By Jonathan Crouch
The CLA, originally launched in 'C117'-series first generation form back in 2013, was a rather different kind of Mercedes. It was compact and coupe-like, yet offered buyers four doors and a large boot. Or it could be had as a stylised 'Shooting Brake' estate. And it could set the neighbours talking far more than if you'd simply bought yet another small German-badged executive saloon. It was a model to challenge your preconceptions, that's for sure. But does it make sense as a used buy?
Never underestimate the power of emotional appeal. It's brought us cars like this one, the Mercedes CLA, an effortlessly stylish compact saloon (marketed as a 'four-door coupe') that back in 2013 brought a fashionable feel to the Stuttgart brand's growing family of smaller models.
To fully understand it, you need to be familiar with the so-called 'four-door coupe' concept, pioneered by Mercedes back in 2004 with their CLS-Class model, the first example of this kind of car and a trendier alternative to their similarly-sized but much more conventional E-Class saloon. The CLS was a huge success - to the point where it seemed only a matter of time before this prestigious German brand extended the concept to offer the same kind of car as an alternative to its smaller, more affordable C-Class saloon.
In fact, it took until the Spring of 2013 for them to do just that and launch this CLA model, initially known as the 'CLA-Class' and latterly just as the 'CLA'. By the time of this 'C117'-series model's original launch, the whole idea of the same brand offering the same kind of car in both 'standard' and stylised 'lifestyle' guises was well established right across the market. It's why in this period Fiat offered citycar buyers an ordinary Panda and a trendy 500. Why Citroen treated supermini folk to the dull C3 and the fun DS3. Why Land Rover would bring you the boxy Freelander and the stylish Range Rover Evoque. And why Volkswagen copied Mercedes' CLS to bring us a swoopy CC version of its conventional Passat. You get the idea.
In other words, if you're target market for a car like this CLA, you'll be someone who likes the idea of buying a sporty, prestigiously-badged compact saloon but wants to make a bit more of a statement about doing it. As we said, it's all about emotional appeal. The first generation CLA four-door coupe was joined by a 'Shooting Brake' estate version in 2014. High performance Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC variants of both body styles followed. All variants then sold until 2019, when they were replaced by second generation models.
What You Get
By any measure, this is a handsome car, whether you choose it in four-door coupe guise or in 'Shooting Brake' estate form. Either way, the look is purposeful, with sporting proportions and a potent bonnet powerdome. Hi-tech too, with jewel-like LED daytime running lamps fashioned to create a flare effect around the diamond-shaped grille. The effect is reminiscent of the kind of motorshow concept car you'd never expect to see in production, in this case the 'Concept Style Coupe' Mercedes showed at the 2012 Beijing Motor Show, then launched almost unaltered to a surprised market less than a year later. It's not just about aesthetics either. The super-sleek drag factor of just 0.23Cd made this back in 2013 not only the most aerodynamic Mercedes model to date but also the most aerodynamic production vehicle in the world.
Underneath, inevitably, it's all far more familiar, this model sharing its chassis, its engines and everything else under the skin but its suspension set-up with Mercedes other compact cars, the A and B-Class models. So in other words, it's four cylinder-only and front-driven, unlike the boxier W204 series C-Class model it was launched to sell alongside. It's slightly bigger than that car too and, as we've been suggesting, has a much shapelier look, especially from the side where the profile is determined by two prominent lines flowing down into and up into the powerful shoulder muscles that sit above the rear wheel arches and define the C-pillars. The rear end with its interplay of convex and concave surfaces and edges is possibly a little more controversial, the gently sloping roof contour and rear window curvature there to emphasise the coupe styling that aims to try and sell you this car.
The cabin's virtually identical to that of an A-Class - which by 2013 was a good thing. So you get the same deeply-cowled twin-dial instrument binnacle viewed through a lovely, grippy nappa leather-trimmed three-spoke multi-function steering wheel. There are the same five chrome-trimmed SLS supercar-style air vents decorating the dash. And you get the same iPad-style 5.8-inch free-standing infotainment screen stuck in the middle of it, controlled by a little rotary dial positioned where the handbrake would normally be if it hadn't been replaced by one of those fiddly electronic ones with a switch hidden away beneath the dash.
