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Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - CLA - range

Our Opinion

We like
Wonderful AMG turbo engine, eye-catching style, well equipped, AMG’s superb AWD system
Room for improvement
Price premium over A-Class, poor rear headroom, firm ride, unergonomic gear-shifter

8 Oct 2013

THE latest car spun off Benz’s modular MFA front- and all-wheel-drive compact platform, the CLA, is aimed firmly at first-time Mercedes buyers, just like its A-Class sibling.

The pitch is a simple one: take an A-Class platform, cloak it in a swooping, coupe-like sedan bodyshell destined to turn heads, and add around $10,000 to the sticker price.

Yes, the CLA weighs in with a few extra features, but by-and-large it’s a styling exercise.

But Mercedes already knows this, and knows equally that a large swathe of the well-paid populace will see a $50k Mercedes sedan, or an $87k borderline-supercar by AMG, and say: “Pow! Sign me up.” For while the A-Class has natural rivals - the BMW 1 Series and Audi A3 chief among them - the CLA is in many ways a car all on its own. For now, anyway.

In time, the local range will consist of four variants with four engine choices, though the staggered launch sequence limits us here just two: the entry CLA 200 petrol and the hardcore AMG 45 turbo petrol.

Reviews of the CLA 200 diesel and 250 Sport petrol will come when those models launch in the first half of 2014.

Our first spin came in the entry car, so let’s kick off there.

The starting price is a juicy $49,900 plus on-road costs, pitching it smack-bang between the A-Class and the more old-school C-Class - which is both shorter and narrower than the CLA, albeit blessed with more headroom in the rear.

Still, at this level one can’t forget its $9000 premium over the A-Class, which aside from a lack of higher-grade sat-nav software and Blind-Spot Assist, is the same car in a more practical body.

Given the swooping design, it’s natural to expect a shortage of rear headroom in the CLA, something Benz is all too happy to admit. But then, how many of these will you ever see with more than two passengers? The cabin is all A-Class, with a few hard plastics low on the fascia and the odd seatbelt rattle the only real issues in what is otherwise a well-presented and equipped cabin.

No poverty pack, this, with even entry versions getting 18-inch alloys, bi-Xenon headlights, sat-nav, a reversing camera, nine airbags, brakes that ready for a crash and climate control, to name but a few.

But let’s once again address what has become a serious bugbear for us: Mercedes’ fondness for an indicator-mimicking column-shift gear stalk.

Before our CLA drive, we hopped out of a locally made car with an indicator stalk on the right side of the column, and habitually reached for it to turn in the Benz. As with most European cars, the stalk is on the other side of the column, which in most cases isn’t a big deal - you’ll just activate the wipers instead.

But, in the case of the CLA (and the A- and B-Class), you instead knock the car into neutral. On a freeway. When merging. Mercedes might well say the owners adapt, but ergonomics should apply to people hopping into a car for the first time as well.

It’s gotta go.

Dynamically, the CLA is a gas. Front-drive it may be, but it’s poised, balanced and blessed with a wonderfully stiff chassis and sharp electric steering. Only the borderline-firm ride caused us to quibble, especially on our lowered Edition One version (an extra $4990).

Enter, the A45 AMG.

We drove the A-Class version at Phillip Island recently, and could barely contain our enthusiasm for what is perhaps the most exciting engine in the world right now.

With 265kW and 450Nm from just 2.0 litres of turbocharged four-cylinder, the powertrain sets new benchmarks. In the CLA, it gets even sharper packaging.

Zero to 100km/h in 4.6 seconds and fuel use of 7.0 litres per 100km in an $86,990, all-wheel-drive German sportscar? Who’d have thought that?Realistically, it’s not worth the $12,000 spend over the A45, but its presence and unique styling - CLS-lite with 19-inch multi-spoke alloys and an exhaust crackle transported straight from hell - will put it on a lot of shopping lists.

As with the A, the CLA has an uncanny knack of laying its power down, via a front-biased AWD system that send up to 50 per cent of engine torque to the rear hoops when called upon.

There’s a veritable avalanche of power on tap, with a linear torque curve that makes it feel like an engine with twice the cylinders it has. And when AMG says the engine is hand-built in Hungary, it means it. One set of hands takes it from forged block to finished product.

The AWD setup lacks the zany edge of a BMW M Car, but on a wet alpine road we know which one we’d prefer to pilot. The relaxed stability control system gives you enough slack to have a proper go, as well. Rather flattering of the driver, too.

The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission misses the odd change-point, but the mountain of torque covers it. It’s more noticeable in the CLA 200, where we noticed a propensity to hold a low gear around town.

We used the paddle shifters and found them to be the best bet. There’s the added bonus of a shotgun blast emanating from the exhaust on every upshift.

Logically, then, it’s hard to quantify the CLA’s premium over the A-Class hatch. But there’s no ignoring that it’s still a ferociously talented and well-resolved sports sedan with a price bound to stretch Benz’s brand appeal.

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