Whatever buttons the Mercedes-Benz CLA breed push, they’re pushing Aussie premium car buyers hard. In 2015, the small-sized, coupe-stylised mould-buster of Benz traditions was the marque’s second-biggest seller. And during my week with the 2016 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 Sport 4Matic Shooting Brake, in my neck of the urban woods, I couldn’t glance sideways without spotting a CLA or three, if usually the four-door-coupe version.
Of the available variants, there must be something particularly stirring about the ‘250s’ as these middle-upper versions with suitably handsome price-tags are the top-selling CLAs to date. In which case, surely the recent mid-life range update should turn an already hot prospect absolutely 'scorching,' even despite a modest jack-up of pricing. That's right, in all-paw '4Matic'-only form, the newly face-lifted 250 Shooting Brake has risen $2200 to $68,600 before on-roads.
Frankly, our enthusiasm for 250 Shooting Brake in past appraisals hasn't quite matched buyers' fever pitch. And it’s not for lack of familiarisation: since the wagonesque range was launched in Europe just 18 months ago, we’ve reviewed the ‘250’ iteration, singularly or in comparison, five times. In extended review (outside of launch programs), the big-selling variant has consistently scored a solid if hardly gushing 7.5 out of 10.
What we're keen to find out, then, is if there's enough newness in the 2016 upgrades to not just lift our opinions on the variant but to also justify its newly up-scaled pricing.
What’s new? Freshening the exterior are revised front and rear fascias, a diamond-pattern grille and new-look 18-inch wheels, our test car in the fetching and classy new metallic ‘halo’ colour called Cavansite Blue. This paintwork is a $1290 option.
Inside, there are minor updates in some material finishes, though the most obvious change, across the CLA range, is the new 8.0-inch floating tablet infotainment screen and the integration of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity. However, even though the ‘250’ is effectively three rungs up the CLA ladder (above 200 and 220d) and one rung below the flagship AMG CLA45 version, our tester wants an extra $2490 for its Comand Package trickery, essentially an upgrade from the basic Garmin-based navigation system that offers a HDD display, voice control and 12-speaker Harman/Kardon surround sound.
These two new, if cost-optional, features lift the as tested price from $68,600 to $72,380 before on-roads costs. We’ve written before and back it up again: that’s quite handsome coin for a small-segment wagon, flamboyant styling and badge cache notwithstanding.
So it’d want to be premium, and in areas the specifications are suitably high brow. LED headlights, digital radio, switchable drive modes and ambient lighting are standard even on lower-grade CLA variants, while AMG exterior styling, adaptive high-beam assist, keyless go, leather seat trim, fully electric front sports buckets with heating, man-made leather upper cabin and dash trim, aluminium interior garnish, red finish highlights (brakes, seat belts, cabin stitching) and a fabric-scrim sunroof (that’s sorta-kinda panoramic in length) anchor the ‘250’ goodies package.
Safety wise, there’s nine-airbag surety complemented by passive blind-spot and Pre-Safe accident anticipatory warnings, active brake assist, attention assist and active bonnet pedestrian impact mitigation smarts, though passive lane-keeping and Benz’s Distronic adaptive cruise control are only available optionally as a Driver’s Assistance package.
So it’s Sport Shooting Brake by name, though nature is another thing. The whole ‘Shooting Brake’ nomenclature is a Benz marketing misnomer has been well documented to date, so let’s not go there other than to say the five-door CLA’s amalgam of wagon silhouette, coupe glasshouse and hatchback-esque tailgate looks a treat in this newly face-lifted form. It’s a sharp-looker… something that, incidentally, asks for a grand extra over the four-door (yes, it really is a) coupe.
The ‘sport’ credentials, though, aren't impervious to criticism. The turbocharged 2.0L four’s 160kW power figure might looks rosy against lesser CLA stock, but while outputs are handy enough for spirited driving, it's not brimming with power for a small car commanding big dollars. For instance, a $50k-odd budget might land a slew of vastly more potent all-paw small cars such as a 206kW Golf R, a 221kW WRX STI or a 257kW Focus RS (all of which you'll find here).
Perhaps that's not a fair comparison: after all, the stylised Benz wagon doesn't really pitch red hot hatch-like pretensions. Nonetheless, 'warm' is what you're buying into. Ditto the merely adequate 350Nm of torque. There’s more ‘go’ in Benz’s CLA fold, of course, though ‘AMG’ and ‘45’ badges ask for a further $23k-odd investment.
A paddle-shift seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox is the sole transmission available, while the all-wheel-drive system can feed no more than 50 percent of torque to the rear axle from essentially a front-driven state. The adaptive AMG Ride Control suspension, though, is switchable from Comfort to a firmer Sport setting and back at the driver’s whim. You can also meddle with the powertrain, steering, stop-start and even air-con modes via the Dynamic Select button that cycles through its four modes (Eco, Comfort, Sport, Individual) via a single button in the central stack – it’s a distracting task finding the desired mode when you’re on the move.
