Thursday 12 December 2019

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Cork Independent

Motors

It’s a niche within a niche

Wednesday, 20th November, 2019 4:24pm

What it comes down to in the final question, is a matter of about €1,000. That’s, roughly, the price gap between a Mercedes CLA Coupe and the equivalent A-Class saloon.

Both are compact four-doors, based on the same front-wheel drive platform (that Mercedes dubs NGCC - New Generation Compact Class - and which is making up an ever-increasing proportion of the three-points star’s sales) and using the same engines. In this case, it’s the 180 engine; a 136hp 1.3 litre turbo petrol four-cylinder.

So, is there any real difference between these two compact Mercedes? Oh sure, the CLA purports to be a coupe, but really it’s a four-door saloon with a slightly more sloping roofline and a different shape to the boot. Actually, there are some physical differences between the two cars, a fact which might be surprising.

And no, I don’t just mean that the CLA has frameless door glass.

Actually, the CLA is 100mm longer than the A-Class saloon, and has wider front-and-rear tracks. That’s not just a matter of having wider tyres or suspension spacers, either. The whole suspension setup has been altered for the CLA, and the extra width appears to make the car a little lower and sleeker.

It is definitely sleeker than the old CLA, which always had the appearance of a hatchback with a big droopy boot slung out the back. This new one is far smoother in its appearance, with a rear end that appears much better integrated and coherent.

It also has headlights and tail lights that are subtly different to the A-Class sedan’s. I suspect it will prove to be the case that they look more different when placed next to each other, rather than looked at individually.

The one area where the two cars are identical is in the cabin layout and design, but for once this is a good thing — the MBUX ‘digital plank’ dashboard is one of the best recent car interior designs, maybe the best of all, and it works exceptionally well here.

There’s a lot of tech on offer — the ‘hey, Mercedes’ digital voice control assistant; the augmented reality sat-nav, a heads-up display, and a huge suite of safety gear (including a slightly-too gung-ho lane keeping steering setup).

New to the CLA is an ‘energiser’ system that can alter the ambient light, air conditioning, seat heating, and driving position either to help keep you more alert if you’re starting to feel drowsy, or calm you down if you’re feeling stressed.

It can even be paired with a smartwatch so that the car can monitor your heart rate in real time and offer suggestions on how best to use the system.

A bit of a gimmick? Doubtless, but an illustration of how we now can integrate our digital lives into our driving.

It somehow does manage to feel a little different inside the CLA than it does in an A-Class saloon. Perhaps it’s more a case of expectation than actuality, but you do seem to sit a little lower and more laid-back, even if the fixtures and fittings are essentially identical.

It also feels a little different to drive. Again, the gap is narrow, and again it may be down to me expecting, trying, to find differences, but the CLA does feel a touch smoother and more refined, in spite of the frameless doors which are usually a nightmare when it comes to wind noise at a motorway cruise.

Actually, cruising is precisely what the CLA does best — its refinement and the excellent levels of comfort inside the cabin mean that as a long-haul, point-to-point car, it’s very hard to beat for the money. You’d have to spend significantly more on the likes of an Audi A4 or BMW 3 Series to get as good as this.

The engine must also come in for some serious praise. In the A-Class, this 1.3 turbo can occasionally be a bit too noisy, but here in the CLA it seems much better suppressed. 136hp doesn’t sound like all that much, but actually the CLA rarely feels anything less than lively to drive, a fact that might seem surprising given that it has a mere 200Nm of torque.

Doubtless, the slick-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox helps in that regard, and we still love the fact that Mercerdes has brought back the column-stalk gear shifter, not least because it frees up useful extra storage space in the centre console.

It also has excellent economy, easily breaking through the 50mpg barrier on a long journey, which is hugely impressive for a petrol turbo engine.

The CLA’s steering is responsive, and has relatively good levels of feel and feedback, and grip and traction at the front are solid, so you can make good progress on a twisty road, and have not a little fun into the bargain.

But saying bargain brings us back around again to the A-Class and whether it’s worth the cost of the upgrade from an A-Class saloon. It’s a tough one to call — the CLA definitely feels different, and little touches like those frameless doors do make it feel a touch more upmarket, plus it’s more refined and a little sharper to drive.

Perhaps the best person to ask is not me, but your accountant…

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