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This is the Mercedes CLA, a new niche model from Stuttgart that aims to offer the style of the CLS 'four-door coupe' at a price that slots in below the C-class. You’ll pay from £23k for the entry-level CLA180 petrol, £27-28k for the 250 petrol, or £25-26k for the 220 CDI diesel – around £2.5k less than the equivalent C-class models.

UK sales start in June, exact prices are yet to be confirmed, and we’ve come to the press launch in Marseille to drive the new Mercedes CLA.

A swoopier C-class? Shouldn’t Mercedes be charging more for the CLA?
Well, here’s the clever bit: the CLA sits on the A-class hatchback platform, not the C-class’s. That means, yes, it’s a front-wheel drive Mercedes saloon with transversely mounted engines limited to four-cylinders. You will, however, have the option of four-wheel drive, which will also be the default setting for the upcoming 355bhp CLA 45 AMG model.

The wheelbase remains exactly the same as the A-class, but the shocks and springs are specially calibrated for the CLA, and there’s an entirely new rear suspension subframe.

Won’t the CLA eat into C-class sales?
Possibly, but Mercedes is confident it won’t, saying that the two cars are aimed at different customers, that there’s less room in the back of the CLA, that six-cylinder engines are unavailable and that – interesting, this – the front-driver is more dynamic than its rear-wheel drive big brother.

Key markets are saloon-loving USA and China, and Mercedes predicts far bigger volumes than the 35,000 CLS units they shifted in 2012. Coupled with efficient four-cylinder engines, that promises big benefits for Merc's fleet-average C02 emissions.

Go on then, the road-test bit…
We’re driving the CLA250 CDI diesel, which produces 168bhp and 258lb ft, emits 117g/km CO2 and takes you 63 miles on a gallon of fuel. Taken as a whole, the interior looks fresh and special and modern, but you’ll notice the cost-saving measures up-close: the flimsy-feeling air-con controls, the hard plastics that lurk below the fake leather on the dash, and the plain black plastic buttons that replace higher-spec models’ flashes of silver.

The boot is big – just five litres short of a C-class at 470 litres – but the rear seats are pretty cramped: sitting behind 6’1” me, my knees are pushed up against the front seats, while the sloped roof forces me into a slouch. I wouldn’t want to be here for long.

At typical cruising speeds, the steering feels sterile and remote, the gearchanges smooth and the engine whisks you along on a easy wave of boost – though it is surprisingly noisy at idle and when stretched. We’ve got the comfort-spec suspension (a sport set-up is also available) and the body control feels quite loose, while there’s also a reasonable amount of patter. It’s always difficult to properly judge a car’s suspension on smoother foreign roads, but we’d expect that patter to be far more pronounced in the UK. If we had to make the call now, we’d vote comfort-spec suspension rather than the much firmer sport.

How does the CLA cope in the twisties?
It’s actually quite accomplished. All models get Direct Steer variable-ratio steering racks, which means the steering feels normal on fairly straight roads, but it’s much quicker to respond on tighter twists and turns. Dive into a hairpin, for instance, and you won’t need to move your hands from the quarter-to-three position – it lends a real sense of agility to the CLA.

The chassis is impressive too, especially when you consider our slightly rolly comfort set-up: it bites keenly into tighter corners and ducks and dives along faster sections with a real feeling of agility. Yes, it’s easy to tell that the front tyres are doing the work, but there’s no sense of torque steer on these admittedly smooth roads and traction-control intervention is pretty restrained.

Sadly, what the steering and chassis adds, the dual-clutch gearbox takes away – it’s too dopey in auto mode, and it still lags behind when you’re in manual. VW’s dual-clutcher is far superior.

The CLA might not be perfect, but it’s hard not to conclude that its market positioning is a bit of a masterstroke from Mercedes: it looks distinctive and special (if strangely proportioned from some angles), slots into a market niche somewhere above the VW Jetta and below the BMW 3-series, and generally drives well.

The gearbox is a letdown, you’ll need more space in the back if you regularly carry passengers and we wish the diesel powerplant was more refined, but the CLA will doubtless hold wide appeal for the younger audience that Mercedes craves.
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