When properly moving, the form guide says 100km/h will arrive at 6.7sec from a standstill. It’s no rocketship. Instead, you might reasonably expect a polished and flexible powertrain favouring friendly driveability, though this isn’t quite the case. In the guts of the engine’s mid-range, there’s ample shove, but that’s after you’d contended with the off-the-mark hesitation, a doughy throttle take-up and anticipated the pronounced torque hump that lunges the car forward. It’s not particularly tractable, not entirely linear, and frankly quite annoying. Once moving, the transmission slurs and lacks crispness that, you sense, is all in the quest for frugality at the behest of driver-friendliness. That’s in Comfort mode…
Sports mode sharpens the throttle feel to the point of useable accuracy, but the seven-speed proceeds to cling to ratios like its qualifying for a Bathurst pole position. Response becomes overly peaky in the mid-range, and the powertrain is downright cranky when applying part throttle. There’s no happy ‘middle mode’ available, no tap-for-Sport type transmission functionality that alleviates similar aggravation from Volkswagen’s and Audi’s rival warm small-car offerings. The indecisiveness of the gearbox is exacerbated somewhat by the rorty note of engine that, at times, both feels and sounds caught in an awkward point of the rpm sweep.
Around town, the wagon is happiest cutting a brisk line at a healthy clip. Thus driven, however, you’ll get nowhere near its 6.7L/100km combined claim – in Comfort was saw 10s and 11s, in Sport it’s close to 13 around town. That said, CLA is a far more cooperative and easier-to-like prospect out on the open road, it’s engine trickling over, its dual-clutch transmission untasked with urgent gearchanges, and where fuel consumption projections start to become realistic.
Dial up the cruise control and pointing at the horizon, the softer suspension mode is pliant if susceptible to slapping across joint and catseyes, but drop the road speed and even in Comfort the primary ride is quite fidgety as road surface lumps and bumps transmit right through the cabin. Over speed humps and big suspension strokes, though, the damper is quite well controlled.
Stuck through a corner, the wagon sits flat and grips up impressively. The steering is responsive and direct, if a little artificial in weighting, but there’s genuine competency and there’s solid engagement when punting across windier backroads. By nature of the 4Matic system’s torque shuffling character, it can’t apportion enough torque to the rear axle to be driven ‘on the throttle’ out of corners, and tends towards understeer when pushed, but there is enough satisfaction in the chassis department for moderate entertainment factor for those spirited Sunday back country drives.
The squeak-free solidity, the ample NVH (noise/vibration/harshness) suppression, and generally quiet operation all impart a premium wash over the driving experience. Yet there are further annoyances from behind the wheel. The seats have ample sporting purpose, but there’s not much under-thigh support given their proximity to the floor (and, no, jacking the seat sky high doesn’t ‘fix’ the problem). Compounding this is the marked stagger of the pedals – the brake pedal is set too high. While on topic, the brake take-up itself is quite touchy and urgent, which takes some time to get used to.
The various safety assists are also overly sensitive to urban driving, at least around Sydney. The anti-collision and blind-spot warning systems cry wolf with enough frequency that you tend to ignore or mistrust them... which ostensibly defeats their otherwise highly beneficial functions of safety.
The cabin does present well, with neat red double stitching throughout, soft-touch Artico (fake leather) on all the key touchpoints, and the mood lighting in the headrests, cupholders, door and grab handle apertures, together with the red-ringed air vents, provide that requisite premium ‘lift’. The classic instrumentation is slick and easy to read, and a neat touch is that all the oddment bins and the glove box are carpet lined to limit unwanted noise from, well, oddments. It’s a staid and mature style, bereft of chintzy go-fast addenda, though aluminum garnish panel apart there’s not much separating the 250 from more budget-friendly CLAs.
The infotainment system, through the upmarket Comand option, remains less than intuitive on initial use but it’s not hard to get your head around with familiarity. Benz persists with the telephone keypad interface even though the telephony has Benz's handy Linguatronic voice control.
The second row is… tight. Headroom, knee room, elbow room – it’s really sized for kids and young teens. The low-sloping glass line, too, will force passengers to duck getting in and out of the second row. There is a pair of air vents and a 12v outlet in the back of the centre console, dual cupholders in the folddown armrest and a ski port, but as far as accommodation goes it’s hardly generously sized or cleverly packaged.
Ditto the cargo space. At 495 litres it's superior to A and B Class small Benzes, though that high set, curvaceous load lip digs into available real estate and that sloping hatchback-like tailgate inhibits loading bulky payload successfully. Two modest sized suitcases fit at a pinch, but it might struggle to swallow a full suite of baby or toddler addenda such as prams. So usable if anything but generous.
Options? There are surprisingly few. Outside, there are seven different colours (four of them at an extra cost) and one 19-inch wheel upgrade, while inside there's a no-cost option to change the aluminium trim grain to a honeycomb pattern.
Without staking a big claim to performance or practicality, or emphatically nailing high levels of luxury or brimming with equipment, the CLA 250 Shooting Brake struggles to rate in judgement when measured against its price. And there are enough markdowns in all areas that it simply doesn't strike the right chord for holistic goodness either.
What the little Benz undoubtedly trades off is its inimitable styling and badge cache. And there's enough of those two elements, it seems, atop a reasonable degree of substance to justify the car's lofty price point in a good many buyers' eyes.
But if you can do without the hardly essential all-paw drive, want the badge cache and proper wagon practicality and you can stretch an extra $4300, it would be remiss not to consider cross-shopping the properly family-friendly C250 Estate before parting with cash for the CLA.