What is it?
After an action-packed 2014, Mercedes-Benz is wasting no time kicking the New Year off with a new car launch. It’s a very exciting launch at that, one that has been a long time coming and also a very significant one for the company. With the C-class having moved even more upmarket, the company needed a more accessible sedan to draw in newer, younger buyers in a country where luxury hatchbacks like its own A- and B-class are still seen more as the second or third vehicle in a premium garage. Yes, the compact luxury sedan is big business in India, and competitor Audi has already got a headstart with its impressive A3. But with this new CLA-class, Mercedes appears to have a powerful card in its deck, at least on the surface. It’s a stunning-looking thing with a face similar to the A-class, and a swooping profile reminiscent of Merc’s own pioneering four-door coupé, the CLS. The sides are full of curvy creases and they converge in a compact rear with a pair of neat LED tail-lamps. The design of the 225/45 R17-inch alloy wheels looks superb too. Of course, this car is not entirely unfamiliar, thanks to the rip-snorting CLA 45 AMG version that was launched last year, but even in this ‘vanilla’ guise, there’s no doubt the CLA is a stunner.
On the inside, the dashboard is very similar to the one in the A-class, with the same excellent turbine-like air vents, wide sweeping dashboard and sporty dials. It too is made of top-notch materials and there’s that solid build quality you expect of a Mercedes car. There are, however, a few differences; the company has responded to criticisms and fitted the CLA with a higher-definition colour screen for the COMAND computer. This being a sedan, however, the rear seat is a crucial part of the package, even though this compact CLA is expected to be largely owner-driven. Thanks to a long 2,699mm wheelbase, legroom is pretty decent by class standards, but if back seat comfort is what you're after, most other cars for similar money will offer more. Also, thanks to the curved coupé roofline, headroom in here is very tight and six-footers will certainly have their hair mussed up by the headliner. The cabin isn’t very wide, which makes the rear seat better suited to two passengers than three, and there’s a dedicated rear aircon vent. The small windows, housed in frameless doors, also make it feel quite claustrophobic at the back, but then, that’s the price you pay for all that swanky exterior styling flair.
Mercedes hasn’t skimped on equipment either; the CLA get goodies like a panoramic sunroof that automatically closes when it rains, onboard web browsing via a Bluetooth phone tether, a navigation system and reverse camera. The full-blown Harman Kardon system sounds brilliant too. The CLA’s 470 -litre boot is far more spacious than the Audi’s, which can hold just 425 litres of stuff; but that advantage is eroded by the space saver spare tyre that’s strapped to the boot floor and eats up lots of space.
What is it like to drive?
To set it apart further from its lesser hatchback brethren, the CLA-class has been given the more powerful ‘200’ engines from the GLA-class crossover. That means a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine that makes 181bhp and 30.5kgm of torque, and a 2.1-litre turbo diesel that produces 134bhp and 30.5kgm. It, too, uses a seven-speed dual clutch gearbox, but unlike the AWD CLA 45 AMG, the standard CLA-class will be front-drive only. The petrol motor is pretty responsive. The CLA 200 is quick off the line and the fast-acting 7-DCT transmission swaps cogs smoothly to haul you forward in one seamless surge of acceleration. This engine has a pretty broad powerband with a meaty mid-range, which makes overtaking quite effortless. Keep the engine in the heart of its powerband and the CLA responds instantly, whisking you to some serious speeds. However, this motor doesn’t like being revved to dizzy heights and starts getting audible near its modest 6,200rpm redline.
More vocal is the CLA 200 CDI, the diesel motor clearly making its presence felt at anything other than low revs. It’s not the quietest of engines around, with a distinct clatter at idle and a fair amount of diesel roar as the tacho needle sweeps past 4,000rpm. However, at cruising speeds, the engine is pretty silent and it’s hard to tell you're being powered by a diesel. Cabin insulation and road noise are pretty impressive, and when driven at sedate speeds, the overall refinement makes the CLA feel every bit a Merc. A big surprise is the CLA’s driving dynamics, which feel more mature than the A-class hatchback. We had criticised the lack of compliance and hard edge that hurt ride comfort in Merc’s compact cars, but in the CLA, Mercedes has softened the suspension to give it a newfound suppleness that nicely rounds off sharp edges like expansions joints and broken tarmac. Deep potholes still thump through and the lack of wheel travel is still evident with the short, sharp vertical movements you feel on uneven surfaces, but it’s never to the point of feeling harsh.
There’s a bit of torque steer and a tendency to tramline under hard acceleration on uneven surfaces, more so in the petrol car. Steering was never a strong point in any of Merc’s compact cars, and even the CLA’s helm isn’t exactly bristling with feel. The steering isn’t hugely responsive and is a little numb, especially around the straight-ahead position, but it’s fairly accurate and the weighty feel gives the driver a fair bit of confidence. In fact, it’s the assurance the CLA gives from behind the wheel that is one of its strengths. Straight-line stability is superb and the nose-heavy CLA doesn’t get unsettled easily, which underscores the benign dynamics of this compact saloon. In fact, the faster you go, the more grown up the CLA feels with its unflappable poise and relaxed demeanour.
Should I buy one?
Both the diesel and petrol CLA don’t feel particularly sporty to drive. The CLA 200 petrol, though more entertaining than the modestly powered CLA 200 CDI, still isn’t the car that you want to wring by the scruff of its neck. These cars are for more gentle, everyday motoring, and do a very good job at that. The cabin is a great place to be if you’re going to be sitting up front, and interior quality will keep reminding you that you’re sitting in nothing less than a Mercedes. But if there is one reason to buy the CLA, it’s got to be the stunning styling. This is one car that turned heads wherever we went. It’s a car that makes you feel special and that’s what first-time CLA buyers, aspiring to own a car with the three-pointed star, will certainly want. The understated and unremarkable-looking Audi A3 better watch out.