The CLA Coupé is not your usual saloon. Just like Mercedes today is not your usual car company.
Premium car makers used to make money with something called margins. They would produce a car that was, let’s say, 15% more expensive to develop than a mainstream model and then sell it for 40% more.
That’s because people were willing to pay for a premium badge and that still holds true today. Maybe more than ever. But one thing has changed: premium constructors have become volume sellers.
If you look around when you are driving along, I bet it won’t take you more than 30 seconds to spot an Audi, BMW or Mercedes. They’re everywhere. Owning one of these cars is no longer owning an exclusive product. It cannot be, when they sell around two million cars a year each. That’s six million premium units being sent to the market every year.
Why? Well, because premium has been coming up with niches within niches within niches and, most of all, crashed the mainstream party in the C segment and invented a sub-segment between C and D, where cars like the one you see in the pictures stand. The Mercedes CLA: it’s much more complicated than it looks.
You see, Mercedes have created a range of compact cars spawning from the same platform, allowing them to create different models with basically the same parts, thus lowering the cost of development and increasing margins. This is all very good for the brand, but the problem is they need to sell a lot of them, because car companies have become such giants that margins are no longer enough – they need volume. And while premium names had resisted this in the past, they don’t anymore.
So the CLA is a front-wheel drive D-segment saloon based on the platform of a front-wheel drive C-segment hatchback, the A Class. That same platform also gives us the CLA Shooting Brake, the GLA crossover and the B Class. These cars were a stroke of genius from the guys at Stuttgart: people love them, they are selling like ice creams on a hot summer’s day and enabling Mercedes to overtake BMW in the premium market around the world.
In the first semester of 2016, there were more than one million three-pointed star cars delivered to clients, while the Bavarian rival ‘only’ got to 990,000. In Portugal, BMW is also trailing Mercedes. Audi is a distant third.
Looking at the CLA Coupé, the question then is: why are people so in love with this car and its counterparts? Well, first and foremost, because it is a Mercedes and studies have showed no other premium car brand has the same level of awareness with the public.
Second, it is stylish. I won’t call it beautiful, but one goes by on the street, with its sleek roofline, big wheels and that large grille up front and jealousy starts to set in. Friends will think you’ve made it.
Inside, the recent facelift has added better materials and what seems to me a better fit and finish. The layout is attractive, although the infotainment screen still looks a bit like an afterthought. There is not much space in the back, especially if you are over 1.75m tall, but there is a solution for that: it’s called the CLA Shooting Brake.
The car Mercedes gave me to drive was a CLA Coupé 200d, with a 2.2 litre diesel putting out 136 horse power attached to a seven-speed automatic gearbox. It’s not very fast and it doesn’t encourage you to lose your licence, but if you find a rhythm with the car, the CLA is an interesting offer for those who want to be different.
It’s not as refined as a C Class, of course, but since it is aimed at a younger audience who can still cope with the odd bump in the road and a bit less insulation than usual in a Mercedes, I don’t see that as a problem – nor does everyone who has been buying it, clearly.
The chassis is not exactly playful, but the CLA can be fun if you carry enough momentum into the corners and lean on the front wheels. Dynamically, it feels like it could cope with a lot more power, as the top-of-the-line 380 horse power AMG version so illustriously demonstrates.
At €42,000, the 200d Auto is €5,000 more expensive than the entry-level 180d Auto, because it has an overtaxed 2.2 litre, whereas the 1.5 litre in the lower version is more tax-friendly. Still, that extra capacity and 27 horse power more are, in my view, worth the money. I even got the 200d to average 5.5 l/100km in 750km, which was really surprising, meaning consumption is not a factor here.
At the end of the day, the CLA is a car bought on the way it looks and the image it projects of its owner. As a way of luring new customers to the brand, it has delivered with flying colours and will surely continue to do so. That two million barrier is there for the taking at the end of the year.
By Guilherme Marques