It used to be so much simpler. You had saloons, which had four doors, big, practical cabins and lots of space for families. Then you had coupés, with low, rakish rooflines and not so much space, which were designed for those who prioritised style over practicality.
Now, it’s all getting a bit confused. More and more car makers are launching four-door bodystyles that are being sold as coupés, and which frequently aren’t any less practical than their saloon counterparts. Mercedes has some previous form in this area, launching the original CLS back in 2004, which took the mechanical package of the upright E-Class saloon and wrapped it in a gorgeously sleek four-door body that called itself a coupé but which wasn’t really a lot less roomy than the big E.
Now, Merc is at it again with the launch of this, the CLA coupé. Now, it’s certainly low-slung and we’d say its more than a bit good looking – the best looking new Mercedes for quite some time in fact – but there are two things that are immediately obvious. One, it’s closely related to the new A-Class hatchback and, two, it’s got four doors.
That relationship to the A-Class means that the CLA is front wheel drive only (although there will be a four wheel drive option at some point) and that makes it the first ever front-drive Mercedes saloon or coupé. A fact which will be lost on most customers, as they probably don’t actually know which way the prop shaft runs anyway.
And, like the A-Class, the CLA banishes any thoughts that front-drive means less fun as soon as you turn a wheel. The steering has a pleasingly hefty feel to it and feeds back plenty of information about the road surface below. The suspension is taut and the CLA has that lovely sense of well-oiled movement that is a traditional Mercedes characteristic. Get it on to a twisty road and that steering really plugs you into what’s happening at the tyres’ contact patch and the CLA proves itself to be a true driving enthusiast’s tool.
It is a bit too stiffly sprung though, thumping and bashing into poor road surfaces in a way that the five-door A-Class hatchback just doesn’t. It’s not excessively bad, but it does take away that sheen of refinement and comfort that we have come to expect from Mercedes.
Then again, this is a different breed of Mercedes, aimed at a very different customer. The emphasis on style, from the piercing headlamps to the little kick up of the boot-lid, is designed to appeal to a much younger audience than Mercedes has hitherto been attracting. These are the sort of affluent urbanites who see no confusion in the melding of saloon and coupé, but instead see the synergy.
What’s great about the CLA is that you get the carrot of gorgeous, sexy styling but without the stick of confined interior space or impracticality. True, it’s no MPV in there (and Mercedes can in any case sell you a hugely spacious B-Class if that’s what you’re after) but there is decent space in the back seats and the front is very comfy. It feels from the front seat as if the whole car is wrapping nicely around you, even though there is actually a good deal of space on offer.
Go for the optional automatic gearbox, and the shift lever moves from the centre console up to the steering column, freeing up useful space for odds and ends, while the rest of the dash majors on a heavily sporting style, lifted more or less directly from the SLK and SL sports cars. It’s a lovely interior, but the over-styled main instruments do detract somewhat from the classiness.
There’s no doubting the ability of the 2.1-litre diesel engine though. Smooth and refined (aside from a bit of diesel growl at low speeds) it punches hard with 170bhp and 350Nm of torque, more than enough to make the CLA feel as if it has the power to cash the cheques being written by that sporty styling. Impressively, its CO2 emissions are kept well under control, at 117g/km – a figure that actually drops to 109g/km if you go for the hyper-efficient automatic gearbox. Experience with the A-Class suggests that the claimed fuel consumption of 4.2-litres per 100km (better than 65mpg) is no idle boast.
I haven’t come to the best part yet. The best part yet is the price. OK, so circa €30k is hardly a small amount of money, and that’s the cost of a basic, petrol CLA. Add in a diesel engine and some toys and you’ll be pushing the boundaries of €38,000 pretty quickly. But then, a Mercedes C-Class only starts at that price, and the CLA is sexier by far, sharper to drive and only slightly less practical. It may be confused as to whether it is a saloon or a coupé, but I think we can all be pretty certain of one thing the CLA will be: a huge success.