Can Mercedes-Benz's closely related A-Class Sedan and CLA peacefully co-exist or are some toes being trodden on?
While it has a product portfolio with a breadth few manufacturers can match, Mercedes-Benz is adamant in covering every conceivable base to ensure potential buyers don’t slip through the net and into the showrooms of its rivals. In a cutthroat automotive industry, where missing a trick will see you lagging behind with sometimes disastrous consequences, it’s a sound enough strategy, but sometimes things can get a little too close for comfort. Take these two Mercedes-Benz models.
Here, the A-Class Sedan serves as a stylish bridge between the entry-level A-/B-Class midsize hatchbacks and the C-Class divide. It’s destined to net those for whom the C-Class holds great appeal but falls just out of their means. At the time of writing, the entry-level A200 Sedan sat almost R80 000 south of the C180 and was just over R100 000 cheaper than the C200. The CLA goes one further, offering those same aspirant customers a whiff of the CLS experience at a fraction of the price. Under the skin they are closely related, so Mercedes has sewn in some differences to keep them respectable, but are those distinctions enough to give one of them the edge?
Cut from the same cloth...
Both the A Sedan and CLA are spun off the same MFA2 modular compact platform that underpins the A-Class hatch. Peel away their bodywork and the bare bones of these two cars are barely discernable from one another. Both feature the same 1,3-litre turbopetrol four-cylinder feeding the front wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and their silhouettes overlap a few millimetres. With a length of 4 549 mm and a 1 796 mm span between the mirrors, the Sedan is 137 mm shorter but, interestingly, only a hair narrower than the C-Class. In both cars, the 2 729 mm wheelbase is 111 mm shorter than the C’s.
There’s also little to separate the two cars when it comes to packaging. The slimmer backs of the CLA’s sportier seats lend it 39 mm additional rear legroom over the Sedan, but the more sharply raked C-pillar robs the rear occupants of some headroom. Both cars’ boots are accessed by fairly narrow apertures but are generously proportioned, with the CLA’s slightly deeper luggage bay serving up 312 litres of load space versus the Sedan’s 296 litres. Folding the rear seats turns the tables back in the Sedan’s favour, though, its 912 litres of utility space besting the CLA’s by 80 litres.
Things begin to meaningfully diverge only when it comes to their respective suspension setups, the Sedan mirroring the hatch’s standard-fitment MacPherson strut front-torsion beam rear arrangement, while the CLA adopts a multilink system aft (that’s optional on the three-box). As befits its swoopy styling, the CLA’s drivetrain has been given a slightly sportier bent than that of the Sedan – in the case of our test unit, the optional adaptive dampers have been added to the mix – but more on that later.
...But differently attired
The design ethos behind Mercedes-Benz’s sedan offerings has begun to take on a bit of a cookie-cutter formula, with the resemblance between the C-, E- and S-Class beginning to bleed into one another, so given their many similarities, it’s understandable Mercedes-Benz would want to distance the Sedan and CLA from one another in terms of their designs. While they are distinctive, the treatments doled out to these cars remain clearly from the same family. With its CL prefix, the CLA’s tail-end resemblance to the CLS, shallower parabola of a roofline and frameless doors are the most obvious familial traits. Its snout is graceful and tastefully executed, where the Sedan is more edgily wrought. Either way, you’re looking at a pair of stylishly executed cars with the sort of visual cachet that will generate plenty of attention.
Barring some trim accents and patinas, their interior architectures are pretty much identical. As with the related hatch, their respective dashboards, with those eyeball air vents and broad trim swathe looping behind the digital instrument binnacle and MBUX display (both cars here feature the optional 10,25-inch TFT screen system with extended functionality, but this CLA retains the smaller instrumentation unit) are a bold and sporty design. They look especially theatrical with the optional 64-colour ambient lighting pack illuminating the seams. Material quality is largely of a good standard but the odd bit of thin, fingerprint-prone shiny plastic is in evidence. That said, this well-used CLA test unit felt impressively solid even with a five-figure odo reading.
Ergonomically, both cars are well resolved. Finding a comfy, low-slung stance behind the wheel is a cinch and both the standard and sportier seats in the Sedan and CLA, respectively, do a good job of supporting and bolstering where need be. Similarly, there’s plenty of adjustment for the steering column and the leather-wrapped steering wheels in both cars are satisfyingly moulded. The only potential ergonomic criticism that can be levelled at these cars is the cramped drivers’ side footwell with narrow spacing between the pedal boots which makes things awkward for folks with broader feet.
Same engine, different demeanours
Both cars are powered by the Daimler and Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi co-developed M282 1,3-litre, four-cylinder all-aluminium block turbopetrol engine. Developing 120 kW and 250 N.m, the unit’s output per litre is some 25 percent up on that of the 1,6-litre engine that powered the previous entry-level models and with a weight difference of just 53 kg, there’s little to separate the Sedan and CLA performance-wise.
While it’s no ball of fire, the engine feels punchy in-gear and manages to set both cars off the line in a shade over nine seconds. The powertrain also gels well with the dual-clutch transmission and doesn’t fall foul of the occasional low-speed lumpiness that sometimes afflicts such units when coupled with a relatively small engine.