The materials used don't quite have the rich, deep hewn-from-granite feel you get in an Audi from this period but the finished effect is a step up from anything BMW offers at this level from this era and build quality from the Hungarian factory was faultless. Overall, we'd say that this is probably the most interesting cabin in the class from this period, a classy effort with plenty of showroom feel good factor. Not quite so impressive is the way that the wide pillars, high waistline and shallow rear screen of this stylised design contrive to rob you of both side and rearward visibility. It's something Mercedes was clearly well aware of, hence the decision to equip this car as standard with an Active Park Assist system that steers you into tight spaces. That's fine to stand in the gap for you during low speed manoeuvring but if this was our car, we'd want to find one whose original owner had had the foresight to pay extra for the optional Blind Spot Assist and Lane-Keeping Assist features that keep an extra eye out for you at speed.
As for back seat accommodation, well any car that describes itself as a 'four-door coupe' clearly isn't going to have this as a top priority. Fashion is the keynote here - which is why you're provided with lovely frameless doors, just like a pricey CLS-Class model. Negotiate around the plunging roofline and get yourself inside though and it is a little surprising to find that despite this car being 40mm longer than a W204 generation Mercedes C-Class, it offers significantly less space for rearward passengers. There are two issues really. First, it'll be much more of a squash to fit a third person in the middle here. And second that the sloping roof will restrict headroom for taller people. Ordinary folk with older kids will be OK though. Ultimately, we don't think it'll be a deal-breaker for many buyers.
Particularly as boot room is so spacious. There's quite a high lip to lump your packages over, but once you do, there's a generous 470-litres on offer, nearly as much as a four-door C-Class and 45-litres more than you'd get in a rival Audi A3 saloon. It's also nearly 40% more than you get in a comparable Volvo S60 from this period and the same amount bigger than what's on offer in a comparable-era A-Class hatch. In other words, we're talking here of a pretty decently sized cargo area, even if it is somewhat narrow and awkwardly shaped. You can further extend it by pushing forward the standard 60/40 split-folding rear bench. If that's not enough, then talk to your dealer about the CLA-Class Shooting Brake estate model.
What to Look For
Check for signs of damage to the bodywork and alloy wheels. Even though all CLAs came with parking sensors there may be some and top-spec variants with wide alloy rims are particularly prone to scratches. Check for uneven panel gaps and paint flaws. Inspect the electrics and the air conditioning functionality - it should blow our really chilled air. Some owners in our survey complained of un-Mercedes-like squeaks and rattles; try the car you have in mind across a bumpy bit of road to try and expose any nasty noises. Diesel CLAs have been subject to a voluntary recall to alter the software and limit the amount of NOx the car produces, so ask the seller if this was done.
There were a number of safety recalls on this MK1 'C117'-series CLA. Four relate to airbags that might not deploy correctly and affect some cars produced between August 2016 and March 2017. There was one for a vacuum line on the brake booster on very early CLAs built up to April 2013 where the connection can fail and cause the driver to have to apply extra pressure to the pedal during braking. The recall that concerns most CLAs involves insufficient grounding of the airbag electrical components in the steering column. In extreme cases, the driver's airbag may go off and cause injury to the driver. This is applicable to cars from the start of production in 2013 to July 2017. Make very sure that all these recalls have been activated on the car you're looking at.
(approx based on a 2015 CLA220d - Ex Vat) An air filter is around £22-£19. An oil filter costs in the £6 to £11 bracket. A fuel filter sits in the £54-£78 bracket. Front brake pads sit in the £40-£57 bracket for a set, while rear brake pads cost around £25-£54 for a set. Front brake discs are around £48-£67 (or as much as £90-£137 for pricier brands). Rear brake discs can cost in the £56-£80 bracket. A radiator costs in the £272-£250 bracket.
