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Car reviews - Mercedes-Benz - CLC-Class - coupe range

Our Opinion

We like
Value for money, modern styling, improved interior, ride quality, variable ratio steering, rear seat access
Room for improvement
Sluggish automatic transmission, performance, road noise, rear seat headroom

13 Aug 2008

VALUE is a relative term, so let’s just say that the new Mercedes-Benz CLC is a relative bargain, with prices starting at ‘just’ $49,900.

Mercedes’ latest entry-level sports coupe may look like it is based on the new and impressive C-class, but it is actually a heavily revised version of the previous model – which dates back to 2001 – and therefore benefits from the development costs being well and truly amortised over time.

You consequently get a thoroughly modern-looking 2+2 coupe for around $8000 less than the outgoing model when compared on a feature-by-feature basis. Mercedes-Benz does not like terms such as cheap and bargain, but even they admit that this represents quite a deal.

Prices for the previous model – which was discontinued early this year – started $2390 higher, but that was with the six-speed manual gearbox that nobody wanted (the auto cost an extra $3100) and with a comparatively pathetic engine that produced just 105kW compared with the new car’s 135kW.

Looking at the mid-range CLC200 Kompressor Evolution, it is now priced at $53,900 with a standard auto transmission whereas the comparable previous model (called the C200K Sports Coupe) with an auto was $62,490. That’s a saving of $8590 straight up – and with the new version you get Mercedes’ new ‘Direct-steer’ variable ratio steering rack among numerous extra features and improvements.

And if you think that the old chassis makes this a second-rate car, then think again. Even decade-old Benz technology is better than most and results in a classy drive. It may not be in the same league as the superb new C-class, but the work the engineers have put into the CLC means it is nevertheless quite impressive.

Where the CLC falls down most badly is with the automatic transmission, which is not only the old five-speed unit (instead of the latest seven-speed) but lacks the crisp and responsive changes we would expect in a sports coupe.

Even in Sport mode, the CLC gearchanges were rather slow and slidey on the upchanges and lazy responding to kickdown, and it was really no better when using the manual mode (which rather defeats the purpose of having racing car-style steering wheel paddles).

And what is the point of a manual mode anyway when the darn thing changes up by itself? When one elects to leave it hanging in second gear because you’re about to tip into another corner, even if it is near the redline, you don’t want the transmission suddenly dropping into third all on its own. If you did, you’d have left it in auto in the first place. Seriously, what’s the point?

Starting with the base model on the media preview drive around Canberra, we were quite content with the overall driving dynamics and felt that the obvious chassis upgrades had succeeded in masking the age of the platform.

There was a bit of road noise coming in from the rear, which you expect from a hatchback, but there was no wind noise and the ride was very good. The suspension had no trouble absorbing road irregularities without unsettling the handling mid-corner let alone the occupants.

As far as the steering goes, the standard speed-sensitive power steering was acceptable, but stepping into the mid-spec CLC200K Evolution was something of a revelation with an instantly notable improvement in feel and response from the variable-ratio direct-steer system. Mercedes is spot on when it claims the system responds more quickly and improves handling and agility on winding country roads.

At this stage there is only one engine offered in the CLC range – the 1.8-litre four-cylinder supercharged unit from the previous line-up but which now produces 15kW more power (135kW) and 10Nm more torque (250Nm).

The supercharged (‘kompressor’ in German) engine feels agile enough around town, but made us yearn for a bit more grunt out on the open road, especially in the hills. No doubt a more lively transmission would have helped.

Benz has discontinued the 2.5-litre and 3.2-litre V6 models in Australia because they simply didn’t sell and, although the extra power would be welcome, the bigger engine also brings a weight penalty and alters the chassis balance.

Even the base model’s interior is very comfortable, with supportive but not overly hard seats, but of course we did not get much chance to fully experience the new and improved infotainment systems. That will have to wait for a full test.

The steering wheel is the usual modern Mercedes style, as are all the excellent controls and switchgear, while the Evolution gets an overall interior upgrade, but still not electric seats, unfortunately.

You have to spend another $5000 and go to the Evolution + model to get electric seats, but then you also get a nice woodgrain centre console, handy power steering column adjustment and a fancy double electric sunroof (if that’s your thing).

Getting into the rear seat is reasonably easy thanks to the single-lever release for the front seats – which slide, raise and tilt for maximum access and then return to their pre-set position – and there is a surprising amount of legroom and footroom once you get in there, making it surprisingly comfortable.

The biggest compromises for the rear seat passengers, as you might expect, are the available headroom, which will present a problem for very tall or long-bodied people, and a high waist that means there’s not much of a view out, so it could feel a bit claustrophobic if you’re that way inclined.

The new CLC will not win any awards, but as a value proposition it is hard to go past and represents a lot of car and a lot of presence for the money. It is no new-generation C-class, despite looking like one, but does not have the degree of dynamic compromise that you might expect.

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