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Mercedes CLA review: A model for success

The first Mercedes-Benz CLA was tremendously popular because of the way it looked, but the new second-generation's appeal is more than skin-deep.

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Mercedes-Benz CLA 200 Progressive.

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Mercedes-Benz CLA 200 Progressive.

Munich

IT'S not often you hear an automaker admit that one of its cars is the four-wheeled equivalent of Derek Zoolander.

"The main reason for the success of the CLA is the design," Robert Lesnik, the exterior design director of Mercedes-Benz, told The Business Times at the launch event of the new, second-generation CLA.

The fictional male model, played by Ben Stiller in the eponymous movie, is "really, really, ridiculously good-looking" to the detriment of his other qualities.

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Likewise, the CLA, a slinky four-door (Mercedes insists on calling it a 'four-door coupe') first launched in 2013, was not particularly outstanding and its main strength was being unusually eye-catching to a new demographic of buyers.

In other words, it's the sort of machine automotive journalists love to hate. Yet it's also the sort of car other brands would kill to have since it excelled in attracting numerous first time buyers to Mercedes. "Seventy per cent of CLA buyers were new customers to the brand," Mr Lesnik said.

Trying to improve the looks of a model like this is a process fraught with opinionated danger, but the steps taken here were quite simple and they have clearly worked. The car has become longer, considerably wider and lower, the better to live up to its "coupe" tag.

But the CLA has even had rhinoplasty done. With the nose stretched out, it gives the car more classical coupe proportions, the better to resemble more elegant Mercedes-Benz models such as the E-Class coupe and CLS-Class.

It also allows for more subtle approach to the details. "Having better proportions means we could get rid of all the lines," Mr Lesnik said, in reference to the previous car's more obviously creased bodywork.

The other happy by-product of these design choices is that the CLA isn't just better to drive, but also quieter. With a very low coefficient of drag (a measure of wind resistance), it has the manners of its previously mentioned bigger stablemates, its default mode being a sort of quiet glide that tones down the aural stress of autobahn driving.

Underneath the smoothness is a decently quick machine, however. Up the pace and it delivers a promised 163 horsepower, though the 1.33-litre engine's uninteresting soundtrack encourages you to be gentle.

The suspension does likewise, rewarding an easy touch, but if you do insist on speed, the CLA now agrees more easily, the car's widened stance delivering plenty of stability during cornering, even if the steering feels as artificial as a fashion model's acting.

That's a far cry from the previous model, which had some proper coupe drawbacks, such as overly stiff suspension and a lack of rear room.

The boot is far easier to load now, since it has a wider opening, and rear passenger room has been improved slightly. It's still not that big though, so if you have to take five adults on board better make it a mocha stop rather than a road trip.

As a member of Mercedes' revitalised small car range, the CLA is also aimed at younger audiences and the cabin's high-definition displays reflect that.

MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience), the car's human machine interface, has received an injection of smartphone-esque tech. Users interact via gestures, a touchpad or the touchscreen, but it also has deep voice control that can even respond correctly to requests like, "Play songs from The Bee Gees".

The CLA 200 will be the sole model offered in Singapore when the car is launched in the fourth quarter of 2019, but it will be followed by a less expensive and less powerful CLA 180 (the expected backbone of the range). Also on the way is a 224hp CLA 250, as well as high-performance AMG variants, the CLA 35 (with 305hp) and CLA 45.

We tested the CLA 250 variant briefly and found it to be a better choice for more demanding drivers thanks to the increased power and performance.

Will Mercedes be second time lucky with the new CLA? Mercedes has amped up the visual edge which gave the first-generation model its headstart, but also delivered solid improvements that make the car easier to live with and better to drive. Audi and BMW have yet to field direct rivals, so the CLA still has the catwalk to itself for now.

Before this, you only had to look at a CLA to know if you wanted one. Savvy buyers know that's not a sensible way to buy a car, but at least with the new model, you can affirm your choice by driving it as well.


Mercedes-Benz CLA 200 Progressive

Engine 1,332cc, inline 4, turbocharged
Power 163hp at 5,500rpm
Torque 250Nm at 1,620rpm
Gearbox 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
0-100km/h 8.3 seconds
Top Speed 229km/h
Fuel Efficiency 5.4L/100km
Agent Cycle & Carriage
Price To be announced
Available
Q4 2019