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First drive: Mercedes-Benz CLA. Image by Mercedes-Benz.

First drive: Mercedes-Benz CLA
Merc's big-selling CLA gets its second generation, but is it any good to drive?

 



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Mercedes-Benz CLA

4 4 4 4 4

The new Mercedes CLA builds on the strengths of the old model (handsome looks, affordable price) and adds a sharper chassis, more space and a class-leading interior.

Test Car Specifications

Model tested: Mercedes-Benz CLA 200 7G-DCT AMG-Line
Pricing: 32,100 as tested; CLA starts at 30,550
Engine: 1.33-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: seven-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Body style: 'four-door coupe'
CO2 emissions: 121g/km (VED Band 111-130 - 170 year one)
Combined economy: 53.3mpg
Top speed: 141mph
0-62mph: 8.2 seconds
Power: 163hp at 5,500rpm
Torque: 250Nm at 1,620rpm
Boot space: 460 litres

What's this?

This is the second generation of the Mercedes-Benz CLA, the Stuttgart company's smallest coupe. Coupe, you say? But surely it has four doors? Well, yes it does, but let's face it - this is a fight that the pedants among us lost long ago; a four-door can, it seems still be a coupe.

A coupe even if it uses the same basic front-wheel-drive MFA platform as the Mercedes A-Class. As with the previous generation of CLA, this one is essentially an A-Class with a sleeker rear profile, but that perhaps does it down a little. While the old CLA did, from some angles, look too much like a hatchback with a boot stuck on the back, this one is far sleeker and with a rear end that's much better integrated. In fact, from a distance, you might struggle to tell it apart from the bigger, more expensive, CLS coupe.

That's because the CLA has become a little bigger this time around. It's 65mm wider across its tracks, has a longer wheelbase and sits just a fraction lower down. In part, that's because Mercedes wants to leave some space in the range between this and the (slightly more upright) A-Class Sedan, which launches in just a few weeks. In equal part, it's because the CLA has to do double-duty in being, at the higher price end of the range, a rival to the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe.

A good bit of that extra size has gone into making the cabin more spacious. In fact, where the old CLA felt pretty tight in the back, this new one is positively roomy. Thanks to a scallop taken out of the rear roof lining to add a little more head room, there's enough space for a six-footer to get comfy in the back, while the front seats are exceptionally comfortable and supportive. Up front is where the interior really shines, actually, because it lifts its dashboard pretty much entirely from the A-Class.

Normally, we'd complain about disparate cars having an interior that's too similar, but the A-Class' cabin, with its 'digital plank' MBUX all-electronic instrument and infotainment panel, is truly class-leading, so why wouldn't you want to share it as widely as possible? It's both physically attractive and hugely versatile, with a massive number of options when it comes to setting up the look and layout of the dials and the infotainment system. If only the laptop-like trackpad, which controls many of the systems, wasn't so fiddly to use. An old-style 'Comand' rotary controller would be much more satisfying.

At least you can fall back on voice control. The 'Hey, Mercedes' digital voice assistant (Merc's answer to Amazon's Alexa or Apple's Siri) is a pretty good system (and one with a sense of humour - ask it to tell you a joke when you're taking a test drive), but it can be, as with all voice control setups, a bit hit-and-miss. One item that's an unalloyed hit is the optional augmented reality overlay for the satnav. That takes a feed from the forward-facing parking camera on the central screen and paints big, blue arrows on the image to show you which is the right road to take. Brilliant.

The most basic model in the UK CLA line-up is the AMG-Line version. Standard equipment includes that MBUX system (although you have to pay extra for the big 10.25-inch instrument panel screen), active emergency braking, cruise control, Dynamic Select (which allows you to toggle between Eco, Comfort, Sport and Individual modes), heated leather seats, LED headlights, parking sensors and cameras, 18-inch alloys and an AMG styling pack.

How does it drive?

How the CLA drives depends very much on which engine you choose. If you go for, for instance, a base CLA 180 d diesel, then the answer is 'only OK.' While the CLA's chassis is really very well setup, with plenty of grip, nicely weighted and communicative steering and (on our German test route at any rate) a comfortable ride quality, the diesel engine does let the side down more than a little.

It's definitely too noisy, and it seems to make a poor companion with the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, which spends too much of its time hunting up and down its ratios to try and find a sweet spot for the engine. In this endeavour, it fails. At least it's economical, we guess.

At the other end of the spectrum is the CLA 250 4Matic petrol. The hottest non-AMG CLA model, the 250 gets a 224hp 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine and four-wheel drive. While not a proper AMG, it feels sparky, agile, rapid and really enjoyable to drive. That's especially so in Sport mode, where the engine's aural qualities get a boost from the stereo speakers that really ramps up the audible aggression levels. It would be tempting to label this as the best CLA, but it comes with a chunky price tag, so maybe not, eh?

A much better compromise is the CLA 200. This uses the new 1.33-litre turbo petrol four-cylinder engine, in 163hp form, and it's a gem. It revs smoothly and sweetly, seems to work perfectly with the 7G-DCT gearbox and even though it 'only' has front-wheel drive it feels very nearly as agile and grippy as the 250 4Matic (in the dry at least). Basically, it's a bit of a joy to drive.

Verdict

That the Mercedes CLA is going to find itself in a more crowded marketplace is undeniable. Not only is BMW prepping (front-wheel drive!) versions of the next-gen 1 Series saloon and a four-door 2 Series Gran Coupe, there is also imminent competition from its own brother, the A-Class Sedan. Somehow, amid all of that, the CLA manages to rise above. It's genuinely engaging to drive (as long as you avoid the base diesel model), looks great, has a cracking interior and is a smidge more practical than it used to be.

4 4 4 4 4 Exterior Design

5 5 5 5 5 Interior Ambience

4 4 4 4 4 Passenger Space

4 4 4 4 4 Luggage Space

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 Safety

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 Comfort

4 4 4 4 4 Driving Dynamics

3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 3.5 Powertrain


Neil Briscoe - 16 Apr 2019









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