- What’s Best: Looks expensive, authentic Teutonic character, AMG model rocks
- What’s Worst: Roofline compromises rear seats, aggravating limp mode, sunroof woes
- Typical Used Prices: 2014 - $27,000; 2017 - $36,000
Brand management is a tricky vocation. Like juggling. Or selling rustproofing.
A brand is often most appealing when it’s exclusive. It can command a handsome premium when it’s sold in relatively small numbers. Conversely, spread the brand over a multitude of products to make it more accessible and the resulting brand dilution may cause irreparable damage.
In its zeal to introduce more and younger buyers to the Mercedes-Benz fold, Stuttgart’s brand managers had to engineer a car that upholds the prestige of the three-pointed star at a lower power point. Their efforts resulted in the Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class four-door “coupe” for 2014 – a serious attempt to deliver Mercedes style and technology at a sticker price several thousand dollars under that of the popular C-Class sedan.
Canadians have had the benefit of an entry-level Mercedes in the B-Class five-door that first landed on our shores (but not in the U.S.) in 2006. For us, the closely related CLA brings swoopy styling in a front-wheel-drive sedan designed to capture all those buyers for whom a hatchback just doesn’t cut it.
Drawing inspiration from Benz’s comely and expensive CLS four-door coupe, this smaller facsimile offers a droopy profile – resembling a burrito left in a microwave oven too long – that actually works wonders in the wind tunnel, yielding a coefficient of drag of 0.23 in European trim. It doesn’t get better than that.
Dimensionally, there’s little difference between the CLA and a workaday Toyota Corolla: their width and wheelbases are identical, while the CLA is 2 cm shorter overall and the Corolla is about 2 cm taller. Even their trunks provide the same cubic area. Using the A-Class front-drive architecture, the CLA shares the front struts and multilink rear suspension found under the B-Class.
As adventurous as the exterior styling is, the cabin is even more so. Plastic expanses abound and M-B conventions were abandoned for a new look that evokes Soviet-era space hardware. Taking a cue from Mazda, there’s a large infotainment screen propped up on the dashboard that commands attention, though some owners suggest it looks like an afterthought.
Mercedes decided to diverge from the usual Benz fare to reach a new, younger audience. Whether it works or not depends on the beholder. What doesn’t work well, owners point out, is the smallish back seat, which is further compromised by the fastback roofline.
“Watch you head when getting into the back seat. No one over six feet should ever be in the back,” reads a lament online. There’s a reason the automaker calls it a coupe.
Every CLA is motivated by a four-cylinder engine, most by a direct-injected 2.0-L DOHC turbocharged unit that churns out 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque at an accessible 1200 rpm.
The sole transmission is a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, built in-house, that offers a manual mode complete with paddle shifters. The all-wheel-drive 4Matic model uses a Haldex electronically controlled rear differential that routes up to 50 per cent of the torque to the rear wheels as needed.
The high-performance CLA45 AMG model employs a twin-scroll turbocharged version of the same 2.0-L four to produce 355 hp and 332 lb-ft of grunt directed to all four wheels.
Despite the availability of an AMG variant, the CLA’s mission is to be kind to the planet, which is why both models feature an automatic stop-start function that shuts down the engine to save fuel when the car stops at intersections.
Beyond ongoing tweaks to the equipment levels and suspension settings, the CLA received a wholesale refresh for 2017, including revised front and rear styling. Inside, the centre-mounted screen was upgraded to a wider display and the instruments got a new look.
DRIVING THE CLA
The CLA’s small turbo engine steps up when called upon: 0 to 97 km/h arrives in a fleet 6.5 seconds (no Corolla has ever done that). The car is a good handler overall, generating 0.93 g of grip on a skidpad, and it stops with trademark German efficacy.
Some owners have found the CLA drives a little stiffly, which is why engineers have tweaked the suspension more than once to yield a more compliant ride. Some of the blame is directed at the car’s run-flat tires, which are hard and unforgiving by design.
The 355-hp AMG model is certainly no slouch; highway velocity comes up in just 4.2 seconds, which puts the baby Benz squarely in some very fast company. To cope with the surfeit of power, the CLA45 AMG benefits from upgraded suspension components, a more robust braking system and revised electromechanical power steering.
Incidentally, the hand-built AMG engine received an output bump to 375 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque for 2016 – that’s 188 horses per litre of displacement. Thusly equipped, a 2017 model scrambled to 97 km/h in a breakneck 3.8 seconds.
In its milder guise, the CLA is a genuine gas-sipper, frequently returning better than 8.8 litres/100 km (32 mpg) in mixed driving. Still, some owners wish for a larger fuel tank to allow for longer intervals between fill-ups.
OWNERS TALK RELIABILITY
We started off expressing concern about Mercedes potentially tarnishing its brand by releasing a front-drive “econobox” to reduce the cost of entry into M-B membership. There’s been no sign of that. Sales have been strong, with Mercedes characterizing the car’s launch as its best new-model introduction in two decades.
Owners applaud the CLA’s fluid styling, genuine Mercedes “feel,” spirited performance and good fuel economy. On the other hand, drivers were less thrilled with the plasticky interior, cramped back seat, stiff ride and four-cylinder engine noise.
In terms of reliability, the inaugural 2014 models were plagued by drivability issues that sees the cars display an “Inoperable” warning and default to limp mode, forcing drivers to seek out a shoulder to power down safely.
“Inoperable message flashed on the dash as I lost all acceleration power. Was almost rear-ended by a semi (truck), but was able to pull over to the side of the interstate. This has happened three times now,” reads a not uncommon remark posted by a CLA owner.
The culprit, judging by some of the reported fixes, may be a defective manifold pressure sensor, which dealers replace (sometimes more than once), as well as update the engine management software. Another repair involves replacing the throttle actuator.
The chronic engine faults appear to plague the 2014 CLA, with relatively few complains appearing in subsequent model years. However, some malfunctioning auto-braking systems can similarly impede the car’s forward motion. Owners talk about faulty radar sensors sending false information to activate the brakes unnecessarily – another unwelcome intrusion, especially on a busy highway.
The CLA’s optional panoramic sunroof is also a source of headaches. Some have had multiple problems with the glass binding on their tracks due to bad cables, while others have spontaneously shattered – a manufacturing defect that ought to be replaced under warranty and not as an insurance claim.
Other reported problems, in small numbers, include failed water pumps, broken Bose speakers, oil leaks, assorted bad sensors and ongoing complaints about run-flat tires. The Goodyear and Dunlop tires appear to bubble up and fail with alarming regularity. Some owners have switched to conventional tires and have been a lot happier.
There’s no question that the made-in-Hungary CLA has drawn new fans to the marque, and without diluting the brand. This authentic Benz represents a good used-car buy as it comes off lease – principally because steep depreciation is another Mercedes-Benz hallmark.
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