As before, the new CLA is a low-slung, four-door coupe based on the Mercedes A-Class hatchback. It now looks smarter and is better to drive, but can it stay ahead of fraternal rival the A-Class Saloon? Here we test the CLA 200 petrol version.
In the metal
Nope, someone didn't put the new Mercedes CLS on a boil wash, but don't feel ashamed if you thought that for just a minute. The new CLA is much more obviously (this time around) a smaller version of the CLS, and is only the third car in Merc's range (after the CLS and the four-door AMG GT) to get Mercedes' 'shark nose' styling treatment. While there are clear similarities between the styling of this CLA and the old model, the new car is far better resolved than the old one. Basically, it has a more integrated design that manages to avoid the hatch-with-a-boot-stuck-on look of the old model. It is, in fact, really rather pretty.
In the cabin, there is no difference between this and the A-Class hatchback. Normally, that would be a demerit, but in this case it's actually a positive thing as the A-Class's cabin is one of the best car interiors around. Maybe even the best, with that cool-looking 'MBUX' widescreen digital dashboard, and palpably good build quality all-round. The CLA's relatively lengthy wheelbase means that there is decent cabin space too, and even six-footers can get comfy in the back seats, thanks to a deep scallop taken out of the headlining to liberate a few extra millimetres of headroom. Heck, even the boot is a decent size, at 460 litres.
The elephant in the room, though, is Mercedes other A-Class-based front-drive four-door saloon, the A-Class Sedan. How exactly is Mercedes going to convince buyers that the CLA will be worth the extra cash? Well, mostly through the styling, Thanks to being wider, longer and lower than the A-Class Sedan, the CLA is more distinctive from its brother than you might assume. It's possibly a difference you'd need to have both cars side by side to really see, but Mercedes reckons that the two customer bases are different, and that there will be a minimum of cannibalisation of sales between the two cars. We'll see, but in fairness the CLA has effectively moved up a size class from the old model, and now straddles the gap between the A-Class and the C-Class with a little more confidence.
The CLA seems to be a little engine-sensitive when it comes to its dynamic performance, but the good news is that this petrol-engined CLA 200 version is possibly the best of the lot. It uses the relatively new 1.33-litre four-cylinder turbo engine (shared with Renault and Nissan) which, in this form, develops a healthy 163hp and 250Nm. Performance is in the ballpark for a mild hot hatch, with 100km/h coming up in 8.9 seconds.
More impressive, though, is the way you can maintain that speed across country. This version of the CLA is front-wheel drive (more powerful models can be had with optional 4Matic four-wheel drive), but it feels exceptionally agile, as well as firmly planted on the road. Actually, this may be another point of differentiation between the CLA and the upcoming A-Class Sedan - not only is the CLA's suspension track around 50mm wider front and rear, it uses different suspension components because of that dimensional gap. However big that difference is in reality, the CLA has really sweet steering - not over-burdened with feel, perhaps, but with really lovely weight and great accuracy. In mixed weather conditions, on twisting and turning roads just outside Munich, it put in a spirited, engaging, enjoyable performance. Mind you, those same roads - ultra-smooth and beautifully surfaced - means we can't yet give a decent rating for ride comfort.
As for the rest, it's basically like the A-Class. The MBUX digital dashboard remains hugely impressive, and tech such as the 'hey, Mercedes' digital voice assistant and the augmented reality satnav feel like a genuine step forward. The CLA should be hugely safe as well, borrowing some automated safety systems from the S-Class, but we found that the lane-guidance steering is a bit trigger-happy, and also cuts the throttle momentarily, which can make for jerky progress on a twisting road, until you get sick of it and switch it off. Which rather negates the point.
What you get for your money
Prices for the new CLA aren't set for Ireland as yet, but it's not going to be cheap. The starting point will be around €34,000, which is significantly more expensive than the outgoing model, a move that leaves space for the A-Class Sedan to be a more affordable option. A diesel-engined version, with an optional automatic gearbox, will probably pretty easily top €40,000 once you add on some toys, which sure isn't cheap and which pushes the CLA into C-Class territory. You'll also have to shell out for the best MBUX dashboard, as the basic model gets two seven-inch screens, instead of the more dramatic twin 10.25-inch displays. On the upside, much of the impressive safety equipment will be standard.
I think it's fair to say that the Mercedes CLA is a big improvement on its predecessor. Roomier, better looking, with a far nicer interior and with (in this CLA 200 form) genuinely engaging and enjoyable handling. It's high tech, but still capable of giving you some old-school driving fun. Will that be enough to tempt you out of the upcoming A-Class Sedan? That, I guess, remains to be seen...