What’s hot: Brilliant handling and grip, great sound, beautiful build.
What’s not: Tight rear headroom; long supply delays.
X-FACTOR: Guilt-free premium family buying: a sporting soul, razor handling, roomy inside and not too expensive.
Vehicle style: Premium small sports sedan
Price: $64,900 (plus on-road costs)
Engine/trans: 155kW/350Nm 2.0 litre turbo | 7-spd DCT auto with 4Matic all-wheel-drive
Fuel consumption listed: 6.6 l/100km | tested: 7.8 l/100km
As I write this, I’m watching yet another replay of Germany dismantling Brazil in its World Cup semi-final. Clinical, technical, precise, it’s an astonishing demolition.
There is a metaphor of sorts here for modern Germany. Its success as a technological and engineering powerhaus owes something to at least one part of the national character: that obsession with precision and detail.
It is undeniably there in the premium cars the country produces.
Like this CLA 250 Sport 4Matic that we drove at its Antipodean launch in New Zealand.
It’s got ‘that badge’, so the expectations are always high. But, superbly honed, the quality of its engineering sits over it like a coat.
The CLA 250 Sport is as elastic and alive on road as it is robust. It makes a beautiful sound - a sporty burble with a ‘brap!’ on upshifts - and it steers with the alertness of a track-car.
There is just 2.0 litres under the bonnet, but it fires around slow-moving traffic. And, every second you spend at the wheel, it fills you with the satisfied contentment of “the driver’s car”.
Down below, a bit of a surprise, is Mercedes’ 4Matic all-wheel-drive.
Originally planned as FWD-only for Australia, the local arm changed its mind and decided to bring instead the more expensive 4Matic version.
Those who put their money down early for the FWD model were given a pleasant surprise.
“Those customers who originally ordered (the CLA 250), we froze the price for them so they get the 4Matic at the same price,” MB Australia’s David McCarthy said.
The CLA 250 Sport 4Matic has been engineered by AMG, who were, according to McCarthy, “involved right from the start”. That alone whispers its sporting credential to anyone who enjoys a performance drive.
Priced at $64,900 (the CLA range starts at $49,900), it’s not bargain buying, but it is quality buying.
And quality - as the sage says - is its own reward.
- Black ‘red cut’ leather trim
- 14.7cm screen display and Becker Map Pilot satellite navigation
- Six-speaker audio, single-disc CD player with MP3/WMA/ACC compatibility
- Media interface for USB port, iPod and iPhone integration
- Bluetooth with audio streaming
- Active park assist and front and rear parking sensors
- Panoramic glass sunroof
- Heated electric front seats with memory function and 60:40 split-fold rear seats
- Anti-theft alarm, rain-sensing wipers
- Nappa leather multi-function steering wheel with shift paddles
- Dual-zone climate control with rear ventilation
- Cruise control with variable speed limiter
I don’t quite warm to the interior of the A-Class range. There is certainly an upmarket feel to the accommodation, but the slabby dashboard and ‘grained’ aluminium trim panel looks a little heavy-handed to these eyes.
Also, the screen fixed to the mid-point of the dash looks like an afterthought (a comment we’ve made before).
That said, there is no doubting the premium quality nor execution, and the materials are pleasing to the touch with a solid, nicely textured feel.
Close the doors, and it’s very cosy inside. The neat red stitching linking the surfaces, and the black ‘red-cut’ leather seats look really smart. Electrically adjustable, the seats are also comfortable and nicely supportive for press-on driving.
A minor irritation in our test car was a persistent squeak from under the display-screen where the plastic mount and the surface of the metal garnish meet.
I also find the Mercedes-Benz auto gear-selector stalk a bit of a pain. It sits to the right of the wheel, just behind the paddles, and is easily tipped into neutral when mistaken for the indicator stalk. (D'oh, darn…)
At the wheel there is a sense of sitting low and of hugging the road sportscar-style, and the beautifully-weighted square-on wheel and sports dials reinforce that sporting feel.
The sound of course helps, as does the alive chassis and instant throttle response.
Ergonomically, aside from that gear selector, things are very precisely laid out and easily navigated. The rotary controller and menu is simple to use, and the audio system is cracking - crisp, and with beautiful separation and imaging.
