Eyes down for the next roll of the dice in the great “baby Mercedes” game, the CLA coupé - except in this case the dice are loaded. While the innovative A-class series was launched in 1997, subsequent generations of more conventional models became such a sure-fire hit you wonder why Mercedes didn’t think of it before.
There will be eight models in the new A-class series. Mercedes is being gnomic, but we think it will consist of two saloons long and short, a hatchback, an SUV, the B-class multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) and a crossover coupé, together with this four-door coupé and a handsome shooting brake glimpsed at the Geneva motor show last month.
The coupé is a big change from its predecessor’s heavily creased, cut and sliced bodywork. In fact the panels are so straightforward it looks as though it’s been ironed. Mercedes design is almost proud of this volte face, saying that this new maturity in design reflects the way the car is perceived in the market now.
Well OK, but actually it's a good looking if not an outstanding piece of the design, partly because it stops short of being dramatic in almost every area. That almost-but-not-quite shark nose for example, or the lengthened, but not long enough, bonnet. In spite of being longer, wider and lower than the outgoing model, it’s also 15kg lighter.
Don’t mention the fact that this is a) a predominantly front-wheel-drive Mercedes and b) this car shares engines and transmissions with Renault, even if they do get unspecified changes on the production line and a more rigorous testing regime.
This is a dangerous game indeed. Naturally the new breed of Mercedes customers might only look at the monthly lease payments, but if you commodify the product to this extent, where is the deep-seated loyalty which keeps customers coming back time after time? This dilemma seemed to bother old Mercedes management far more than it does the incoming generation of Merc super-bosses.
So the initially all-petrol range starts at £30,550 for a 134bhp/147lb ft, 1.4-litre CLA 180 rising upwards through a 160bhp/184lb ft version of the same engine in the 200 model which starts at £31,875. The 187bhp/221lb ft 2.0-litre petrol is where things start getting a bit more fruity, with prices starting at £32,865. There’s a four-wheel-drive version of the same car at £34,465 and the top model is a 221bhp/258lb ft version of the same engine in the front-drive CLA 250, which costs £33,650.
Remember, though, that these are starting prices in base AMG Line trim. At this base (but pricey) level, the CLA is well specified with a 10.25in touchscreen and satnav, heated seats, keyless starting, DAB radio with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, leather upholstery, active lane keeping assist and speed limit assist.
Adding AMG Premium adds another £1,495 and includes extras such as a better class of touchscreen and user interface.
Fork out almost £3,000 over base for AMG Premium Plus trim and you get a panoramic sunroof, LED headlights, high-beam assistant and memory seats. In addition you can select the £1,495 Driver Assistance package, which includes active blind spot monitoring, plus all the latest safety systems with automatic braking and cross traffic alert.
While you can debate the extent of ‘premiumness’ in the drivetrain and chassis, there’s little doubting the quality of cabin design and material choice, at least in that which you see and touch. Signs of decontenting can be felt in the edges of the door bins, the lack of passenger or roof grab handles. The double instrument binnacle-cum-centre screen is a work of art, though, with the best graphics in the business. There are real leather panels, proper stitching and comfortable and supportive seats. In the back, a six footer can just about sit behind him or herself though while two adults will be comfortable, three will be an over-intimate squeeze. The boot displaces 460 litres, more than big enough for four adults’ luggage.
What a shame, however, that Mercedes-Benz has dropped its capstan control for the centre screen. The touch-pad replacement is about as good as they get, which isn’t very good at all. There's also a highly irritating safety lane-keeping steering system on the cars we drove which shied away from all white lines whether you wanted it or not, and at one point actually swerved us back into the opposite lane when we were returning to our own lane after an overtake. You can turn it off, but stop the car and it is switched back on - for an alert driver I remain to be fully convinced of the road safety benefits of this system.
Under the skin this is a top-spec A-Class chassis; MacPherson front struts with an independent multi-link rear. No sign of the noisy and less sophisticated torsion-beam rear axle in low spec A-class saloons and hatchbacks. The coupé also has the widest track in the A-class range (though the shooting break will share the coupé's underpinnings and track).
We drove three engines. The 2.0-litre in 4x4 form gives brisk performance but has to be pushed hard so there's a fair bit of induction roar in the cabin and it kyboshes the fuel economy; we reduced the WLTP figures of 36.7-40.4mpg, to just 24.6mpg. The 250 version of the same 4x4 driveline is less frantic, with a better balance of torque and power. Driven similarly it delivered 27.4mpg, though strangely Mercedes UK won't import this engine as a 4x4.
Best by far was the 2.0-litre diesel, which is absolutely class leading. In front-drive form this transverse mounted unit gathers revs smartly, has a lovely but muted note, suits the eight-speed transmission much better than the Getrag seven speed in the petrol cars and delivered 37.6mpg. Oh and it has a second selective catalyst reduction unit under the floor, which allows it to pass the fiendishly stiff forthcoming WLTP D tests.
The ride on all the cars is good, compliant and comfortable even on the 19-inch rims fitted to the test cars. The handling is competent, but curiously inert. It turns in to corners well and grips neutrally through the turns, but the steering feels lifeless, especially just off the centre. The electronic assistance verges on the over light but it's accurate and easy to place the nose in a corner. In that respect the front-driven diesel was better than the 4x4 cars, with a more responsive front end, a healthy neutrality to the cornering attitude and just more information to the wheel rim. The brakes on all the cars are nicely progressive at first, but at low speed they grab at the discs and it takes judgment to come to a stop smoothly. Similarly the stop-start system, together with the seven-speed's abrupt clutch take up, makes shunting in traffic more like pogoing down in the mosh pit.
Most owners will see a fine-looking and commodious coupé in their drive, which is refined and reasonably economical to finance and run. The CLA coupé lacks the keen edge of rivals such as the BMW 2-series or Jaguar XE, however, and that’s a shame as you can’t help feeling that a couple more months on the test track would have honed it into a commensurately more focussed machine.
*Lease price from list price shown in the article is correct as of 02/05/2019 and are based on 9months initial payment upfront. Prices exclude VAT and are subject to change. Ts and Cs and Arrangement Fees apply.
Mercedes-Benz CLA 220 4Matic – facts and specifications
TESTED1,991cc four-cylinder turbo petrol, seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox, four-wheel drive
PRICE/ON SALE range from £30,550 to £37,455 (as tested £38,950)/now for first deliveries in the summer
POWER/TORQUE 187bhp @ 5,500rpm, 221lb ft @ 1,800rpm
TOP SPEED 147mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 7.0sec
FUEL ECONOMY Combined WLTP 36.7mpg. On test 24.6mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS 149g/km (NEDC, 18in wheels)
VED £210 first year, then £145
VERDICT A good-looking, family-sized coupé with few rivals, a terrific interior and a properly premium badge. The CLA will sell well, but it’s expensive once you’ve specified a “proper” Mercedes engine. Also there are more focussed, if less practical, machines in the market.
TELEGRAPH RATING Four stars out of five
Mercedes-Benz CLA 220 4Matic – main rivals
BMW 2-series, from £25,060
A two-door coupé based on the 1-series and smaller than the CLA. Looks great, but clearly it isn’t going to be as practical as the Merc. The six-cylinder models are punchy and terrific to drive, the four-cylinders aren’t as good but you save at the pumps.
Jaguar XE, from about £34,000 (TBC)
With its limited rear accommodation and heavily curved roofline, the XE is as much a coupé as it is a saloon, while its rear-wheel-drive chassis is the toast of the class on British roads. Improved sound-deadening on the very latest, facelfted version largely cures the issue of noise from the punchy engines.