What is it?
Mercedes has been on a rampage of refreshing it cars to bring them in line with the new overarching design philosophy that will define its cars for the foreseeable future. And the latest to receive this treatment is its most affordable sedan, the CLA.
Don’t feel bad if you have to squint your eyes and scratch your head to figure out how exactly this car is different. The changes, admittedly, are very subtle. The only changes up front are new headlamps, now full LED with its modules in the company-standard ‘leaf’ design, and a light redesigning of the bumper with a new chin-mounted chrome insert. In profile, the changes are nil, even retaining the same 17-inch alloy wheel design, and round the back, the only novelties are re-profiled taillights and a differently shaped chrome strip between the differently styled exhaust tips.
Not that the CLA needs too many cosmetic changes – it looks rather swanky as is, with that bold face, swooping roof, muscular character lines and neat tush. This refresh, as explained, is more a move to bring the CLA in line with the rest of the Merc family rather than actually shaking things up in order to boost sales numbers; still, it’s worth noting that Mercedes has shrewdly beaten rival Audi to the market, with the A3 facelift expected only sometime next year.
What's it like on the inside?
Your eye-squinting and head-scratching will continue when you step into the cabin. Changes are limited to a larger 8.0-inch touchscreen (the previous one was a 7.0-incher) for the updated COMAND infotainment system (it now gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto), a few trim and colour changes, a redesigned instrument cluster and the incorporation of Drive Select, Merc’s driving-mode system. The CLA always had driving modes, but Dynamic Select simply offers a new interface and the added capability of toggling steering and engine response between ‘Comfort’ and ‘Sport’ individually.
Like the exteriors, the interiors didn’t really need a substantial overhaul in the first place. You are generally surrounded by good-quality materials, be it the soft-touch plastic on the dash, sturdy plastics elsewhere or supple seat leather. The design is equally outstanding, what with the sporty turbine-like air-con vents, clean and intuitive buttons, high-def screen and red-needled instrument binnacle.
The seats are a particular attraction in the CLA. The front seats, both electrically adjustable, are buckets with one-piece backrests that hug and support you, and come with adjustable thigh support. Bucket seats are what you find in the back too (thus limiting comfortable seating to just two), and while they are firm and supportive, they are a tad too upright. Legroom is adequate, not outstanding, headroom is sparse and the slit-like windows make everything feel even more cramped. However, that's the price you pay for style. The boot, at 470 litres, would have been adequately roomy had it not been for the space saver abolishing most of the usable space.
Equipment includes Merc’s latest COMAND media system with USB, Aux and Bluetooth options, cruise control, a rear camera (albeit without parking sensors), a large panoramic sunroof, driving modes and automatic headlights. On the safety front, the CLA comes with six airbags, adaptive braking, hill-start assist, ABS, Merc’s Attention Assist system, and an electronic stability program. Certain features such as automatic climate control, rear parking sensors, keyless entry and go, and rear AC vents are conspicuously lacking though.
What's it like to drive?
We are test-driving the CLA 200 here and mechanically, the car is unchanged from before this refresh. Under the hood is the same 1991cc, four-cylinder turbo-petrol with a power rating of 184hp and maximum torque of 300Nm. The engine is quite responsive and generally quick off the line, with barely perceptible turbo lag. It spins quite freely and propels the car into three-digit speeds without breaking a sweat. It is mated to a seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic gearbox which complements the car’s sporty orientation rather well.
Press the accelerator sedately and the gearbox skips through the ratios rather quickly to maximise efficiency and minimise engine noise. In fact, the upshifts, under such gentle driving, are more or less seamless. Slam the gas hard, though, and you will see the speedo needle spin to the redline (in Sport mode) before the gearbox shifts up. It transforms from a sedate background worker to a frontline soldier almost immediately. It is so eager and aggressive that it will gladly downshift two ratios at a time if it senses urgency in your foot flexing. And if you’re still not satisfied, all you need to do is tug at the paddles behind the wheel to take control (or at least most of it) of gear shifts.
The engine is mostly refined, though it does become progressively more vocal with rising revs; mind you, this is not a complaint, because its snarl is rather satisfying. The different engine modes – Comfort, Sport and Eco – mainly alter the engine and gearbox response.
The CLA rides well too, overall. The suspension is not adjustable, but is tuned to find a good balance between comfort and sportiness. The bias is definitely towards the latter, with a clear firmness to the setup that gives it great agility around corners. However, comfort too has been given some consideration, this being India, and it’s good at absorbing low-speed bumps.
The handling, however, is let-down slightly by the steering. It does have heft and straight-line stability is appreciable, but the car doesn’t change direction with as much eagerness as its fluid design would suggest. That said, it corners well enough and does not disappoint under normal, or even mildly aggressive driving conditions.
Should I buy one?
If you don’t currently plan on buying a CLA, the refresh is unlikely to change your mind. However, with C-class prices nudging and even crossing the Rs 50 lakh mark, the CLA has become more convincing as the entry-point sedan for those who crave the three-pointed-star badge in their garage, offering a bit more prestige and practicality than the A-class and B-class hatchbacks. You get great looks (though some Merc purists might find them slightly over the top), appreciable performance and Merc’s signature safety and comfort levels. It feels premium and well-built on the inside, sporty from behind the wheel and attention-grabbing on the outside.
However, it is by no means something you could call ‘affordable’. The current CLA 200 is priced at about Rs 34 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi), and the refreshed one is likely to cost a bit more. The equipment, space and performance on offer, while good, don’t really justify that price tag, but the stunning looks and prestige value certainly do.