Mercedes CLA review
The Mercedes CLA is essentially a smaller version of the CLS, with stylish looks and a decent boot
With the new A-Class and now this, the four-door CLA, Mercedes is trying to appeal to a younger buyer. And on the face of things, the CLA should do just that. With its stunning looks, powerful engines, reasonable running costs and desirable three-pointed star badge should it's an appealing proposition for those who might previously have opted for a BMW or Audi. It also comes with an abundance of safety kit as standard, as well as the manufacturer's latest connectivity features, which allows owners to link apps like Facebook direct from their iPhone onto the large central infotainment screen. Despite all its efforts, though, the biggest issue is that the CLA's suspension is too firm, making for bumpy progress and compromised refinement. It feels responsive and nimble to drive, but lacks the cruising ability of larger Mercedes.
Our choice: CLA 220 CDI
Striking looks are a key selling point of the CLA, as it really stands out on the road with its ‘baby CLS’ design. The sweeping side creases and tapered rear mimic the big Mercedes, and this is combined with the nose of the A-Class. Whether the styling works as well on the CLA’s shrunken proportions is open to debate, but there’s no doubt the Mercedes turns more heads than the four-door A3. Frameless windows are a nice coupé touch, and our Sport-spec test model adds 18-inch alloy wheels and a single-bar radiator grille. Inside, the dashboard is identical to the A-Class’, so you get a smart design dominated by the SLS-inspired air vents, a tablet-style screen and a smart, textured leather multifunction steering wheel. Our car featured the £1,970 Exclusive Package, which adds upmarket features such as heated seats, leather upholstery with contrast stitching and aluminium trim. Look hard, and you’ll find a few hard plastics dotted around the cabin, so the overall quality of the finish isn’t up to the same standard. Still, this isn’t enough to detract from the CLA’s premium feel.
Mercedes has a long tradition of rear-wheel-drive chassis engineering, but with the CLA it’s created a sweet-handling front-wheel-drive sports saloon. There’s good grip in corners and the steering is progressive and well weighted. Add positive turn-in and taut body control, and it makes the Mercedes feel sportier and sharper than an A3 Saloon. Unfortunately, the trade-off for this is poor ride quality. The CLA 180 thumps over broken surfaces and the brittle suspension becomes wearing on long journeys. That’s a pity, as the cabin is well insulated from wind and road noise, plus the CLA 180’s 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine is relatively hushed when cruising. At the test track, the Mercedes trailed the 1.4-litre Audi for performance. The engine in the CLA has 18bhp less power and 50Nm less torque, and is slow to rev, while a flat throttle response means it feels more like a normally aspirated engine than a punchy turbo. This disadvantage is compounded by the six-speed manual gearbox, which features long ratios (it’ll do 80mph in third) designed to boost efficiency. As a result, the CLA suffers from lazy in-gear pick-up, which hampers overtaking ability. The shift action is slightly vague, too. Alternatively, you can spend an extra £1,450 and go for the excellent seven-speed DCT dual-clutch transmission.
The A-Class on which the CLA is based has been in showrooms since last year, so any teething troubles with shared components should have been ironed out by now. And as we’ve seen, the Mercedes brand and dealer network performed better in the Auto Express Driver Power 2013 satisfaction survey. Standard safety kit on the saloon includes nine airbags and Isofix child seat mountings. Plus, when the car senses an impact, the active bonnet rises 65mm to protect pedestrians. All of this safety tech led to a five-star rating from crash test experts Euro NCAP.
Inside, the CLA’s low-slung driving position is sportier than an Audi A3’s, but anyone should be able to get comfortable as there’s plenty of seat and steering wheel adjustment. Also, with an electric parking brake freeing up space, there are plenty of storage cubbyholes on the centre console. It isn’t such great news for rear passengers, though, as the coupé roofline restricts space, plus it’s easy to bang your head on the low door frame as you get in and out. The CLA is a five-seater, but the middle seat is narrow and the big transmission tunnel means there’s no room for your feet. However, there’s plenty of luggage space, with a 470-litre boot and standard split-fold rear seats. Load-securing rings are standard, too, while a foam puncture repair kit frees up extra storage under the boot floor. Alternatively, run-flat tyres are £140. The £170 storage package adds parcel nets in the cabin, a 12V socket in the passenger footwell, storage boxes under the front seats and a sunglasses holder in the overhead panel. Another £170 buys an optional rear armrest and ski hatch, while you can add privacy glass for £230.
The pick of the range for running costs is the CLA 220 CDI, with emissions of 109g/km and fuel economy of 67mpg. This is dependent on trim and specifications, and emissions can rise to 117g/km depending on which car you pick. Opt for the entry-level petrol model and emissions rise to 126g/km, while economy drops to a reasonable 52mpg. Move up in to the more powerful CLA 250 model and emissions increase to 142g/km, while economy drops further to 46mpg. All models come with a fuel-saving stop-start system fitted as standard. Prices will start at around £24,000, which seems reasonable. However, prices will soon start to rise as you tick a few things on the options list - and this could be necessary, as the standard kit on base models proves a little disappointing.