Day one: I drove a CLA a while ago and then sort of forgot to write about it. There was nothing much wrong with it, but it felt a bit Merc Lite, as if they’d tried to replicate the stout, reassuring appeal of an E- or S-class and come up a bit short. Anyway, the one I drove before was low spec, front-wheel-drive and diesel. This one is the more recently introduced four-wheel-drive version with a more powerful petrol engine. It’s badged 250 but it’s not a 2.5-litre. Damn you Mercedes, you perfidious liars. It’s a 2-litre with a turbo on it. On the evidence of a quick drive home, the CLA feels better than I remember. There are some bits of like-a-Benz-but-less-so such as the black plastic switches that are shiny metal in more expensive models but overall it’s not bad.
Day two: Staring at the CLA from the front room window, there’s another way in which it’s not quite like the full fat Mercedes’. They’re rear-wheel-drive with lengthways engines and have the proportions to suit. The CLA’s engine is crossways which makes the front overhang longer and the gap between the wheelarch and the front door smaller. They’ve plugged on regardless trying to make it look like a shrunken CLS and mostly succeeded but from some angles there’s something a bit off about it. ‘I like that car,’ says my wife, apropos of nothing. ‘It’s sporty.’ So what do I know, eh?
Day three: A day of Top Gear business including a trip out and about with two colleagues, exposing a problem with the CLA’s swooshing roofline. If you’re tall, there’s not much headroom in the back. Not much at all. And it’s made worse because the ride is on the verge of firm and causes repeated and uncomfortable head-to-headlining twattage.
Day four: A family outing. A baby seat fits perfectly well. So there we go. If you’re six foot tall, you won’t fit in the back of a CLA. If you’re about two feet long and have your own rear facing seat, you will.
Day five: It’s the day of the last Grand Prix. A good season for Mercedes. They’ll be pleased about that, especially since they seem to be determined to be seen as more dynamic. The CLA is another part of that effort. It might explain why it comes with a slightly unusual grille that looks like something off a concept car. It’s not bad, but it seems to be trying a bit hard. I liked Mercs when they were minimalist and restrained and designed by a man whose name translated as Brown Bag.
Day six: A day in the office and then a trip up the sodden gloomy motorway to Staffordshire on Top Gear business. The CLA is good at this. The engine makes a bit of noise under hard acceleration but it’s quiet at a cruise. The whole car is. The body is very aerodynamic, which must help. The last leg of the journey is a sprint down some damp A-roads towards the promise of a pint. The CLA has a double clutch gearbox with paddles. It’s not the snappiest change, even in sport, but even so the whole car can be bitch spanked along in a useful manner.
Day seven: Across Staffs to a filming location. I’m leading a convoy of television presenters. Jeremy Clarkson has got a modernised Jensen Interceptor. Richard Hammond has got a Porsche 911 GT3. James May has got other ideas about getting to the location and disappeared in a different direction entirely. The road opens up, there’s nothing ahead, I floor it. It’s wet. The CLA scampers away. It’s really rather good in these conditions. Better than, say, an old Jensen with a broken windscreen wiper or a track-biased Porsche. We arrive at the location. A gap has opened up. ‘You were driving in a sporty manner,’ says Clarkson accusingly. I wouldn’t call the CLA sporty as such. It’s trying to be, and it’s quite amusing to drive, but it stops short of being sharp and aggressive and zingy. That’s not a criticism. By being grown up about things, Merc has made it a better all-rounder. You can rag it round if you want to, and it’s decent at that, but it doesn’t insist that you have to.
Goodbye: They’re taking the CLA away. I liked it. The ride is a shade too bumpy, the engine isn’t especially charming and there’s not enough headroom in the back. But in all other respects it feels well-made and well designed. It’s the sort of car you’d enjoy owning. And, especially on damp autumn roads, you might enjoy driving too.
The car talked about here is a Mercedes-Benz CLA250 4MATIC. It has a 2-litre turbocharged petrol engine making 208 horsepower. It can go from 0-62 in 6.6 seconds and on to 149mph. Without options it costs £33,440.