The Mercedes CLA is best thought of as a junior CLS. It offers the same four-door coupe styling as its bigger brother, yet costs around only half as much to buy.
Based on the same platform at the latest A-Class, the CLA doesn’t really have any direct rivals. The closest is the Audi A5 Sportback, although potential buyers will no doubt also be considering conventional saloons, such as the BMW 3 Series.
There will be only two engines to choose from at launch – a 120bhp 1.6 turbo petrol and a 168bhp 2.1-litre diesel – while a lower-powered diesel will follow later in 2013.
What's the 2013 Mercedes CLA like to drive?
The latest A-Class doesn't ride very well at all, so the fact that the CLA has the same basic suspension setup doesn't bode well.
The good news is that Mercedes has made various changes to improve comfort, including tweaking the damper settings and installing rubber bushings between the rear subframe and chassis.
These modifications have certainly improved matters. Stick with ‘comfort' suspension – confusingly fitted as standard to Sport models – and the CLA actually rides quite well at high speeds.
Things aren't so impressive around town, though; the suspension struggles to cope over poor road surfaces, causing the car to shimmy nervously.
The fairly soft setup means body movements aren't well controlled, either. Turn the wheel and the body slops over before the nose of the car begins to start pointing where you want it to go. On the plus side the steering is nicely weighted and there's plenty of grip.
Sport suspension (an option on Sport models and standard on AMG Sport versions) certainly sharpens things up, helping the CLA respond more quickly to steering inputs and keeping the body upright through tight bends.
The bad news is that the firmer setup makes the ride choppier at all speeds, and means sharp-edged bumps and potholes send bigger jolts through the cabin. Whichever suspension you choose, there's a fair amount of road noise over coarse surfaces, while at motorway speeds you can hear the wind whistling past the door mirrors.
We tried the 2.1-litre diesel (220 CDI), which is reasonably smooth, and picks up speed swiftly from low revs. Unfortunately, it's hamstrung by a slow-witted and jerky seven-speed automatic gearbox, which comes as standard with this engine.
Aided by that swooping styling – which helps make the CLA one of the most aerodynamic production cars in the world – the 220 CDI emits 117g/km of CO2. That means it's cleaner than an equivalent Audi A5 Sportback, but not as efficient as a BMW 320d.
What's the 2013 Mercedes CLA like inside?
The CLA its virtually indistinguishable from the latest A-Class from the driver's seat. The dashboard is smartly styled, with heater vents similar to those in the SLS supercar, and there's a 5.8-inch iPad-style display ‘floating' on top of the centre console.
The cabin materials aren't as plush as those in the Audi A5 Sportback, but everything feels solid and the assembly is generally good. The one exemption is an unusually large gap between the B-pillar and the front door inserts, through which you can clearly see the car's bodywork.
As with larger Mercs, you operate most of the infotainment functions by scrolling through menus using a rotary dial between the front seats. However, the menus aren't especially intuitive, so the system can be frustrating to use – particularly on the move.
Interior space is more impressive; four six-footers will fit as long as they're not too tall in the body, although there is more rear space in an A5 Sportback. You also have to be careful not to bump your head when getting into the back, because the swooping roofline cuts into the door opening.
The boot is only slightly smaller than an A5 Sportback's, but it's shallow and the small opening (the Audi has a hatchback) makes it tricky to load bulky items.
Should I buy one?
The appeal of the new Mercedes CLA is obvious; it offers four-door coupe styling at a much lower price than a CLS or an Audi A7.
However, take the looks out of the equation and there are better alternatives for the money. A BMW 320d auto will cost you about the same as a CLA 220 CDI, yet is more fun to drive, rides more comfortably and has a classier cabin.
If you don't fancy a conventional four-box saloon, the Audi A5 Sportback 2.0 TDI 177 is also a better bet. True, higher CO2 emissions mean the Audi is pricier to run as a company car, but it's both bigger and more refined than the Merc.
Cheaper versions of the CLA could make more sense, though. The entry-level CLA 180 – which we'll be driving later this spring – undercuts the cheapest A5 Sportback by around £1900, while the forthcoming 200 CDI (with CO2 emissions from around 109g/km) is likely to be cheaper than both of its German rivals for company car drivers.
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