It's all change as Mercedes changes what we thought we knew with the CLA. Jonathan Crouch drives the 177bhp 220d version.
Ten Second Review
Every once in a while, there's a changing of the guard in some manufacturer model ranges and that's clearly the case with the Mercedes-Benz CLA. A front-wheel drive saloon with a coupe roofline that's bigger than the C-Class saloon it was introduced to slot in alongside? The CLA will challenge your preconceptions, that's for sure. Let's check out the version that British buyers most seem to like, the CLA 220d diesel.
It used to be so simple. You had an A-Class as the entry-level Mercedes-Benz hatchback and then a C-Class, the most affordable 'proper' Mercedes saloon car. Then the waters got muddied. The A-Class became really desirable and good to drive. And Mercedes started making saloon cars that looked like coupes. But both of these things had to happen in order for the Mercedes CLA to emerge. The CLA is a car that embodies all of the modern thinking in this traditionally most conservative of companies. It ditches dogma and challenges its rivals with a style that's anything but straight-laced. It's now the entry-level Mercedes saloon, allowing the C-Class to get bigger and stretch upmarket. An exercise in gap-filling then? Not in the least, especially in the case of the CLA 220d variant we're going to look at here. Even the merest acquaintance with this car reveals it to be very much the finished article.
Two chassis and suspension set-ups are available for the CLA: the comfort suspension and a sports suspension for sporty yet comfortable handling. The latter entails lowering of the body by 20 mm (front) and 15 mm (rear). Irrespective of the selected chassis, all CLA variants come with the Direct Steer system. This electromechanical power steering enables various steering assistance functions which are activated by the ESP stability control unit. These include countersteering in case of oversteering, corrective steering when braking on road surfaces offering different levels of grip (split-friction braking), mitigation of the extent to which the front-wheel drive influences the steering and compensation of crosswind and road gradients. It's all very clever stuff. As for the engine on offer in the CLA 220CDI diesel variant we tried, well it's Merc's familiar 2.1-litre turbo diesel with 177bhp on tap, here mated only to a clever 7G-DCT dual clutch automatic transmission. That doesn't seem to affect performance too much, 62mph from rest occupying 7.7s on the way to around 145mph.
Design and Build
The CLA owes quite a debt of gratitude to the large executive CLS-Class four-door coupe in terms of styling, that being the car that pioneered the whole four-door coupe genre over a decade ago. Beneath this CLA-Class model though, are underpinnings that belong very much to Mercedes' entry-level model, the A-Class hatch. That car isn't bad looking these days but this one's on another level entirely. By any measure it's a handsome car. The vehicle's striking features include the bonnet embedded in the front end with powerdomes and a 'diamond-look' grille. The light modules and LEDs behind the headlamp cover glass have been arranged in such a way as to create a characteristic 'flare effect' for the daytime driving lights and indicators. It's not just about aesthetics either. At 0.23Cd, this is not just the most aerodynamic Mercedes model to date, it's also the most aerodynamic production vehicle in the world. Like the A-Class, the interior features trim elements which have been given an electroplated finish, resulting in real metal surfaces with a 'cool touch' effect. The instrument panel is divided into a wing profile-type upper section and a solid lower section. Perhaps the most interesting design touch is what looks like an iPad sitting on the upper part of the centre console but which is in fact an integrated touch-screen system. Out back, there's quite a high lip to lump your packages over, but once you do, there's a generous 470-litres on offer and a standard split-folding rear bench. If that's not enough, talk to your dealer about the CLA-Class Shooting Brake estate.
Market and Model
Though CLA-Class pricing starts at around £25,000 for the base 1.6-litre petrol version, you'll pay from around £30,000 for the automatic CLA 220 CDI diesel we tried, with a £2,200 premium to pay if you want to graduate up from the entry-level Sport variant to the stiffer, more dynamic-looking AMG Sport model. This being Mercedes, you know that a lot of work has gone into the CLA's safety systems. It features as standard a radar-based collision warning set-up. Working with adaptive Brake Assist, which lowers the risk of rear-end collisions, the Collision Prevention Assist system gives a visual and acoustic warning to alert a distracted driver to identified obstacles and prepares Brake Assist for the most precise braking response possible. This is initiated as soon as the driver steps firmly on the brake pedal. The Pre-Safe preventive occupant protection system comprises reversible belt tensioning, the closing of side windows and sliding sunroof and adjustment of the fully electric front passenger seat. Other features fitted as standard include Attention Assist, which monitors the duration and style of your driving and makes recommendations when you may well be driving in a fatigued state, Brake Hold function and Hill Start Assist. Options include Blind Spot Assist, Lane Keeping Assist, Speed Limit Assist, Active Parking Assist and a reversing camera.
Cost of Ownership
You'd expect the world's most aerodynamic production car to deliver an ultra-competitive set of running costs, especially given that all the engines on offer feature direct injection and turbocharging, plus an ECO start/stop system that cuts the engine when you don't need it, stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights. Further efficiency measures include an economy setting for the automatic gearbox, intelligent management of engine ancillaries like the alternator, the oil feed and the water pump, a display to encourage more economical driving, low rolling resistance tyres, an adjustable radiator shutter and a CAMTRONIC load management system for the petrol 1.6 that reduces throttling loses under partial load, this alone improving fuel consumption by up to 10%. As a result, providing you use the 'Economy' mode on its 7G-DCT seven-speed auto gearbox, the CLA 220d model returns around 65mpg on the combined cycle and as little as 104g/km. This enables it to post a BIK company car taxation rate of just 18%. And residuals will be strong, providing you don't go mad on the options list. As you'd expect, the Mercedes after-care package is comprehensive, with a three-year unlimited mileage warranty and a Service Care package that spreads the cost of routine servicing, guaranteeing the price of parts and labour for up to four services and covering the cost of all recommended service items such as brake fluid, spark plugs, air filters, fuel filters and screen wash. The insurance groupings for this variant is 28.
Mercedes is on a roll right now. Cars like the A-Class, the SL, the CLS and the CLA demonstrate that it's calling the shots amongst the big German marques, with the others doing their best to keep pace. The CLA is an interesting case, aiming to show that rear-wheel drive is not an attribute that the mass-market needs in a car of this type. Older drivers may struggle with that one, but the Generation-Y customers that Mercedes is targeting won't take issue and they'll especially like the CLA 220d variant we've been looking at here. So it's fair to say that this CLA is a hugely significant development for the brand. It is, in some ways, a new era for Mercedes saloon cars. It opens a big revenue stream and frees the C-Class to be a bit bigger and more luxurious. As one Mercedes Executive VP noted, "We aim to reach new target groups with the CLA - including those who never intended driving a Mercedes." So what does that leave us with? The most significant Mercedes model of the last fifteen years? That might very well be the case.