2016 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 4Matic review 1

Most of you would be familiar with the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and if you haven’t, I urge you to Google it right away. Robert Southey’s piece, previously known as The Story of the Three Bears, tells the tale of a girl (or woman depending on the version you read), entering the forest home of three bears.

While inside, she sits in their chairs, eats some of their porridge and falls asleep in one of their beds. In all three acts, she will jump from one extreme (too big, too hot, too hard), to the other (too small, too cold, too soft), before settling in the middle (just right). I won’t drone on about the details of a children’s story, but there is a principle that is derived from said story – the Goldilocks principle.

Applied to astrobiology, the Goldilocks zone argues that a planet must neither be too far away from, nor too close to a star and galactic centre (like the Sun) to support life, while either extreme would result in a planet incapable of supporting life. Earth is an example of the middle ground, just right.

Drawing upon aforementioned principle, enter the Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 Sport 4Matic, the latest addition to the CLA range in Malaysia – slotting in neatly between the base CLA 200 and the fire-spitting fury that is the CLA 45 AMG. Aimed at the person who wants that little more oomph from the standard CLA 200, but just short of the hardcore aggression that an AMG Mercedes offers, could this be the one that’s just right? That’s what we’re here to find out.

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Priced at RM268,888, the CLA 250 Sport 4Matic commands a full RM33,000 premium over the base CLA 200. That’s quite a considerable sum, but compared to the AMG version, it comes in at a six-figure, RM128,000 discount. With such huge contrasts, is there any place for the mid-spec CLA to be attractive to buyers?

On paper, it does look promising. Viewed from the outside, the CLA 250 Sport 4Matic’s exterior is bolstered with the addition of the AMG Line package. There is a full bodykit here that looks similar to that on the CLA 45 AMG, save for the removal of the latter’s black accents and boot lip spoiler. Instead, there are red highlights, but given that the test unit we got is painted in Jupiter red, it doesn’t really stand out.

Also unlike the AMG is a “diamond grille” here instead, accentuated by chrome pins. Both items (AMG Line kit, diamond grille) aren’t found on the standard CLA 200. Further differentiation from the base variant can be seen with the 18-inch five-spoke AMG wheels that replace the five twin-spoke design. Just behind said wheels, you’ll find cross-drilled front brake rotors with red calipers, adding to that “I’m sportier than you” persona.

Unfortunately, the CLA 250 Sport 4Matic does not get the Night Package that is fitted on both the CLA 200 and CLA 45. A shame really, because black window surrounds and side mirrors would certainly make the car appear a lot more imposing when viewed from the side (that profile is a lovely sight). Here, you get chrome window surrounds and body colour side mirrors instead. Rounding things up are uprated bi-xenon headlamps that now come with Intelligent Lighting System (auto high beam control).

Stepping inside the cabin, more red highlights compliment those found outside. The air-con vents, seat belts and stitching on the seats and steering wheel are all accented in the colour. The round steering wheel of the CLA 200 has also been replaced with a flat-bottomed one, while your feet now rest on alloy pedals. Further adding to the sporty feel are Dinamica microfiber/leather combination seats, part of the AMG Line pack.

At this point, you may be thinking, “but all these items added on can’t justify the RM33,000 more I’m paying over the base car, right?” Don’t worry, because pop the hood and you’ll find that the CLA 200’s M 270 DE 16 AL 1.6 litre turbocharged four-pot has been ditched. In its place is the larger M 270 DE 20 AL 2.0 litre mill.

The engine, also found in the A 250 Sport, generates 211 hp and 350 Nm of torque, up 55 hp and 100 Nm from the smaller displacement powerplant. Compared to the hand-built 2.0 litre unit in the CLA 45 AMG, the 250 4Matic is at a 144 hp/100 Nm deficit. In this configuration, it is paired to a seven-speed DCT dual-clutch automatic transmission, and as the name suggests, comes with Mercedes’ 4Matic all-wheel drive system.

On the daily drive, the new powertrain delivers its power smoothly and without much fuss. However, the transmission, although capable of near seamless shifts, is a little slow to pick up on inputs. When sudden acceleration is needed, there is a slight delay before the dual-clutch unit downshifts a gear and you get going.

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Thankfully, you can switch between the transmission’s three different modes – Eco, Sport and Manual. The first encourages early upshifts (as early as 2,000 rpm) to ensure minimal fuel usage, while the second holds onto a gear much longer during moments of spirited driving. The third is pretty self-explanatory, with steering-mounted paddle shifters doing the duties.

That’s all nice and good but what you’ll actually be interested in is just how sporty this thing is. Picking up the pace, the bigger engine certainly delivers. Floor the pedal, wait a brief moment for the transmission to pick up on what you just did, and the acceleration just kicks in. It isn’t the most linear of power deliveries, however, especially when the turbo comes on full boost, and I’d liken it to being kicked in the back by multiple horses – in this case, all 211 of them.

