ACCORDING to Mercedes, the new CLA compact saloon-coupe is carving out a new niche in the motoring world. How many times have we heard that in the last few years?
It’s the latest in what has been a fairly long line of saloons that have been squashed a bit and turned into coupes that aren’t really coupes but look like coupes and suffer a few of the same impracticalities.
Why do they bother? It makes a bit more sense than you might think.
For many car enthusiasts the coupe shape epitomises their idea of the perfect car. It’s sporty, sleek, svelte and many other superlatives - but often with the down-side of having small boots, useless rear seats and only one set of doors.
These saloon-coupe mash-ups, which I wish someone would invent a name for, are designed to offer the looks, style and sporting appeal of a coupe but with the practicality of a saloon.
Volkswagen has done it with the Passat CC, BMW has made a bit of a pig’s ear of it and Audi has also been in on the act.
Mercedes pulled off the trick rather well with its CLS and this new CLA follows the same philosophy but, for the first time, on a smaller scale.
I like to think of it as the love-child of Merc’s A Class hatch back and the forthcoming C Class saloon.
Either way, it’s a bit lovely.
Looked at from the front three-quarter view, that huge front grille gives the nose an intimidating look and the rest of the car seems to slope away to a taper at the rear.
That’s actually very deliberate because the CLA has the lowest drag drag coefficient of any production car. Or, in English, it has the best aerodynamics on the current market.
The sculpted sides and tapering lines of the rear end all add into the mix in a way that beautifully blends aerodynamic function with visual form. Looks-wise, the CLA is a real triumph.
It’s also a bit lovely inside. Open the pillar-less doors and one of the first things you’ll be struck by is the simplicity of the fuss-free cabin.
Make no mistake, this is an overtly sporty car in every sense. If you want a luxury grand tourer look elsewhere.
Comfortable sports seats are standard across the range and the layout is very much driver-focused with a great steering wheel, low driving position, big, bold dials and stunning mood lighting.
It’s not without its practicalities though. Merc’s COMAND infotainment system is available, albeit on quite a small screen that follows the current style of mimicking an iPad floating from the dash.
All models have self-park, too, which is a good thing because the Mercedes system works really well and isn’t as fiddly to activate as it is on some of its rivals.
In the current line up, the engines come in petrol or diesel flavours, with the slightly over-worked 1.8 litre petrol unit in the 180 overshadowed by what I think is the pick of the bunch, the 2.2 diesel lump in the 220 model.
What it lacks in refinement, it makes up for in character and punch.
Mated to the seven-speed auto box it has a willingness that isn’t normally found in a diesel. I think this is helped along by the short ratios in the paddle-shift gearbox.
The first three gears are dispatched in the blink of an eye. It shifts through them so quickly that, in manual mode, you’ll struggle to change up a gear before the car hits its panic button and intervenes when you’re accelerating hard.
It’ll also change down on your behalf if it thinks you’re not paying attention and that’s all well and good but the other two settings - eco and sport - never seem to get the ratios right either.
It’s a shame because the gearbox is one of few complaints I have about the CLA.
Even the extremely firm suspension on the AMG Sport model I’ve been testing is easy enough to live with.
An acquired taste, perhaps, but as I’ve said before, this is not a car you’d be buying if you prefer your ride to be cosseting and plush.
It handles pretty well, considering it’s a front wheel drive saloon and the steering is fairly direct and well-weighted. Oh, and the brakes are terrific.
That firm suspension offers plenty of feel and the grip is superb.
The front wheels handle the 170bhp and 350nm of torque very well and, if you can get the gearbox to settle down, you can have a lot of fun in the bends.
While you’re having all this fun, you needn’t worry about watching the fuel gauge visibly diminish towards empty because, certainly in the case of the 220, fuel economy is superb. Mercedes claims it’s good for 62.8mpg and, while I didn’t quite manage this in the real world I struggled to coax it out of the low-50s. And tha’ts really impressive.
Equally impressive is the emissions which, helped along by stop/start, can come in as low as 117g/km which is excellent for such a sports-focused car.
The interior is light and airy and, true to form with this style of car, the legroom in the rear has been preserved in its transition from saloon to coupe (or hatch back to coupe, or whatever has actually happened in this case).
The swooping roof-line might mean there’s a bit less headroom in the back but that is often a problem with coupe-saloon hybrids and two average-sized adults will not feel claustrophobic by any means.
The boot is a good size, with a decent opening, and the tailgate opens remotely on a key-mounted button.
While there’s nothing to really dislike about the CLA I do wonder, on the whole, what there is to really like. It is beautiful but the A Class is by no means ugly. It’s sporty and surprisingly practical - but so is the C Class, in the right spec.
It’s priced quite well and I guess you could argue it fills a new niche, but ultimately it’s a car for people who value looks over pretty much anything else.
Its looks will appeal to many people but I can’t help wondering if the gap in the market Mercedes is relying on is actually big enough.