YOU MAY well be wondering why Mercedes-Benz needs two four-door sedans spun off the A-Class platform.
On the face of it, it seems like overkill, offering both an A-Class Sedan and a CLA when both share the same wheelbase, use the same chassis, get the same engines and feature the same interior tech. So why would you opt for the CLA?
The car’s footprint seems as good a place as any to start. Compared to the more upright sedan, the CLA has a 45mm wider front track and a 55mm wider rear. That might seem an esoteric statistic but it underlines how this car is positioned. Mercedes calls it the athlete of its compact-car range and there’s more to that than just niche marketing spin.
Australia is set to receive the frontwheel-drive 120kW/250Nm CLA 200 first, closely followed by the all-wheeldrive 165kW/350Nm CLA 250 4MATIC. The CLA range always top-weighted in the past, with the CLA 45 AMG being a particularly big part of the Australian product mix, and the local importers expect that form line to continue, the CLA 250 4MATIC initially set to be the most popular version. No diesels or wagons are scheduled for our market, but since we drove the car Mercedes has unveiled the 225kW/400Nm CLA 35 AMG. The existence of the 35 allows for an even more extreme 310kW+ version of the CLA 45 AMG range-topper.
There’s something right-sized about the CLA 250 4MATIC, however. It’s certainly brisk enough, stepping crisply off the line to 100km/h in just 6.3 sec, the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission squeezing the most from the 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine.
All Aussie cars will arrive in AMG Line trim with 18-inch alloys, and one box you probably ought to tick is that for the adaptive damping system which, when set to comfort, takes the edge off the amount of bump and thump from the wheels on poor surfaces. It feels planted, with strong body control and sensibly configurable driver assists, and the additional 60kg impost of all-wheel drive doesn’t seem unreasonable.
The electrically assisted steering is relatively crisp, the brakes are punchy and the driver-assist systems top drawer. Quite why Mercedes can’t find a better solution for gear selection than a column stalk, however, is a mystery.
A sound symposer beefs up the engine note in the cabin, although it’s still not particularly inspiring. If you can make your engine sound like anything, why plump for ‘atonal four-pot’?
The more observant among you may well have already twigged that the asking price for the CLA 250 now overlaps with that of the C-Class range. There are a few reasons why the junior sibling is the better buy. Firstly, it’s bigger than a C-Class now. It’s fully 48mm longer and 53mm wider than its predecessor, and that also makes it 2mm longer and 20mm wider than a C-Class. It’s also a good deal more modern inside with its clever MBUX infotainment system and clean styling, which makes the facelifted C look a bit dated and gaudy in comparison. It makes an A-Class sedan look a bit muted too.
Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 4MATIC
1991cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
165kW @ 5500rpm
350Nm @ 1800rpm
Australian-market AMG Line cars get racier front and rear aprons and sill panels, a diamond-shaped front grille and lowered, comfort-biased suspension as standard
AUDI S3 SEDAN $64,500
Some will doubtless prefer the low-key elegance of the Ingolstadt sedan, but the CLA offers a more extrovert look and along with a next-gen infotainment system. What the CLA 250 4MATIC loses cross-country pace to the S3, it claws back in terms of liveability. It’ bigger and a good deal more refined. The CLA even feels about on-par with the S3’ build quality, a tribute to the processes at the Kecskemét factory in Hungary. Engines hail from the Kölleda plant in Germany.
Finally, there’s the styling. Clearly we’re creeping into the realms of the subjective here, but can we talk a little about the shape of the old car? Most pertinently, its derriere? There was always something a little droopy about the old CLA’s rear end, something a little apologetic, unresolved and, to a small corner of the southern hemisphere, AU Falcon Forte about it. Designer Achim Badstübner has sent the CLA for a Brazilian butt lift because the rear deck is now raised by 10mm to give it a perter, more confident look.
For almost everything else about the styling, 50mm is the magic dimension. That’s how much thinner the front and two-piece rear lamps have become, how much lower the leading edge of the bonnet is, how much wider the width across the front wheelarch flares is, the latter allowing for a more Coke-bottle shape in the flanks. As is the vogue with current Mercedes designs, extraneous swage lines have been chamfered away, leaving one rising character line on the flanks and a lot of subtle surface contouring to work the light and shade.
As well as the aesthetics, a lot of work has gone into aerodynamics. Its broader frontal area means the CLA can’t quite equal the record-setting A-Class Sedan’s aero efficiency, but the Cd figure of 0.23 is excellent and noise suppression is especially good for a car with coupestyle frameless glass.
That slippery shape also translates into excellent fuel economy, the CLA 200 with 7G-DCT ’box managing 5.5L/100km and the CLA 250 4MATIC with the same transmission 6.3L/100km. That’s just as well, because the fuel tank measures a meagre 48 litres, which could be an issue for the forthcoming AMG variants.
The CLA puts in a strong performance. Badstübner referred to the car as ‘the punk’ during its development, citing the fact that the design team could get away with all sorts of things that would never fly on more buttoned-down C- and E-Class models. Its designer is not in any way conflicted about these models treading on each others’ toes.
“The C-Class is now an old car, it’s on its facelift,” chuckles Badstübner. “I would buy the CLA, no question.” We’re with the guy with the crayons on that one.