Mercedes CLA review – 220 CDI AMG Sport edition

11 June 2013

Mercedes CLA on the old Brooklands circuit

Mercedes-Benz CLA
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Good: Elegant looks, classy interior
Bad: Hobnailed ride, not cheap
Price: From £31,555
Ideally, I would not be testing the sportiest version of the new Mercedes-Benz CLA, given that this blog focuses on the economical end of the motoring spectrum. But today it’s a case of get what you’re given. Of the four models of CLA currently on sale – two petrol, two diesel – I would plump for the 220 CDI Sport. What I end up driving is the 220 CDI AMG Sport. Close, but not the same cigar.

The three letters AMG cost an extra £2,000, bringing the car’s basic price to £31,555. You do get more than a badge for your two grand, of course – the list of upgrades includes a sparkly front grille, 18-inch alloys wrapped with 40-profile run-flat tyres, a dubious AMG bodykit, red-stitched artificial-leather-and-suede upholstery, bi-xenon headlights and rear privacy glass, plus lowered sports suspension.

Mercedes CLA rear view

Having driven the closely related A-Class hatchback in AMG Sport guise I wasn’t keen to revisit the pebble-hopping, wobble-board ride brought about by the lowered setup. The cheaper Sport trim comes with “Comfort” suspension, which sounds a lot more – well – comfortable.

As it turned out, I needn’t have been quite so anxious for my spine. The CLA’s suspension is virtually the same front-strut and multi-link rear arrangement as bolted to the A-Class, but with the addition of rubber mountings at the rear. They take the edge off the most jarring knocks, meaning the ironclad ride no longer overwhelms all other sensations and you can start to decide whether you like the rest of the car.

Mercedes CLA front interior

That’s not to say that the suspension is something I’d want to live with – I’m not keen on being repeatedly kicked in the backside. The car’s response to potholes brings to mind builder’s rubble tumbling into an empty skip. But the stiff setup does give the CLA the ability to zip around corners as if you’re playing a video game, which is probably what you’re after if you choose AMG Sport trim. The firmly weighted steering, keen throttle and strong brakes are up for fun too, though not quite in the same linear league as a BMW 3-Series, or at least my rose-tinted memory of the latter.

Both diesel-powered CLAs share the same transverse-mounted 2.1-litre diesel engine, developing 170bhp and 350Nm of torque, sent to the front wheels by the same 7-speed automatic gearbox. Both are capable of reaching 62mph from rest in 8.2 seconds. Fuel economy results are also identical – 62.8mpg on the combined cycle and 117g/km of CO2. These are remarkable results for a car with such a sporting demeanour, helped by automatic stop-start and a Cd figure as slippery as a wet frog at just 0.23 – that’s more aerodynamic than a humpbacked Toyota Prius.

Mercedes CLA side view

The CLA looks a lot better than a Prius too. Stand back from the car and the resemblance to the A-Class is clear. It shares the same wheelbase and everything forward of the windscreen is almost identical, though the two big creases flowing back along the flanks trace a subtly different path. And of course the roofline sweeps down onto a saloon’s boot rather than ending abruptly in a chopped-off hatch. Not that the CLA should be called a saloon – open a door and the frameless glass bumps down as you touch the handle – an audible reminder that this car is meant to be a four-door coupé.

The CLA also happens to be marginally longer, lower, wider and lighter than the rear-wheel-drive C-Class saloon, for those traditionalists who think a coupé can’t have four doors.

Mercedes CLA frameless doors

For me, the shape works extremely well – successfully resembling a miniaturised CLS rather than a hatchback with a bottom problem.

Inside, the CLA feels cosy up front and a little claustrophobic in the rear, due to the relatively narrow sliver of glass and the bulky twin buttresses of the front seats. Stash a couple of kids back there for a long drive and they’ll emerge pale and blinking into the light like albino hedgehogs.

Mercedes CLA rear interior view

The interior is as eye-catching and appealing as it is in the A-Class, sharing the same pros and cons. Materials feel top notch but not every design decision was a wise one. The five jet-nozzle air vents are a tactile treat (though you may fight over the middle one) but the tacked-on tablet-style centre screen is less appealing. The screen is at least in the right spot, at the top of the stack near the driver’s eyeline, but it exudes a strong a whiff of Dixons that’s out of place in a 30k Merc. The central screen in a BMW or Lexus looks palpably better.

The engine isn’t quite as refined as some competitors either, making agricultural noises when worked hard. Vibration is well suppressed, however, and power is ample. The gearbox is also reasonably quick to respond to an urgent foot, even in its default economy setting. A tiny and inconspicuous grey button on the centre console cycles through sport, economy and manual shift settings, the manual mode controlled via a couple of paddles behind the wheel. You can also use the paddles in either of the two auto modes, to prepare for overtaking for example, and the gearbox will revert to its own devices after a few seconds.

In familiar Mercedes style, the gear selector lives where most other makers put the wipers. Together with an electronic handbrake, down by your right knee, this clears the centre tunnel for cupholders and cubby holes. This would be a very good thing were it not for the fact that one of the spring-loaded cubby lids rattled throughout my test, as welcome as a stone in my shoe until I worked out where the nagging noise was coming from and flipped the lid open, releasing the silence trapped inside.

Mercedes CLA instruments

Rather less irritating were the CLA’s instruments, shared with the A-Class AMG Sport and offering a crisp and colourful digital display between two chunky analogue dials. The display can be set to show digital speed – my personal choice – or a variety of bits of driving data including eco-driving scores for efficient acceleration, smoothness and maintaining momentum.

Overall, the CLA seems an extremely chic and desirable car, and would possibly feel comfortable on freshly ironed roads. For some unfathomable reason I liked it much more than the almost identical A-Class. It is more expensive than the uglier hatchback duckling, but it looks and seems more expensive too.

I’d recommend the softer springs. Ride aside, the CLA feels like a very appealing package.

Mercedes CLA rear lamp

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