In most driving scenarios, the 1,3-litre unit sounds and feels mechanically refined, but it does tend to exhibit some noticeable raspiness when pinning the throttle. This spot of harshness is, however, drowned out by a surprising amount of tyre roar that permeates both car’s cabins – especially the CLA’s – at motorway speeds.
But while it may not be the last word in refinement, it is a clever and frugal little engine. The M282 is the first four-cylinder engine in the Mercedes-Benz stable to feature cylinder deactivation.
Under partial load in the 1 250-3 800 r/min rev range, the system shuts down the intake and exhaust valves of the second and third cylinders. Its operation is almost impossible to discern thanks to the adoption of an electronically controlled wastegate on the turbocharger that adjusts boost-pressure gas flow to best feed the engine according to the number of cylinders brought into play. The Sedan and CLA returned impressive consumption figures of 5,8 and 5,5 L/100 km on our mixed-use fuel route, respectively. Their 124 g/km CO2 outputs also mean they barely set a toe over the 120 g/km emissions tax threshold.
With virtually nothing to separate them in the powerplant stakes, as mentioned, Benz has turned to model-specific drivetrain setups to give each car its own character. The Sedan’s MacPherson strut front/torsion beam rear suspension can be had in two flavours as standard. The comfort setup, with softer springs and more gradual dampers, is the default, while a 15 mm lower and more firmly sprung sport spin-off can be specified. Although our test unit wore the softer option, the ride proved disappointingly unsettled with some noticeable damper rebound filtering into the cabin over even moderately rippled road surfaces.
Driven in a leisurely fashion, the Sedan is tractable enough, with steering that’s light and body roll moderate. It just doesn’t quite feel as balanced or composed as you’d expect from something with the Three-pointed Star on its snout.
But where the Sedan starts to falter, the CLA ably steps up. Utilising a multilink rear suspension setup, the four-door coupé proves a more fluid and settled drive than its relative. The harshness that mars the Sedan’s driving manners is ironed out and, while the nuances between the presets on our test unit’s optional adaptive damping system aren’t as defined as you’d expect, this day-and-night difference to cars both rolling on identical wheel/tyre combinations speaks volumes for the CLA’s more balanced setup.
In addition to its more high-tech rear-suspension arrangement, the CLA also features Mercedes’ Direct Steer power steering setup. This system is an evolution of the speed-sensitive rack that featured on some of the firm’s sportier offerings, such as the SLC. In the CLA, Direct Steer uses variable-ratio gearing that lightens steering weight around dead centre at lower speeds, with the ratio increasing in relation to steering angle.
It may be an artificial weighting system, but allied as it is with a more resolved suspension setup, it makes the CLA feel more direct and responsive than the comparatively uninvolving Sedan.
Both borrow tech from their bigger brothers
The trend for manufacturers to shoehorn big-car technologies into their smaller models is very much apparent in both these cars. Both test units were outfitted with the optional Driving Assistance Package, which ushers in adaptive cruise control and lane-departure mitigation among others. The former works well, the calibration of its braking and acceleration actions are smooth and natural in their execution. The lane-departure mitigation system is a different matter. A number of the CAR team were caught off guard by the system’s abrupt directional-correcting measures, which tended to yank rather than ease the car back into its lane. The optional 360-degree camera system is another big-car item that may seem superfluous in cars this size but proved handy in light of their low seating position and narrow glasshouses.
You get what you pay for
As is often the case with German premium midsize cars, the level of standard specification is rather modest. The standard-fitment likes of cloth/synthetic leather upholstery, cruise control, auto lights, climate control and the MBUX infotainment system with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionality are welcome but there are odd omissions. Seeing auto-dimming rear-view mirrors and keyless entry and ignition relegated to the options list is rather disappointing. This is especially the case with the CLA, whose premium placement over the Sedan should see such items migrate to the standard features list, along with the suitably upmarket and slick-looking 10,25-inch upgraded MBUX screen. Opting for those particular extras adds R24 000 to their asking prices, and it’s not difficult to get carried away when ticking the options boxes on the model configurator.
Appraising such similar products is an exercise pregnant with questions surrounding their purpose, and this is especially the case when taking in the Sedan and CLA. Mercedes-Benz pitches the former as a stepping stone purchase that will attract those aspiring to the C-Class but falling just short on budget and garage space. Similarly, the CLA plays the more affordable, micronised CLS card. But when taking in their packaging and capabilities, there’s enough overlap here to viably raise the question as to whether we’re looking at a case of two cars occupying a one-car niche.
To that end, it would be the CLA we’d more willingly lean towards. Subjectively, it wears its sweeping four-door coupé shell more strikingly than its stylish but comparatively conservative relative. From behind the wheel, the adoption of a better resolved suspension setup and steering that’s direct and involving make it feel more balanced and upmarket. We do, however, feel that some additional standard niceties would further justify its premium placement above the otherwise all but identically specced Sedan.
ROAD TEST SCORE