It’s a dream machine. The first time I spotted a Benz CLA was as when it posed in the departures hall of Brussels airport. It was months before the stylish premium compact sedan was introduced to the South African market and I’d be the first to admit that viewing the baby Benz evoked fantasies of a vibrant, beautiful couple cruising through the lush winelands to have a spot of lunch before taking the long way home to their trendy pad for a soft-lit evening serenaded by smooth tunes.
And sure enough, clad in a sophisticated black suit replete with that marvelously ornate needle-cushion grille, the CLA220 CDI drew admiring glances, let alone mesmerized gawks, from the South African public during its tenure in CAR’s test fleet. If Mercedes-Benz sought to capture the imagination of the bourgeoisie with the svelte four-door coupe rendition of its successful A-Class it has succeeded admirably. The well-received A-Class may not have wrested the best compact hatchback mantle from the Volkswagen Group’s MQB-platformed twins – the Volkswagen Golf and Audi A3 – but the Mercedes and its CLA sibling are certainly the best looking products in their segment; and that, in an image-obsessed consumerist society, is quite a coup.
In the footsteps of giants
By premium compact sedan standards then, the CLA is currently without peer in terms of aesthetic value and sheer desirability, even if the A3 Sedan’s proportions are perfectly neat too. However, even if the pricetag of R413 500 (for the standard car) is no object, the CLA needs to satisfy a number of queries to succeed as an overall product – because there is a limit to brand cachet.
For a start, consumers that adore the A-Class for its blend of boutique looks with the practicality of a hatchback and driver-oriented driving experience will expect more of the CLA – just because it has a boot. For a buying public accustomed to the multiple competencies of the 190-series and its C-Class successors, which availed a sophisticated big Benz feel in compact, more-pocket friendly packages, a four-door sporting a three-pointed star needs to be a cut above the rest.
On the road
It takes a while to find a comfortable seating position in the CLA, but the electric adjustment specified in the test unit certainly helped. The 220’s 2,1-litre four cylinder turbodiesel is capable of producing 350 N.m of torque from 1 400 to 3 400 r/min and that allows the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission to remain much more settled in normal driving conditions than it does on the 1,6-litre petrol 180 and 200 models. Unfortunately, even though the diesel chatter is most noticeable at startup, it punctuates virtually every throttle input and detracts from the fact that the CDI is an ever-willing, flexible driving machine.
It’s a pity, because the CLA’s steering feel is pleasingly crisp and when a twisty, smooth piece of blacktop presents itself this metallic black Benz devoured the road with relish – the grippy front end inspires confidence and the heightened body control belies the sedan’s compact car underpinnings. The price you pay is a nervous ride quality over less than ideal surfaces (on those 18-inch run flat tyres), but the sportiness of the car – and the shortcomings associated with it – are to be expected.
Whereas I’d be inclined to forgive the CLA’s ride/handling imbalance and would turn up the volume of the audio system a bit for the sake of savouring the extra 100 N.m the less-than-silent turbodiesel offers over and above that of the 200 (there’s no 250 model, sorry folks), the biggest drawbacks of the model is that it feels like an hollow triumph of form over function. Instead of being the latest and greatest compact four-door Benz to emerge from Sindelfingen, it’s merely an A-Class in sharper attire – and that would be okay, if the levels of leg and headroom in the rear were not so severely limited. The boot capacity is perfectly acceptable if you can pack your luggage to fit a long, shallowish space, but when you close the lid… CLANG!
Forgive the onomatopoeia, but the CLA’s tinny bootlid is symptomatic of a car that just does not feel as classy as it looks. From a relative lack of standard equipment (manual aircon, for example) to the plasticky feel of the facia and its various adornments (our test vehicle exhibited a number of rattles and squeaks), the interior finish is middling… Perhaps it might be worth holding out for the new C-Class and foregoing the CLA’s marginal chic for more a substantial and practical interior, which the W205 promises to offer.
A dream is just a dream, or so the saying goes. Although guaranteed of sales success by virtue of its elegant, evocative exterior, let alone the allure of the Three Pointed Star, the CLA misses a trick. Instead of being a sporty sophisticate that makes the A-Class seem utilitarian and the C-Class a sop to practicality, this Benz is a bleary wake-up from an idle flight of fancy. Yes, it makes you look back before closing the garage door behind you, but surely it should take more than that to satisfy you.
Model: Mercedes-Benz CLA220 CDI
Engine: 2,1-litre, four cylinder turbodiesel
Power: 125 kW between 3 400 and 4 000 r/min
Torque: 350 N.m between 1 400 and 3 400 r/min
0-100 km/h: 8,2 seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 230 km/h (claimed)
Fuel consumption: 4,5 L/100 km (claimed)
CO2: 130 g/km
Price: R413 500 (standard model)
Maintenance plan: 6 years/100 000 km
Service intervals: determined by onboard computer
100-120 km/h: 3,4 seconds
120-140 km/h: 4,2 seconds
100-0 km/h: 3,12 seconds (average of 10 braking tests)
CAR fuel index: 5,4 L/100 km
CAR fuel run: 6,0 L/100 km