Overall rating: 4/5
It may seem an odd move aiming directly for the class leading BMW 3 Series, but that is exactly what Mercedes-Benz needs to do if it is to wrestle buyers away from its German rival. While the new CLA cannot compare to the BMW in dynamic terms it is more than a match for it in the looks department. The ride is a little stiff though and makes a good case for opting for the Comfort suspension across the range, but buyers will likely ignore that the first time they catch a glimpse of the car in a passing window.
In the metal 5/5
Mercedes-Benz effectively invented the modern day 'four-door coupé' with the original CLS and the hope is that the CLA can repeat that success in a miniaturised format. While it may look a lot like the pioneering coupé the CLA actually shares its underpinnings with the A-Class hatchback and B-Class MPV. Over a foot longer than the hatchback, it offers a more practical boot and a better looking design to our eyes, but at the detriment of rear headroom. There isn't exactly a surfeit of legroom back there either.
Not that you will be concerned about the comfort of your passengers when you catch a glimpse of the CLA in a passing window. It truly is a sensational looking car, especially in the AMG Sport specification of our test model. Mercedes is very proud that the body has the lowest drag coefficient of any car in its class but that will unlikely tempt buyers into the showrooms. Instead it is the swooping roofline, bulging bonnet and tapered rear end that will draw them in. Once inside (the car, not the dealership) buyers are unlikely to be disappointed either. While the rear is cramped the high quality interior of the A-Class has been carried over, lending the CLA a premium feel. Our AMG Sport model featured a leather multifunction steering wheel, 'Comfort' seats and an optional panoramic sunroof, but we did get a chance to poke around an entry-level car and were impressed with the standard cabin too. The entry-level model is a bit light on the equipment front but nobody buys a bare-bones Mercedes, right?
Driving it 3/5
When CompleteCar.ie first drove the A-Class we commented on its ride being too stiff for Irish roads. In chasing Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series sales Mercedes-Benz went too sporty meaning the premium hatchback crashes over bumps. Unfortunately it is the same story with the CLA; over some well-travelled Wicklow routes it bounced around where other cars in the class would not. This may have been due to the AMG Sport specification of our test car (it features low profile tyres after all) and we await a drive in a regular car to compare.
That said, the CLA is not a car designed for carving up mountain roads; instead it is for cruising along Hollywood Boulevard (or whatever the Irish equivalent is) and it is here that it makes most sense. With 170hp and 350Nm of torque the 2.1-litre diesel has more than enough oomph for nipping in and out of traffic and, providing you do not work it too hard, makes an acceptable noise while doing so. Only when pushed does the engine give up a characteristic diesel clatter that is unbecoming of such a sporty looking car.
While the stiff suspension is unsuited to minor roads it works well on the motorway, where it soaks up the kilometres, allowing you to relax in a well-insulated cabin. Until it comes time to change gears that is; like the majority of Mercedes sold in Ireland our test car featured an automatic transmission (7G-Tronic to be precise), which frustrates in its slowness to change and jerkiness when it finally does so. Switching between Efficiency, Sport or Manual (via a button on the dash) does not seem to rectify the issue either. It's fine at very slow speeds, oddly.
What you get for your money 4/5
Mercedes-Benz is hoping that the CLA will attract new buyers to the brand and has pitched it directly against what it sees as the car's biggest rival, namely the BMW 3 Series. At launch the CLA will be offered in either 1.6-litre CLA 180 BE petrol model guise (€29,900) or the 2.2-litre CLA 220 CDI diesel automatic we tested that starts from €39,000. These will be joined later in the year by a CLA 200 CDI diesel priced at €34,900 and a CLA 180 CDI that is set to arrive in early 2014 with prices starting from €32,250. Trim levels will mirror those of the recently launched A-Class with standard cars equipped with alloy wheels, sports seats and multifunction steering wheel as standard. Urban trim (likely to be the top seller in Ireland) adds lowered sports suspension, larger alloys, a leather steering wheel and redesigned grille. The range topping AMG Sport increases specification with larger brake discs, a perforated leather steering wheel, AMG alloys and a diamond grille modelled on the full-blooded AMG 45 model.
The CLA is part of a new generation of compact cars from Mercedes-Benz and just one of ten new models - all without predecessors - that will arrive in Ireland over the next four years. Mercedes is stretching beyond its traditional customer base and hoping to attract younger buyers to the brand; buyers who have historically veered towards BMW and Audi. The CLA will in time be joined by an A-Class-based SUV (likely to be called the Mercedes-Benz GLA) that will do battle with the BMW X1 and Audi Q3 in the premium segment of the market.
While the BMW 3 Series is likely to remain the car for the keen driver (and it's also much more spacious) it faces stiff competition in the driveway and indeed kerbside appeal factor from this new Mercedes. On looks alone the CLA has the competition trumped. But a car is more than looks; while the engine offers strong performance and decent fuel economy the suspension, on this example at least, is too stiff for Irish roads. There's potential further down the line-up though.