WE’RE ALL FOUR IT
Go on, you know you want one
We get to grips with Benz’s brilliant CLA, sort of a sedan but billed as coupe. It’s priced to appeal
YOU might as well skip this. You’re going to buy the CLA no matter what the likes of me say.
Such a meeting of relative affordability and outright desirability has seldom been seen.
The CLA will, as one observer pungently put it,
‘‘ sell its tits off’’ when it arrives for Christmas.
For what it’s worth, you’re unlikely to regret investing in the cheapest ever Mercedes four-door. At some $50,000 it’s a good deal dearer than the same-under-the-skin A-Class hatchback yet the CLA sedan— or four-door coupe, as it is styled— is a good deal more evocative and cooler than something so utilitarian as a hatchback.
We’re barely used to the reality of a fully equipped, good-to-drive Benz priced substantially under a basic Commodore. Such is the entry A-Class.
Carsguide gleans that this new and madly stylish departure will start just north of $50K— eight grand under the ridiculous luxury car tax and nine under the Mercedes C-Class, which sells its chest assets off despite the tax.
Benz has been here before, albeit with the two-door and too poor CLC, a device to give hairdressers’ cars a bad name. The CLA is cut of a very different cloth, essentially an A-Class in a classier suit, but with all that’s substantial about that landscape-altering model.
Standard is seven-speed twinclutch auto transmission driving a choice of four-cylinder turbo petrol or diesel engines and multimedia screen possibly with satnav. The probable starting price is higher than we expected but Mercedes vows a bountiful kit level (desirable options will be plentiful and costly). Initially we’ll see the two turbo petrol variants,
the entry CLA 200 and the stove-hot 250. The former can be optioned with sports suspension and 18-inch wheels to match the latter’s handling, if not its punch.
A diesel follows next year if you must go that way, as does the CLA 45 AMG with allwheel-drive and blistering performance. You’ll go that way if you can.
Of the opening line-up, the 250 is that which all with petrol in their veins will desire. The 200 is the one almost everyone will buy and feel satisfied by. Both have a three-mode drive system that at a button’s push shifts engine response between normal, sport and manual, which is operated within strict limits by shifting paddles.
Most Mercedes except SUVs remain rear-wheel drive but its latest models suffer little from the one end doing both the steering and driving. All variants get Direct Steer, which is smart enough to react to changes in grip, gradient and gratuitous driving.
Few cars punch so cleanly through the air. The term
‘‘ drag co-efficient’’ may mean nothing to you; suffice that the sharp-angled CLA’s is among the lowest of any production car and a major contributor to its exceptionally low fuel use and emissions.
The newest versions of Merc’s multimedia system bring photo-realistic map display, an additional Bluetooth profile for net access via iPhone and real-time traffic data.
Connoisseurs need to know that while the A250 Sport was developed from the get-go with the input of that mighty tuning arm AMG, the top CLA lacks that. Mind you, we who drove between Marseille and St Tropez reckon that counts for close to nothing, so adept is the newcomer.
Anyway, the CLA 250 Sport to sit beneath the full-on-AMG model is on the way.
Basically this is the A-Class in a shell sculpted down from the imposing CLS, the model that started the mania for so-called four-door coupes. The effect of those accents concentrated in a smaller shape— though one longer than the current C-Class sedan— is confronting.
‘‘ Aggressive’’ is invariably used to describe the styling of sporting cars. For once the adjective is warranted. Seen in the metal the CLA is stunning. The shapely nose mirrors that of the hatchback but we’re assured not a panel is shared.
The inside story is, to our eyes, yet more successful even with the lurid and mercifully optional yellow stitching and striped seats of our test 200.
The cabin is otherwise a model of class, from the bare centre console and the largely unadorned but quality expanses to your front. The five circular vents are the more effective, both functionally and in form, for standing out.
It isn’t classist to say this defines the difference between a try-hard car and a true patrician. It just is.
Now to the caveat. No one standing more than 180cm will want to sit in the back. In fact, they can’t. There’s also the minor matter of the driver being barely able to see out the back, so thick are the pillars and small the rear portal. Blind-spot alert had better be standard.
But this is, of course, a coupe, albeit one with two more doors than usual and if functionality is too impeded for your liking, Benz will sell you a mechanically compatible hatchback.
We do tend to go on about active safety and so we should. By that we mean the ability of the car to co-operate with you in not making necessary all those airbags and crumple zones. The five-star rating of the A-Class will surely carry over but the CLA’s inherent balance and instinctive driveability will do most to save you from yourself.
There has been considerable disquiet among the petrolhead fraternity as Benz and soon, BMW, move away from the holy rear-wheel-drive paradigm. Likely buyers are hardly likely to be bothered and even the doom mongers will be hard put to complain.
The 200, running the smaller turbo petrol engine, will be more than enough for most. Never mind that its 0-100km/h time of 8.6 seconds is more than two ticks of the clock behind the guts-and-glory 250.
We talk about torque for the damn good reason that it’s far more important than power in most modern driving situations. This is another compact turbo petrol engine that summons all the torque it has almost immediately both for efficiency in general running and rapid response when overtaking.
That responsiveness is allied to refinement fully in keeping with one of Merc’s luxury sedans— the CLS for example. Hastily leaving a toll booth on the test drive (at that point it’s a rat race in France), the guttural growl of the engine is almost shocking, so quiet was it until this moment. Mercedes might be after younger buyers but it’s not about to forsake its traditional virtues.
That applies to the driving experience. The 200 is not the sportster of the line-up, though the optional suspension keeps it in that ballpark.
It is, however, recognisably of Mercedes DNA. You can well imagine a CLA owner for whom family responsibility has come either trading up to a C-Class or getting an A- or B-Class as a second car to fulfil life’s grimmer tasks. Once you’ve had a Benz in the driveway, you won’t willingly going back to the farm.
On the first-world roads in the south of France, the CLA 200 is faultless. The ride won’t thrill a traditional Benz buyer but even on sports suspension it is absorbent without losing