The CLA-Class - a rather different kind of Mercedes. It's compact and coupe-like, yet has four doors and a large boot. And it'll set the neighbours talking far more than if you simply bought yet another small German-badged executive saloon. It's a model to challenge your preconceptions, that's for sure.
Never underestimate the power of emotional appeal. It's brought us cars like this one, the Mercedes CLA-Class, an effortlessly stylish compact saloon that brings a fashionable feel to the Stuttgart brand's growing family of smaller models. To fully understand it, you need to be familiar with the so-called 'four-door coupe' concept, pioneered by Mercedes back in 2004 with their CLS-Class model, the first example of this kind of car and a trendier alternative to their similarly-sized but much more conventional E-Class saloon. The CLS was a huge success - to the point where it seemed only a matter of time before this prestigious German brand extended the concept to offer the same kind of car as an alternative to its smaller, more affordable C-Class saloon. In fact, it took until the Spring of 2013 for them to do just that and launch this CLA-Class model. Want one? Then you'll be someone who likes the idea of buying a sporty, prestigiously-badged compact saloon but wants to make a bit more of a statement about doing it.
Mercedes markets this car as a 'sporty' alternative to its more conventional C-Class saloon. The CLA's sporty styling leads you to expect that. Though this car shares its chassis, steering and braking architecture with A and B-Class models, it does get its own suspension set-up, with various changes made to improve comfort and make it a bit less crashy over poorer surfaces. There's torque vectoring to help with the handling and 'Direct Steering' to sharpen things up at the helm (though it's still vaguer than we would like). At the top of the range is a fire-breathing CLA 45 AMG model with a 360bhp turbo petrol 2.0-litre engine and a four-wheel drive layout - quite a car. More conventional CLA-Class models are powered by engines borrowed from A and B-Class models. These include an entry-level 1.8-litre 136bhp CLA 200CDI diesel and a pokey 2.0-litre 211bhp CLA 250 petrol variant, the latter offered with and without 4MATIC 4WD. Here though, we're going to focus on the two mainstream engines that this car was launched with. First up is the 122bhp 1.6-litre petrol turbo that's mated to a 6-speed manual gearbox in the CLA 180, a willing unit that gets to 62mph in 9.3s en route to 130mph. If funds permit though, you'll probably prefer the CLA 220CDI diesel variant we tried. This gets a 170bhp 2.1-litre unit with nearly twice as much pulling power, so you're treated to a lot more get-up-and-go from low revs, with 62mph from rest taking 8.2s on the way to 143mph. It comes mated solely to a 7-speed 7G-DCT automatic transmission.
By any measure, this is a handsome car. Purposeful, with sporting proportions and a potent bonnet powerdome. Hi-tech too, with jewel-like LED daytime running lamps fashioned to create a flare effect around the diamond-shaped grille. It's not just about aesthetics either. The super-sleek drag factor of just 0.23Cd makes this not only the most aerodynamic Mercedes model to date but also the most aerodynamic production vehicle in the world. The cabin's virtually identical to that of an A-Class - which these days is a very good thing indeed. So you get the same deeply-cowled twin-dial instrument binnacle viewed through a lovely, grippy nappa leather-trimmed three-spoke multi-function steering wheel. There are the same five chrome-trimmed SLS supercar-style air vents decorating the dash. And you get the same iPad-style 5.8-inch free-standing infotainment screen stuck in the middle of it, controlled by a little rotary dial positioned where the handbrake would normally be if it hadn't been replaced by one of those fiddly electronic ones with a switch hidden away beneath the dash. As for back seat accommodation, well any car that describes itself as a 'four-door coupe' clearly isn't going to have this as a top priority and it is a bit cramped. Ultimately though, I don't think this'll be a deal-breaker for many buyers. Particularly as boot room is so spacious. There's quite a high lip to lump your packages over, but once you do, there's a generous 470-litres on offer and a standard split-folding rear bench. If that's not enough, talk to your dealer about the CLA-Class Shooting Brake estate.
Let's start with the facts. Expect to pay somewhere in the £25,000 to £30,000 bracket for mainstream petrol and diesel versions of this CLA-Class. We're going to focus here on the two models that will account for the majority of sales, the manual-only 122bhp CLA 180 petrol variant and the automatic-only 170bhp CLA 220CDI diesel. There's a £5,000 premium to go from one to the other. In each case, there's a choice of two different trim levels, entry-level 'Sport' and, for another £2,200, 'AMG Sport'. Talking of AMG, that only leaves the flagship CLA 45 AMG sports saloon variant - a different proposition entirely, priced at around the £42,000 mark. As for equipment, well even on base Sport models, the standard kit tally includes 18" alloy wheels, auto headlamps, heated power mirrors, air conditioning, a nappa leather-trimmed multi-function steering wheel, sports seats, a trip computer, Hill-Start Assist on manual models to stop you drifting backwards on uphill junctions and a decent quality six-speaker audio system with a 5.8-inch tablet-style display screen, aux-in and USB points and Bluetooth compatibility for your 'phone. There's even an Active Park Assist system that will identify potential spaces then, if you want, automatically steer the car into them.
You'd expect the world's most aerodynamic production car to deliver an ultra-competitive set of running costs, especially given that all the engines on offer feature direct injection and turbocharging, plus an ECO start/stop system that cuts the engine when you don't need it, stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights. Further efficiency measures include an economy setting for the automatic gearbox, intelligent management of engine ancillaries like the alternator, the oil feed and the water pump, a display to encourage more economical driving, low rolling resistance tyres, an adjustable radiator shutter and a CAMTRONIC load management system for the petrol 1.6 that reduces throttling loses under partial load, this alone improving fuel consumption by up to 10%. As a result, the entry-level manual gearbox CLA 180 can manage 50.4mpg on the combined fuel cycle with emissions of 130g/km. As for the CLA 220 CDI model, well providing you use the 'Economy' mode on the 7G-DCT seven-speed auto gearbox, you should get somewhere close to Mercedes' quoted figures - 62.8mpg on the combined cycle and 117g/km. What else? Well, both C180 and C220CDI variants post a BIK company car taxation rate of just 18%. And residuals will be strong, providing you don't go mad on the options list. Insurance groupings for the two mainstream models are 24 for the CLA 180 and 28 for the CLA 220 CDI.
If you're in the market for a compact, prestigiously-badged saloon and like the look of this one, then nothing I'm going to say here is likely to dissuade you away from CLA-Class motoring. Unlike Mercedes, I think this car does have some direct rivals, but I'd agree that there is quite a lot that's unique about the way it looks. This design really is a breath of fresh air in what had become rather a staid market sector. Which is why it's very likely to sell as intended - to people who never intended to drive a Mercedes. Younger folk who don't care about the abandonment of the rear wheel drive layout that was once considered conditional for a car of this type. They'll probably care just as little about the rear seat packaging compromises and the rather firm ride. They might not even mind the premium pricing. It's all about emotional appeal you see, as I said at the beginning. Going forward, the CLA has a massive role to play in the Mercedes model range, with huge appeal in growing markets like China. Here, it'll be more of a niche product that importantly, frees up the C-Class to be a bit bigger and more luxurious. The kind of car that'll redefine what this brand stands for in the eyes of many potential buyers. Exactly as it was meant to.