisingly swift given the turbo 1.6’s humble 115kW and 250Nm outputs, if conditionally so. Married to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, the combination is quite smooth and unflustered in default C-for-Comfort mode when driving Miss Daisy: that is, at casual paces with modest throttle inputs. A firm and sudden right foot prod and upshifts become abrupt, the engine becoming a little peaky in delivery.

Sport mode sharpens responses appreciably, though the transmission calibration is simply too terse for around town work, hanging on to ratios tightly like an alarmed child. As with so many small-engine/dual-clutch powertrains out there in the market, it begs for a more cleverly adaptive, not-too-sporty middle ground. You can’t hold ratios against the rev-limiter in Manual paddleshifting mode though, given most of the 200’s sporting pretensions are merely skin deep, this is a non-issue.

It is, however, no slouch. Set in Sport mode and with no surprise throttle theatrics, the little 1.6 pulls harder and cleaner than the numbers suggest. Getting from A to B with haste, then, is a doddle; getting anywhere near its 5.7L/100km combined fuel consumption claim, though, is far tougher. The best the trip computer saw was a low-seven with the cruise control dialled to 110km/h for an hour, the worst was just under 10 for the around town cut and thrust.

The ride and handling strikes the same middling balance of the rest of the CLA200 Shooting Brake package: not too sporty, not overly plush. And with decent seat time it’s easy to become convinced that this balance is nicely struck. There’s reasonable compliance in the damper tuning and the chassis is impressively settled over rough surfaces – moreso than the lion’s share of its ‘250’ and ’45 AMG’ stablemates share the common MFA platform but suffer terse ride. On this alone, the 200 is perhaps the pick of the CLA SB crop for leveraging comfort and hauling the family long distances, be it urban or back of nowhere.

It’s compliant enough that it becomes mildly surprising how planted, predictable and eager to faithfully track a chosen line the wagon is once you stick it into a corner. It’s not overly sporty in pretension – it doesn’t egg you on from behind the wheel to go chasing twisty country roads – it merely delivers polished competency should you choose to explore it.

The reality, though, is that so many cars on the market either outgun its sportiness or out-class its practicalities. And there are a few that’ll do both. But few quite take such badge cache and give it such an alternative spin. There’s certainly a valid lure to a Merc that lets its hair this far down.

But as Mike rightly pointed out in his launch review, the more-premium-feel C-Class Estate will be a tantalisingly viable cross-shop within striking distance, price wise, for many buyers. Beyond practicalities, the current C-generation has style aplenty. And neighbours can’t accuse you of not owning a ‘proper’ Mercedes-Benz either.

For more images of the Mercedes-Benz CLA200 Shooting Brake by Tom Fraser, click on the Photos tab.