Walking out to a sunny but eye-wateringly windy Marseilles airport parking lot, a line of shiny 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class models awaiting their appointed thrashing, I couldn’t shake one question out of mind: sure, it looks sharp, but why pay more for less?
This car costs four grand more than the alluring B-Class hatchback, which shares the same engine and architecture, and offers less room for cargo and passengers, especially rear-seat riders.
And the CLA in Canada will also start at $4,000 more than the entry-level CLA in the United States. Even with equipment differences between the two, and those are yet to be finalized with the car set to arrive in September, some consumers will find the CLA overly pricey on that border-dependent price gap alone.
By the end of our two-day drive between Marseilles and Saint-Tropez and back, along a circuitous route through southern France that involved dodging flying palms and felled trees, the answer to my question became clear: it is less practical, but more fun, both to drive and look at. Something that can be said of most coupes, in fact.
Mercedes-Benz persists in calling the compact CLA a coupe, or coupé as the German luxury sales brochures tend to spell it. Unlike most coupes, the CLA offers four full doors, with a rounded roofline, tighter back seat and more sporting personality than the B-Class hatchback, somewhat backing up Mercedes-Benz’s coupe nomenclature, in spirit if not in actual door count.
This is the formula that worked well for the CLS, which transformed the staid E-Class sedan into one of the best-looking four-doors around. It also obviously encouraged Mercedes to be more daring with the design of the little brother to the CLS, this here CLA. And boy, did it ever.
Looking at the CLA up close, there are gregarious styling elements from nearly every angle. Character lines protrude from the body sides in seemingly opposite directions, scalloping out the doors, while huge air intakes up front could have been sucked straight off a Lamborghini. Order the AMG package, and the front spoiler will receive a seemingly tacked-on full-width front spoiler, as well as an race-inspired vent in the rear bumper corners that are much more nicely integrated.
It sounds like a stylistic mash-up gone haywire, and perhaps it will be to some observers, but it all seems to come together nicely.
The interior is less daring, unless you opt for the “Neon art seats” with bright-yellow accents. In a corporate culture as traditionally conservative as Mercedes-Benz’s, this is the scandalous equivalent to a breast-baring wardrobe malfunction.
The big colour screen in the centre of the dash looks like someone went ‘Egad!’ after forgetting to incorporate it properly into the instrument panel. This reinforces its iPad-mini look, but no, you can’t take the screen with you after shutting the car off, no matter how much its design invites you to try to pull it out. Like in the B-Class, it’s a futile effort, although the design does teasingly imply that this may be the next frontier of automotive coolness.
Mind you, a detachable touchscreen that you could use as a tablet when you’re away from the car won’t be nearly as cool once you leave it in on an Air Canada flight, as happened with a laptop of mine, never to see it again. Even if you remember where you put it 20 minutes after de-planing, they won’t let you back on to look for it.
Dynamically, the CLA is one of the more accomplished front-wheel drive cars on the market, its ride comfortable yet confidently composed in the corners, thanks to the sports suspension that will be standard here, as well as a roof that’s as much as 122 mm (nearly five inches) lower than the B-Class. The CLA’s power and braking seem near-identical to the B, the hatchback actually slightly lighter, though Benz says the CLA’s 6.7-second 0-100 km/h time sits a mere 0.1 seconds ahead of the B-Class.
What is far behind the B-Class in the CLA is rear-seat room, both for heads and knees, as both brushed the front seat and headliner respectively when I sat my near six-foot frame back there. The trunk is actually not bad at all: not as flexible as the B-Class hatchback, but still generous for such a small car, at 470 litres.
In the end, with the new CLA, less practicality rewards with slightly more fun, and much more dramatic style. Indeed, as I learned, less can be more, depending where your priorities are, and not just more costly.
2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250
Type: Compact luxury, four-door sport “coupe”
Base price: $33,900
Engine: 2.0-litre, turbocharged, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 208 hp/258 lb-ft
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): estimated Euro ratings 8.4 city/4.9 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Acura ILX, Audi A3, BMW 1-Series, Buick Verano, Mercedes-Benz B-Class, Volkswagen Jetta GLI
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