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Driven: Benz taps small-premium market with CLA

Sharp: The CLA is the world’s most aerodynamic car, and the AMG version seen here has the world’s current most powerful series production four-cylinder engine.

Mercedes-Benz’s compact car offensive continues with launch of new $50K CLA sedan

Mercedes-Benz logo8 Oct 2013

MERCEDES-BENZ Australia this week launched the third weapon in its “compact car offensive”, the CLA four-door coupe, with strong initial demand pushing the waiting list out to at least February next year.

As with the B-Class and revitalised A-Class before it, the CLA is charged with helping to reposition Mercedes in the eyes of customers, with the company working to lure entirely new buyers to the brand.

Hitting the market this week from $49,900 plus on-road costs for the entry CLA200 petrol, the Hungarian-built CLA sits between an equivalent A-Class and C-Class, although it shares mechanicals and largely similar equipment levels with its cheaper hatch cousin.

As with the A-Class, Mercedes’ local arm has fielded significant early interest on the car, with a waiting list on entry versions already out the February or March 2014, and customers keen on the manic $86,900 CLA45 AMG being told to wait until at least April.

According to Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific general manager of passenger sales Richard Emery, initial expressions of interest have been “not quite as strong” as with the A-Class, but the smaller volumes render the wait times broadly equivalent.

The launch line-up, which consists of the 200 petrol and 45 AMG, will be joined by the CLA200 CDI in February and the CLA250 in April, with the latter understood to be earmarked to account for significant volumes despite being a premium sports variant.

From a broader perspective, the third model spun-off Mercedes’ pervasive ‘MFA’ front-drive architecture, which also underpins the A- and B-Class hatchbacks, is primed to expand the company’s increasing control over Australia’s burgeoning small- and mid-sized premium markets.

The B-Class and A-Class, launched in April 2012 and February 2013 respectively, currently sit one-two in the ‘small car over $40,000’ segment to the end of September, with 2581 and 2328 sales apiece year-to-date.

Importantly, says Mercedes, around 75 per cent of A-Class buyers have been new to the brand, meaning the company is conquesting customers from other brands rather than losing sales from existing models to the newer offering within the same portfolio.

Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific managing director (car group) Horst von Sanden said this figure – and the similar figure projected for the CLA, despite some substitution – means the brand is achieving “true incremental business, and this is what we set out to do”.

Speaking with GoAuto at this week’s CLA launch, Mr von Sanden said the burgeoning compact range was helping to “reposition the brand”, as buyers who perhaps may never have pondered a three-pointed Star car begin to reconsider.

The next piece in Benz’s MFA-based small-vehicle barrage, the GLA crossover SUV, will emerge in Australia in the second quarter of next year, with rivals such as the Audi Q3 and BMW X1 cited as key targets.

Mr von Sanden said the arrival of the GLA will give the company a belated presence in an area of the market where it has been “starving for years, not allowed to participate”.

This year, without either the CLA or GLA, Benz has still overtaken arch-rival BMW in combined passenger and SUV sales, with 17,087 units total compared to 15,384, placing it on track to win luxury car market leadership for the first time since 2010.

With the two aforementioned new MFA-based, front-drive (or all-wheel-drive, depending on specification) body styles up and running, the company possesses the ammunition to sustain or grow this lead in 2014.

But in what is shaping up as a hotly contested battle, Audi will next year launch its own answer to the CLA, the first A3 sedan. BMW is also reportedly working on a next-generation front-drive 1 Series sedan (based on the ‘UKL’ architecture to be used on the new Mini), albeit for a launch around 2017.

As mentioned, kicking off proceedings in the CLA range is the CLA200, which shares its 115kW/250Nm 1.6-litre turbo-petrol engine with the A200. At $49,900 plus on-road costs, it is $9000 more than the A200, but $10,000 cheaper than the C200.

Standard features gained by the CLA, such as Backer maps and blind-spot warning, narrow its premium over the A-Class hatch considerably, though. Other standard features include automatic climate control, 18-inch alloy wheels and a reversing camera.

Power is sent to the front wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.

Fuel-saving features including an idle-stop system and the 0.23Cd aerodynamic styling (Benz says the CLA is the world’s most aerodynamic road car) keep fuel combined-cycle consumption to a claimed 5.7 litres per 100km, while 0-100km/h acceleration takes 8.6 seconds.

At the top of the food chain is the manic, all-wheel-drive CLA45 AMG, which harnesses the performance of the handmade (in Hungary) 265kW/450Nm 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine via a seven-speed automatic transmission.

At 4.6 seconds, the 0-100km/h sprint time pushes into serious performance car territory, while fuel consumption is kept to a remarkable 7.0L/100km.

In most conditions the AWD system is front-biased, but can split the torque evenly between the front and rear wheels in slippery situations. At a starting price of $86,900, it costs $12,000 more than the mechanically identical A45 AMG hatch.

All AMG versions will get a driver’s package that increases top speed to 270km/h, as well as 19-inch alloys, an AMG performance steering wheel, a Harmon Kardon surround sound system, and radar cruise control.

Both of these range ‘bookends’ reached Mercedes showrooms on October 1, with the CLA45 AMG arriving just one month after the A45 version.

Mercedes-Benz Australia has said it is not unreasonable to expect initial orders for the AMG to outstrip the base version. This extraordinary statistic reflects Australia’s lust for performance cars – per capita, we are the world’s largest AMG market.

Occupying the middle ground will be the CLA250 Sport premiered globally at last month’s Frankfurt motor show, which uses the same 2.0-litre turbo engine as the A250, with 155kW and 350Nm of torque, again sent to the front hoops via a seven-speed dual-clutch.

This engine sends the CLA250 from 0-100km/h in 6.7 seconds.

It will cost from $63,400, or $13,500 more than the A250 hot hatch. Sport production will commence later this year, meaning Australia will actually be one of the first markets to get the car.

The Sport is differentiated from the regular CLA250 by its AMG add-ons, diamond grille design, heated leather memory seats, adaptive headlights, AMG wheels, metallic pedals, firmer suspension and smaller steering wheel.

A diesel version, the 100kW/300Nm CLA200 CDI, will come to Australia in February priced from $50,490, $500 more than the identically specified CLA200 petrol.

Interestingly, the CLA is both longer and wider than the C-Class, though its raked roofline gives it less 37mm less rear-seat headroom.

2013 Mercedes-Benz CLA pricing*
CLA 200$49,900
CLA 200 CDI$50,400
CLA 250$63,400
CLA 45 AMG$86,900
*Excludes on-road costs.

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