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The stylish new Mercedes CLA four-door adds visual spice to the staid compact saloon market



What is it?
The rebuilding of Mercedes-Benz’s small car ranks began with the latest B-class MPV, gaining momentum with the new A-class hatchback. Now it is moving into top gear with this, the CLA – a car that many expect to revive the compact saloon car market, and with it Mercedes’ ability to attract a younger generation of buyers.

Appearing like a scaled-down CLS, it brings a welcome dose of style to a class long renowned for prosaic looks.

The front is mostly shared with the latest A-class, upon which the CLA is largely based. It’s at the rear where the new saloon differs from its hatchback sibling, with a heavily curved roofline, curvaceous pillars, angled rear screen, sloping bootlid and longer overhang. The CLA also uses frameless doors in a bid to give it coupé-like appeal.

It’s not just good looking but also aerodynamically efficient. Mercedes claims a Cd of 0.23 for regular models.

The CLA is 40mm longer, 7mm wider and 43mm lower than the C-class – itself set to grow appreciably when the new version appears next year. It’s not the end of Mercedes’ efforts to rebuild its small car ranks, though. An even more radical-looking CLA Shooting Brake is due to reach the UK in just over a year’s time.

What is it like?
Climb inside and you discover an interior that shares its entire layout, including the dashboard, switchgear and trims, with the A-class. Good aspects include the driving position, supportive front seats, legible instruments, the feel of the leather-bound steering wheel, the easily read high-mounted infotainment monitor and overall quality of the materials.

Where the CLA falls down is in its failure to provide adequate rearward vision. A combination of factors – such as wide pillars, a high waistline, tall front seatbacks and a shallow rear screen – contrives to rob visibility to the sides and back. It’s bad enough to consider the optional Tracking Package, which brings blindspot and lane-keeping functions, as a must-have item.

Despite being marginally longer than the C-class saloon, the CLA lacks genuine rear seat space, and entry to the rear is made tricky by the heavy tumblehome effect to the shallow side glass. However, it has a generous-sized boot with a 470-litre capacity – 11 litres more than the C-class’s.

In the UK, two turbocharged four-cylinder engines will initially be offered in the CLA. The base CLA180 gets a 1.6-litre petrol unit developed in partnership with Renault that produces a less than sparkling 120bhp. It is joined by a 2.1-litre diesel that develops 168bhp in the CLA220 CDI driven here. We’ll also get a 2.0-litre petrol engine with 208bhp in the CLA250 later this year.

Most engines come with the choice of a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, but the CLA220 CDI is auto only. It is an efficient unit, with a column-mounted stalk taking the place of a traditional gear selector and wheel-mounted shift paddles that make cog swapping a painless if somewhat uninspiring affair.

But with 258lb ft from 1400 to 3400rpm, the CLA220 CDI doesn’t require continual gearshifting. Its willing, flexible delivery makes for easy progress. However, go above 4000rpm and there’s a noticeable degree of diesel chatter.

With drive going to the front wheels only, the CLA220 CDI puts its power to road cleanly, aided by an array of electronic driving aids, including the latest in electronic stability control. It also provides excellent stability at motorway cruising speeds, which is where this model feels most at home.

On the standard ‘comfort’ suspension and optional 18-inch wheels, the CLA220 CDI has an odd combination of dynamic qualities. Over transverse ridges, larger potholes and speed bumps it feels quite stiff, particularly at the front end, and it suffers a fair amount of road noise on coarse surfaces. But at the same time, the CLA boasts excellent damping control, giving it wonderfully progressive body movements, the ability to tame undulating roads and the basis for sound (if somewhat unrewarding) handling. It has encouraging levels of front-end grip and changes direction with a good deal of zeal. However, there’s insufficient communication through the steering and seat of the pants to make it a stirring drive.


Should I buy one?
We commend Mercedes for looking beyond convention when conceiving the CLA. We also like the relaxed, torquey nature of this diesel engine. The CLA is competent in many areas, but it isn’t as engaging as we’d hoped it would be. We’ll reserve judgement on its ride until we drive it in the UK, although it already feels unnecessarily firm.

For a car of its dimensions, its packaging is also rather disappointing. It has style in spades and some genuine substance, but it’s not enough to hide its questionable comfort and lack of space.

Mercedes-Benz CLA220 CDI

Price £26,000 (set); 0-62mph 8.2sec; Top speed 143mph; Economy 67.3mpg (combined); CO2 109g/km; Kerb weight 1450kg; Engine 4 cyls, 2143cc, turbodiesel; Power 168bhp at 3400rpm; Torque 258lb ft at 1400rpm; Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch auto

Mercedes-Benz CLA220 CDI first drive review Review | Autocar
 
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