On the Road
Mercedes marketed this car as a 'sporty' alternative to its more conventional C-Class saloon. On one hand, the CLA's sporty styling leads you to expect that. On the other, a front rather than rear-driven chassis and the lack of optional V6 power makes it a tad surprising. But 'sportiness' is something that Stuttgart has clearly decided that all its modern compact models must have, whatever the end user might want. It's why the third generation A-Class hatch this car is based upon has one of the firmest rides in its segment, even when fitted with 'comfort'-spec suspension. And it's why you should approach a drive in this model expecting a pretty taut set-up over the bumps.
Which is what you get, though actually, it's rather better than we expected it would be. Though this car shares its chassis, steering and braking architecture with A and B-Class models, it does get its own suspension set-up, with various changes made to improve comfort and make it a bit less crashy over poorer surfaces. These tweaks are reasonably effective if you go for a car fitted with the standard 'Comfort'-spec set-up (which confusingly is standard-spec for the entry-level 'Sport' model). But it all gets very firm indeed if you choose a top 'AMG Sport' variant where everything's lowered and the springs are 30% stiffer, not ideal for most British roads. Make sure that you can live with this before being tempted in by the AMG Sport trim level's more dynamic look.
The pay-off for all of this though, comes when you start to throw the thing about. The brakes are great, the gear change is accurate and the driving position is spot on. But what you really remember after a spirited drive isn't any of that. No, what sticks in your mind is the way that you can really lean on this car as you enter a corner, confident in the knowledge that there'll be grip and turn in of quite astonishing tenaciousness and body control that's unsurpassed by anything else in the class.
The torque vectoring that's built into the stability control system helps here, seamlessly applying slight brake pressure to the outside rear wheel during tight cornering to help get the power down where it's needed through the bends. The whole package would be better still if the electro-mechanical 'Direct Steering' system, supposed to weight up as you get faster, was slightly more feelsome. A drive in the top CLA 45 AMG super-saloon version of this car will be enough to prove that Mercedes can get this right: maybe one day it will.
That fire-breathing CLA 45 AMG model with its 360hp turbo petrol 2.0-litre and four-wheel drive layout is certainly quite a car, storming to 62mph in just 4.6s and sitting at the top of a model line-up fuelled, inevitably, by more conventional powertrains, all borrowed from A and B-Class models. These include an entry-level 1.8-litre 136bhp CLA 200CDI diesel and a pokey 2.0-litre 211hp CLA 250 petrol model, the latter offered with and without 4MATIC 4WD. Most buyers though, choose to focus on the two mainstream engines that this car was launched with. First up is the 122hp 1.6-litre petrol turbo that's mated to a 6-speed manual gearbox in the CLA 180, a willing unit that gets to 62mph in 9.3s en route to 130mph.
If funds permit though, you'll probably prefer the CLA 220CDI diesel variant. This gets a 170hp 2.1-litre unit with nearly twice as much pulling power, so you're treated to a lot more get-up-and-go from low revs, with 62mph from rest taking 8.2s on the way to 143mph. It comes mated solely to a 7-speed 7G-DCT automatic transmission, one of those state-of-the-art double-clutch set-ups that can select the next gear even before you've left the last one. This 'box features 'Economy' and 'Sport' modes, plus a further 'Manual' option if you want to use its steering wheel-mounted paddle-shifters.
If you're in the market for a compact, prestigiously-badged saloon and like the look of this one, then nothing we're going to say here is likely to dissuade you away from CLA motoring. Unlike Mercedes, we think this car does have some direct rivals, but we'd agree that there is quite a lot that's unique about the way it looks. This design really is a breath of fresh air in what had become rather a staid market sector.
Which is why it sold as its brand intended - to people who never intended to drive a Mercedes. Younger folk who didn't care about the abandonment of the rear wheel drive layout that was once considered conditional for a car of this type. They cared just as little about the rear seat packaging compromises and the rather firm ride. And they didn't even mind the premium pricing. It's all about emotional appeal you see, as we said at the beginning.
This was always a bit of a niche product that importantly, freed up the C-Class to be a bit bigger and more luxurious. The kind of car that redefined what its brand stood for in the eyes of many potential buyers. Exactly as it was meant to.