With styling cribbed from the larger CLS and the draw of that three-pointed star on the nose, is the CLA a car you’d yearn to own? We set out to discover the answer by borrowing a CLA 220 CDI Sport for a week.
The CLA’s styling is a mixed bag. We’ll start with the good stuff – it’s incredibly striking and is arguably a much better proportioned car than the A-Class we tested last year. It looks sleek, undeniably sporting regardless of trim level and has presence on the road – far more than its relatively small stature (for a Mercedes) would suggest.
Among our favourite details are the muscular bonnet bulges, the coupe-like roofline and the distinctive rear lights with their LED details. There’s just the right amount of chrome trim too, and we like the framless doors – something the otherwise-similar A-Class doesn’t get.
Less successful are some of the CLA’s proportions. For a start, the relatively small alloy wheels look a little lost in the arches and that extra mass at the back does make it look a little rump-heavy from some angles, particularly in profile.
We’re not sure red is the best colour for it either, and the enormous Mercedes badge that dominates the front end is rather ostentatious. To it’s credit the CLA is incredibly aerodynamic, but we’d sacrifice a little of that for a bit more subtlety to the design.
If there’s one thing to make you forget some of the CLA’s less savoury exterior details, it’s the interior. We were big fans of the A-Class and, with a near-identical cabin, the CLA scores highly here too.
Quality is hard to fault – everything seemed immaculately bolted together and the materials used feel high-quality throughout. We’ve always been a little unsure of the high-mounted display screen used in Mercedes’ smaller cars, but this one didn’t creak when warm like previous examples, and the low-mounted rotary control gets easier to fathom each time we use it.
With electric adjustment it’s easy to find the ideal driving position and the comfort of the well-shaped front seats can’t be faulted. They hold you in position whether you’re engaging in a touch of sporty driving or simply cruising down the motorway, and the heating and adjustable lumbar functions allowed fine-tuning for the ideal long-distance setup.
Those in the rear have less room – truly tall adults need not apply – and most will need to duck below the low roof to gain access to the back seats.
The boot is decently-sized though its aperture is a little small. Thanks largely to Mercedes’ familiar column-mounted automatic gear selector there are also plenty of smaller cubby holes dotted around the driver. The dials are clear, the three-spoke wheel wonderful to hold and all controls, however small or big, feel great to operate. Aside from rear seat space, only visibility can be faulted – there’s quite a lot of metal and not much glass out back.
This particular CLA 220 CDI Sport is possibly the best front-wheel drive Mercedes we’ve driven. This, we suspect, is largely down to the entirely sensible combination of 17-inch alloy wheels and winter tyres our test car was equipped with – lending the CLA a much more compliant ride quality than any previous example we’ve tried.
It’s still located in the firm category, but doesn’t crash around half as much as A-Class and CLAs equipped with larger wheels and rubber band-like tyres. When it does hit ruts and bumps, it seems to absorb them more than previous examples and produce less noise as it does so.
At the same time, the CLA hasn’t lost the pointy, grippy nature of its bretheren, turning into corners with just as much alacrity. There’s decent communication through the wheel and good weighting, while the car’s multitude of safety systems means you never feel any less than secure even at higher velocities.
At such speeds, the CLA is also admirably quiet. That low drag coefficient (just 0.24) means wind noise rarely intrudes, and the engine is equally hushed. There’s a little tyre noise but it’s hardly excessive. And on the motorway, the CLA’s ride settles even more. The upshot is that after over 800 miles of driving, the CLA remained a car we were happy to climb back into to tackle another journey.
When we tested the A-Class in 200 CDI form, we remarked that its performance stopped short of being effortless. The 220 CDI diesel in the CLA gets much closer to the mark – with 170 horsepower output and an extra wallop of torque you rarely feel short-changed when sinking the right pedal.
The official figures are 8.2 seconds to 60 and a 143 mph top speed. Turn off the Eco switch and both feel more than believable, particularly if you select the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission’s manual mode and start to work the steering wheel paddles.
Overtaking is effortless when dropping a gear or two and the engine is at its best changing a thousand RPM before the red line, rather than leaving the auto to do its thing.
It’s quieter that way too, as the 2.2-litre unit does feel a little strained at the top of its rev range. It’s far from being the quietest diesel on the market but it never proved irritating. There’s even something oddly satisfying about the unique grumble produced by Mercedes diesels, somehow in character with the car.
The gearbox is smooth and changes quickly, but isn’t quite as creamy as a traditional torque converter auto at very low speeds – you can occasionally feel some jerkiness and clutch-slipping.
Official economy is 62.8 mpg. You’re unlikely to manage that unless you have a flat 50-60 mph commute every day, but our 53-54 mpg combined figure wasn’t too bad and no more than the lower-power 200 CDI.
Value for money
The base price of our CLA 220 CDI Sport works out at 29,775. With shameless box-ticking our test car was loaded with another 11,630 of options, bringing the total tally to an eye-watering 41,405 – almost enough for the range-topping CLA 45 AMG.
And the options are frustratingly enticing. The CLA’s fancy bi-xenon and LED lights with adaptive high beams are part of the 1,430 Intelligent Light System package. Most of the interior display screen’s functions are wrapped in with the 2,100 COMAND system. Our car’s fancy interior trim, heated seats and adjustable lumbar functions? Almost two grand. You’d need an iron will not to tick all those boxes on the options list.
Thankfully, good fuel economy and low car tax (30 a year) will keep running costs down. Company users will pay 18% BIK for the 2013-2014 tax year, and 19% over the next period.
We like the CLA. On a purely subjective level, it’s among the more satisfying cars we tested in 2013, the car’s image, efficiency, comfort and performance adding up to a vehicle we’d be happy to spend our own money on.
If we had forty grand, that is. Mercedes’ options really are pricey and with the top diesel lump, it’s hardly cheap to buy in the first place. We’re still not sure on some of the exterior details either – even if those smaller wheels work wonders for its normally spine-pounding ride quality.
We’d suggest cross-shopping it with Mercedes’ own C-Class before you buy – not least because, with a new C-Class on the way, you may be able to get some pretty special deals on the current model.