First drive: The Mercedes-Benz CLA is a sleek and sexy compact coupe
What is it?
The Mercedes-Benz A-Class line-up is a bit of a confusing one, but the fact it offers two different saloons is particularly difficult to fathom from a layman’s perspective. The difference – in Mercedes’ eyes – is that while the ‘regular’ A-Class saloon is more practical and classy, the CLA is more slinky, more sexy, and more sporting.
Though it has four doors, Mercedes calls it a ‘coupe’. You might think that puts it in contention with other compact coupes on the market such as the Audi A5 or BMW 4 Series, but the CLA is quite a lot smaller – it’s more of a direct rival for its own A-Class saloon sibling, as well as cars such as the Audi A3 saloon.
The new CLA is, like the old model, based on the same underpinnings as the Mercedes A-Class hatch – along with its sister cars, the A-Class saloon, GLA, and B-Class. That gives it access to Mercedes’ latest range of petrol and diesel engines as well as the hatch’s wonderfully classy interior and high-end tech.
On the outside, it’s been given a makeover that brings it in line with the larger CLS, plus sharp-edged styling that marks it out from the A-Class saloon. The swooping roofline also helps differentiate it from a distance.
What’s under the bonnet?
The UK will get four petrol options at launch – diesels are likely to follow later. The range kicks off with 180 and 200-monikered petrols, which are 1.3-litre units, followed by 2.0-litre 220 and 250 models. 220s are available with Mercedes’ 4Matic four-wheel drive system, and all are paired up with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
There’s little to complain about with the 200 or 220 models we drove. The engines are smooth and powerful, and pair with the CLA’s incredibly slippery body (it’s second only to the A-Class saloon for drag coefficient) they make wonderful motorway cruisers. The gearbox, too, is fairly slick, only becoming bogged down occasionally. They’re far from characterful, though – but perhaps that isn’t such a big problem in this segment of the market.
What’s it like to drive?
The CLA’s body control is much like its engines – compliant and controlled without much excitement. The car turns in quickly and neatly, with the extra traction afforded on four-wheel drive models not really necessary unless you’re in a real hurry. The ride is surprisingly good, though as with any model on the enormous, 20-inch wheels of our test car, it does have a tendency to crash over potholes in the road rather than ride them smoothly.
Put simply, there’s not a great deal to differentiate this from a Mercedes A-Class. You’ll have far more fun in a BMW 2 Series or a similarly priced Mini, but the CLA’s mature, solid way of going about things will endear itself to those people cross-shopping it with an Audi A3 saloon.
How does it look?
We really like the way the CLA looks. The devil is in the detail – though broadly it’s very similar to the A-Class saloon, a wider track and lower roofline, plus smoother curves all over make it quite a different beast in the flesh.
Mercedes’ aggressive front end is present and correct, while round the rear, the boot lid and taillights take their inspiration from the larger, more expensive CLS. In fact, from a distance, you’d be forgiven for thinking the two cars are one and the same – and though the drooping rear has also been attempted by more workaday cars such as the Vauxhall Insignia, it’s a styling language Mercedes does well. Smart LED head and taillamps complete the slick look.
What’s it like inside?
The CLA borrows its interior from the A-Class, and it’s a very impressive place to be when you consider its humble hatchback origins. Material quality is very good, for the most part – it’s let down only by the cheap and flimsy-feeling indicator stalks.
The quintet of solid metal air vents complete with ambient lighting really lift the design, and the amount of chrome means that even when trimmed in monochrome colours you won’t get bored in here. Finally, there’s Mercedes’ signature – the twin-screen cockpit setup, combining driver information and infotainment into a seemingly seamless stretch of glass.
As for space? Well, adults won’t be happy in the back thanks to a severe lack of headroom, so we’d recommend treating the CLA as a 2+2. Luggage space is easily enough for a couple’s luggage, though.
What’s the spec like?
The CLA’s offered in three trims, all based on the sporty-looking AMG Line. Standard models feature generous equipment, including 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, heated front seats, keyless entry, the MBUX infotainment system and wireless charging. Add the Premium pack and you’ll receive the 64-colour ambient lighting, a larger instrument display and the headline augmented reality navigation capable of layering directions onto a camera feed for improved accuracy. Finally, Premium Plus cars gain a panoramic roof, Multibeam LED lights, and the ‘ENERGISING COACH’ – a system that supposedly adjusts climate control, lighting, music and seat controls to suit and compliment your mood.
Head to the options list and you can personalise the car further, with a relatively wide array of paint and trim finishes befitting the CLA’s status as the young, vibrant member of the A-Class line-up.
We could have predicted what the CLA would be like from the moment we drove the A-Class – the two cars really are very similar. As a standalone model, the CLA is handsome, good to drive and packed with premium kit. Those after ultimate practicality would be better waiting for the forthcoming ‘Shooting Brake’ estate, or opting for a hatchback A-Class – but if you want a sleek-looking coupe-esque saloon, this is a fine choice, and a rarity in its segment.