The back seats - also nicely shaped - are set well back, adding to the sense of spaciousness. They’re set low, and access through the raking rear doors is a little tight, as is the headroom there.
But legroom? There’s acres of it.
The boot is also a cavern, the CLA hides enormous spaces within its sculptured duck-tailed lines, and the rear seats split-fold for longer items (like skis).
- 155kW/350Nm 2.0 litre petrol turbo | 7G-DCT 7-spd sports automatic
- 10kW overboost function
- 0-100km/h in 6.6 seconds
- 19-inch alloys
- 4Matic permanent all-wheel drive system (with variable torque distribution)
- Eco stop/start
It hissed rain nearly every inch of the way running south along the eastern edge of New Zealand’s North Island.
But the CLA’s 4Matic on-demand all-wheel-drive is as effective as it is transparent.
While the default setting is for the front wheels to do the work, the 4Matic system apportions drive to the rear when needed.
It is undetectable when it activates, except that you can carry eye-widening speed through a slippery corner. Just the thing for getting ‘the fam’ to the snow safely (while you enjoy the drive).
The 4Matic operates from a compact PTO (power-take-off) integrated into the transmission housing.
A long two-piece 2.0 metre drive-shaft (designed to withstand 700Nm of torque) engages with a multi-disc clutch integrated into the rear-axle with fully variable torque distribution.
The system sends drive where it’s needed, engaging in 100milliseconds when it detects a speed difference between the front and rear wheels.
The effect, in layman’s terms, is that the CLA 250 Sport is absolutely glued to the tarmac.
What AMG has done especially well with this car however, is in building-in that sense of the wheels tracking every contour of the road, while still providing an elastic and quite comfortable ride.
Really rough patches of road are well-isolated with nil jarring through the wheel. In fact, few cars steer as well as the CLA or feel ‘as right’ at the wheel.
For a small-ish car, it’s really quite a refined sporting drive.
Adding to the enjoyment is the phenomenal jewel under the bonnet. While its 155kW are shy of the 200kW+ of the brat-pack of hot-hatches (and 110kW shy of the 264kW totally bonkers CLA 45 AMG), it’s an alert and lively steer on road.
Switch it into Sport setting - a button below the screen display - and everything sharpens up.
Should a rapid burst be required, it can really get up and move, and firing around slow-moving traffic on a short straight is a breeze (we found quite a lot of that on those NZ backroads).
In Sport, the baffles in the exhaust are also activated, so there is a very nice aural accompaniment - a rorty burble, rising to a shrill rasp - to add to the enjoyment at the wheel. And there’s that F1-style ‘brap’ on upshifts.
Braking feel and performance is similarly impressive.
- Nine airbags, front, pelvis side and window bags, driver’s knee airbag and side airbags (rear seat passengers)
- Electronic stability control with acceleration skid control (ASR)
- ABD brakes with HOLD function, brake drying function and hill-start assist
- Brake-pad wear indicator
- Collision prevention assist and crash emergency lighting
- Blind-spot assist, land departure warning
- Cornering lights, daytime running lights and headlamp cleaning
- Run-flat tyres, tyre pressure loss warning
RIVALS TO CONSIDER:
The key rivals, all close in price, pack a fair whack more power than the CLA 250 Sport: the Q50 with 225kW, IS 350 with 233kW and the S3 packing 206kW.
But not all kilowatts are created equal, and only the Audi offers the same sporting engagement at the wheel.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
With the CLA 250 Sport, so much of what you see and touch, and the handling precision it offers at the wheel, is of a standard found, well, in the other premium Germans.
But for that elusive ‘feel for the road’ and engineered balance, the CLA 250 Sport is the more engrossing and complete.
As a driver’s car, the CLA 250 Sport would seem to be the full bottle.
It eats the kilometres in such a satisfying way, swift but not thumping, firm but elastic, glued to the road, but not uncomfortable. It’s all about balance.
This is a very appealing terrier from Mercedes Benz and its AMG engineers, and feels every inch the premium buy.
Pricing (excludes on-road costs)
- CLA 200 - $49,900
- CLA 200 CDI - $50,400
- CLA 250 Sport 4MATIC - $64,900
- CLA 45 AMG 4MATIC - $86,900