Mercedes says the car does the 0-100 km/h sprint in 6.6 seconds, and I don’t think I’ll argue against that. It blitzes the standard car to the feat by nearly two seconds, but next to the CLA 45 AMG, it’ll also be trailing by two seconds. Top speed here is 250 km/h, and during the first half of it, there’s barely any wind noise thanks to the CLA’s low drag coefficient of 0.23. Road noise is pretty noticeable, though. On the mention of noise, you won’t get the CLA 45 AMG’s lovely exhaust “snap, crackle and pop” when shifting near the redline.

On a side note, I should also mention that the Eco Start/Stop function, which cuts out the engine to save fuel, engages a little too eagerly when you depress the brake pedal just a millimetre more than necessary at the traffic light. With the fact that the auto brake hold function requires the brake pedal to be depressed further, it isn’t particular practical especially in our style of stop-and-go traffic. Allowing for a little more pedal travel before engagement would have been nice, but you can turn it off altogether at a push of a button.

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Of course, going in a straight line is all well and good, but show the CLA 250 Sport 4Matic a few corners and it’ll provide a few thrills as well. The predominantly front-biased 4Matic system here can divert up to 50% of power to the rear wheels to snap things back into place should it get lairy, but the abundance of mechanical grip from the chassis means it never really needs to kick into action.

Understeer is kept at a bare minimum when taking on a corner at speed, with the car keeping its composure very well. The supportive sports seats also did a good job of keeping me in place during such instances, and were comfortable to sit on during long distance journeys as well.

The sports suspension (similar to the A 250 Sport) certainly contributes to the impressive handling, and with those grippy 235/40R18 Michelin Pilot Sport 3 tyres attached, the CLA 250 Sport 4Matic corners almost flat. It is further aided by the steering, which has a nice in-hand feel, providing good feedback and weightage.

One downside of all this sporty handling is the ride that the CLA 250 Sport 4Matic has. On smoothly tarred roads (rare in Malaysia), it’s comfortable and civilised. Take the car out to less accommodating roads, however, and the car’s firmness can be felt repeatedly. It isn’t unbearable but you get the sense that the suspension isn’t soaking up a lot of the unpleasantness.

For the younger generation, this wouldn’t be much of an issue as they may view it as a cost to pay for that sporty drive feel. The more traditional Mercedes buyers might be put off by this, no matter how good the CLA looks, and opt for a more cushy C-Class instead. Coincidentally, for the price of the CLA 250 Sport 4Matic, you can have a C 200 Exclusive, although you do miss out on the higher power output.

Luxuries that you will appreciate while on the move include the bi-xenon headlamps that not only provide good coverage, but the Intelligent Lighting System also allows you to perpetually leave them in high beam mode without worrying about blinding anyone. A short-range camera behind the rearview mirror detects oncoming vehicles and adjusts the angle of the headlamps, which is pretty neat. Halogen cornering lights illuminate corners as you turn into them as well.

Said camera also works in tandem with the car’s Collision Prevention Assist; on the CLA, it’s a pre-emptive braking system. If the car detects that you are a little too close to the car ahead, a warning symbol shows up on the instrument cluster, and the brakes are primed. Should you need to apply the brakes at that point, there already is a certain amount of braking force available. The car will not automatically brake for you.

Life on the inside is pretty much what you’ll find on the standard CLA. The Thermatic climate control is still a manually-operated unit, while the Audio 20 infotainment system is linked to an eight-inch free-standing colour Media Display screen – so there’s still no navigation system. It also has a myriad (maybe too much) of inputs, options and settings to play with, and a reverse camera.

There is still no keyless entry or start here, which is a bummer as I had to reach into my pocket to unlock the door and start the engine (first world problems). Could it be a move to encourage more driver involvement? Maybe. Other nifty equipment include auto-dimming side and rearview mirrors and Active Park Assist.

The latter works automatically at speeds under 32 km/h scanning for possible parking spaces using ultrasonic sensors, and you can tell the system whether the spot you’re looking for is on the left or right with use of the indicator. When a suitable spot is found, the ‘P’ symbol gains an arrow on the corresponding side of the parking space. Put it in reverse, confirm the display query and the car will park itself. This works for parallel and perpendicular (the latter with the front facing out) parking space.

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Those who are looking at the practical aspects of the car will be glad to know that there is a usable amount of covered stowage space in the cabin, especially on the centre console. The boot is sizeable enough to store large-sized luggage or even a 12V-powered cooler. Rear seating meanwhile, isn’t that accommodating to those above a certain height. That raked roofline, in particular, does result in diminished headroom, a price to pay for the sleek coupe look.

So, how best to sum up the CLA 250 Sport 4Matic then? Clearly, if you’re looking for a “traditional” Mercedes, this isn’t your best option, and you’re probably better off with a C-Class. The CLA (and A-Class to certain extent) is catered to a different audience – a more youthful one – where sportiness is a huge appeal factor.

On one end of this sportiness spectrum, you have the CLA 200, which may not be sporty enough, while the on the other end, the CLA 45 AMG might be too scary (and overly sporty) for some. All in all, the Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 Sport 4Matic is firmly in the Goldilocks zone when it comes to sportiness. Put simply, it’s just right.