It wasn’t that long ago when Mercedes-Benz had a lineup that was dismissed by anyone below 40 as “uncle cars”. Yuppies would not want to be seen in one, lest they were mistaken for their dads. BMWs and Audis projected the right image. Wasn’t that long ago, right?
How things have changed in just a few years. There were hints of it prior, but the turning point for Mercedes-Benz was when it wheeled out the current A-Class in March 2012. The low-roofed, wide-assed W176 was a huge departure from its mini-MPV predecessor, and the younger set’s perception of M-B took a similar U-turn.
Try this. Ask a group of 10 normal young people (as opposed to car geeks) and ask if they’d prefer an A 250 Sport or a BMW 125i. If they don’t know what a 1 Series is, show them a picture of the F20 – a mug shot with full view of those nostrils would probably help wrap up our poll faster.
If both the mini survey and Stuttgart’s small car are ice breakers, we can now proceed to the main event. First seen at Detroit 2013 and launched here in March this year, the Mercedes-Benz CLA is the follow up act seeking to bury the “uncle” tag once and for all.
A four-door coupe that looks like a million bucks (OK, maybe half a million, CLS is the real deal), the CLA is a spin off from the compact FWD A-Class, but is priced at C-Class levels, which means that you can have an Audi A4 or the benchmark BMW 3 Series for around the same money. In fact, the F30 316i, which has slightly lower on-paper performance, but more of everything else, is RM26k cheaper!
The CLA’s positioning can be a little confusing from a strict price/segment viewpoint, but this Merc’s raw appeal is easier to accept, if not comprehend. A little cliched perhaps, but pictures don’t do it justice – you really have to see one in the metal (in a light colour) to fully appreciate what Mercedes has done here.
Taking a design concept that works well on a larger car and replicating the look on a smaller footprint is harder than it sounds. That’s why the Hyundai Elantra MD can pull off the crouching look so well but the Accent RB, with the same darting arrow line, can’t. My colleagues also prefer the Mazda 6 Sedan‘s looks over the minaturised 3.
A compact platform can sometimes be constricting, which is why I personally think the CLA can’t possibly look any better than how it does now. A little front heavy perhaps (bum looks a little saggy from certain angles too), but this thing will turn heads like no other compact premium exec. The CLA is as expressive as they are prudish, till the W205 C-Class arrives at least. Frameless windows add to the drama. In my porch or by the kerb, I couldn’t stop looking at it.
It has to be said that our CLA 200 looks this good because of some well-chosen options. The example you see here is a Sport trim car (as opposed to AMG Sport) but with add-ons such as the crucial Intelligent Light System (bi-xenons with LED DRLs, LED tail lamps), black caps for the wing mirrors and non-standard 18-inch wheels.
Inside, you’ll find contrast stitching on the Artico synthetic leather, while the Light and Sight package lifts the ambience with soft lighting at the door pulls and uniquely, the holes under the headrests. Together, all the cues combine to reinforce the feel that you’re in something special.
Just as well, because after stripping off that sheen of glam, the cabin isn’t all that tech-laden, or fresh in design. The dash, with its circular air vents, looks cool enough but some of the materials used aren’t as premium as they could be.
The dash design incorporates a wide swath of trim across the dash, an open invitation to touch and knuckle rap it – not so solid. We’re also unsure about the wavy stripe print on the grey plastic piece.
As with the Malaysian-spec A-Class, the most jarring element is that central screen, which looks more photo frame than iPad because of well, a frame that’s too thick. The graphics on the small screen are very last-gen too, as is the button-fest stereo panel in this age of integration. Old school, and not in a good way.
Manual air-con is quite a downer in a RM236k car, and that’s before you find an ergonomic flaw – the panel is set very low (a long stretch) and the tiny temperature markings on the left side are obstructed from the driver’s line of sight.
Everything taken into consideration, the CLA’s cabin is a mixed bag that will look old hat when the Audi A3 Sedan rolls into town soon. The good news for Mercedes is that some will be so distracted by the flash that they won’t notice the flaws, while it’s also possible that newfound younger fans of the three-pointed star don’t know any better.
Mercedes will hope that’s the case, because the CLA is underwhelming on the move. Nothing wrong with the recipe – a 1.6 turbo with 154 hp/250 Nm mated to a seven-speed DCT is in the European downsized ballpark – but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
In ESPN Soccernet style, here are the three things we found about the drivetrain:
1. Merc’s dual-clutch gearbox is far from the slickest in town. Upshift speed is OK but the DCT can sometimes hold on to a gear for too long, and is slow to downshift. Using the paddles (rarely have I paddle popped so often) can alleviate the problem, but it shouldn’t have come to this. To add salt, the gearbox is clunky and slightly jerky at low speeds, and one can hear it working in the urban crawl.
2. The CLA 200 is rated at 8.5 seconds from 0-100 km/h, seven tenths faster than the 316i. But you wouldn’t have guessed. The Merc doesn’t feel that quick, and we suspect that could be down to both the slow-witted gearbox and the throttle response.
3. If you’re used to a finely caliberated throttle, it won’t take longer than a drive around the block to notice the CLA’s soggy gas pedal. It seems like the first half of travel delivers “no boost” before the engine gets the message, belatedly.
When Mr. M270 finally comes on song, you’ll find decent pull, but the engine isn’t particularly smooth revving or sporty sounding. You’ll adapt to the CLA’s “don’t rush me” style, as I did over a weekend, but it’s fair to expect more from a RM236k car. Chuck the paper in the bin – the base F30 is the faster and more satisfying car to drive in the real world.
The drivetrain is clearly a weak point, but that’s not where it stops. There’s very little finesse in the way the CLA rolls, with a firm ride that’s not forgiving enough on our less than perfect blacktop. It’s not just down to the big wheels – the F30 328i with 18-inch rims prove that comfort and looks can go hand-in-hand. Highway cruising in the Merc is also marred by loud tyre roar and a high-pitched hum on PLUS concrete surfaces.
The CLA isn’t a driver’s delight, but you’ll find a car that corners pretty flatly with very good grip should you push it harder. The steering wheel, which appears big in diameter, feels good in the hands and is connected to a rack that’s quick and accurate enough. So it’s not all bad news on the move; if only the ride had a more flowing quality to it and the drivetrain was slicker.
We won’t criticise the CLA’s poor showing in the space and practicality department because you should know what you’re getting into. Style comes at a price and besides, there’s the C-Class for those who want a proper compact exec. But it’s worth noting that the CLA has less rear leg and headroom than what one would expect in the C/3 segment – this 175 cm writer has hair brushing the roof lining.
The sloping coupe roofline that makes the car look great doesn’t just impinge on headroom, it makes the door aperture smaller too, so remember that as you step in. Same for the decently sized boot, which has a narrow opening to accommodate the long and shapely tail lamps.
You would have noticed a theme by now. The Mercedes-Benz CLA isn’t a flawless gem, but it’s flashy and has real star power. To seduce is its reason to exist, and on that count, Stuttgart’s spin off has hit the mark with a new audience. For the rest of us who are more pragmatic and demanding of a premium car, we’ll be better served by the mainstream.