Once upon a time, people readily understood that when when one says “180” [“ponton”] or “190” [fin-tailed], one is surely referring to no other car than a Mercedes. Locally, the distinction was just between the 180 “pagong” [turtle] or the 190 “palikpik” [fin], and that's all one needed to know to qualify as anything else other than a Mercedes. Upright, not fashionably styled, pricey, bulletproof, austere but spacious, comfortable, safer than anything else on the road and you can count on the doors not to burst open in the event of a collision. Unless it was an SL, it wasn't going to set the heart beat faster. It was competent at all day Vmax speed, but only because it was at that time, a characteristic unique to all Autobahn bred German cars. Braking power was above the norm, steering was slow but never numb and because of its power to weight ratio, transmission ratios were shorter than average for 1st and 2nd gear – to enable Alpine climbs – third was not too long for overtaking on “B” [Bundesrepublik, non-autobahn] national highways and fourth was long for Autobahn top speed cruising.
But which is what?
But that was 50 years ago and now Mercedes Benz has expanded its car product line to embrace as many kinds of needs and wants. Getting the name right for every Mercedes model of today needs several letters of the alphabet. By 2015, the confusion led Mercedes to rationalize its naming protocols, but it didn't end up reducing the indigestion of so many letters and numbers, which sometimes don't mean what it says. Like any car maker that wants to keep ahead of everyone else, Mercedes has kept pace with providing Mercedes Benz values for every imaginable niche. The question is, which era do the Mercedes Benz values come from? To think Mercedes cars have been around for 130 years.
Take our subject vehicle. Its full name is Mercedes Benz CLA 250 4-Matic AMG Sport. Its a 250, but it doesn't mean its got a 2.5 liter six cylinder like 250 S's of 1967. At 2.0-liters, its missing the other half liter and 2 cylinders. But its turbocharged. It sports the “Sport” nomenclature but locally it adds the “AMG” acronym, no doubt basking in the halo of the name of Mercedes Benz's in-house tuner. At 211PS it is not the full strength 366PS CLA45 AMG treatment. AMG-lite if you wish. But there's nothing “lite” about the brakes, big wheels, hugging sports seat and the ultra firm sport suspension.
Meet the A team
Its a part of the “A” class model family. As a “CL” the CLA has a 4-door “coupe” roof. This chopped top lowered roof, seemingly inspired by 50's hot rods, is quite an established niche in Europe where Mercedes sells its CLS sedan, BMW with its 6 series Gran coupe and even VW's Passat has a version called “CC”. With this coupe roof treatment, claustrophobic to some, the latest W176 is the lowest A class ever.
Now on its 3rd generation, it is almost Smart-like in its detachment from purist Mercedes tenets, like front engine rear wheel drive. Earlier generations were 2-box style only. A's were front wheel drive instead of rear wheel drive, while up start and divergent Smart, kept rear wheel drive with the engine also in the rear. That layout in not entirely new for Mercedes as it did have a rear engined car when it produced the 170H from 1936 until the outbreak of World War 2.
In the MB scheme of things, the A class is the new entry level model family, a role the “C” class, the successor of the 1983 W201 190E previously held. Historically, Mercedes always had an entry level class. In 1935 the most numerous, prolific and most memorable affordable Mercedes on European roads was the W136 170V. Put the 250CLA and 170V side by side and you will see that all that longer, lower and wider transformation from 1955 to 2012 produced a car tighter for occupants than the 170V. Blame it on our century's heightened anxieties on safety, ecology and economy.
Neither is the CLA faithful to the first A class. That was a fresh and unique engineering feat. Its tall boy look, with a reverse angle “D” pillar was mainly for safety's sake. In the event of a horrific collision, there was ample space and various degrees of energy absorbing members of the superstructure to guide the engine and transmission pack into the car just under the footwell. Likewise, the tall profile was a plus to large sized adult accommodation. The 2004-2012 W169 2nd generation cured the W168 first generation's infamy as being too ready to roll over in sudden swerves, embarrassingly discovered in 1997 when Swedish magazine Teknikens Värld subjected the A to the “Elk” avoidance test.
The big star grille
Mercedes's main hall mark, the grille, definitely SL, is a big three-pointed star on a field of little twinkly studs is unique in the constellation of status grilles. Even if a more workman facsimile adorns Mercedes trucks. Mind you, we think the “A” will look better in the latest C, E and S class “classic” Mercedes radiator grille with retractable thee-pointed star standee.
Looks do not deceive
Looks alone, there is no way that this wide crouching, ground hugging CLA 250 would rolly polly its way into corners, much less topple over. Its in keeping with today's aggressive looking and sounding sports machines, ready to pounce with large wheels, wafer thin wide tires and attention grabbing exhaust note. And just by looking at it, you know it cannot honestly produce a supple ride.
A mix of disparate elements from the past?
The interior is the latest Mercedes speak – monoplane wing section padded dash roll and classic 2 instrument binnacle. Mercedes has taken a lot of criticism for the mid dash tablet video monitor that sticks out and up, looking like the add-on that it is. Audi has dealt with this tablet look by either making it pop up from the dash top or integrate it in the main binnacle. Mercedes's answer can be found in the latest E class and S class – the whole instrument cluster is now a wide screen TV.
Buttons, buttons everywhere
The myriads of buttons on the console hasn't gone through the button/switch diet that BMW, Audi and Peugeot has been boasting recently. The radio has the classic one mouth 2 ears look but loses its top spot as it is now relegated to the bottom of the console. Though no i-Drive, Mercedes COMAND all-in-one infotainment-climate-domestic chores control thumbwheel is not as clunky as one would think. The CLA follows the latest Mercedes diktat for multiple round air nozzles for air, a sop to those who remember the eyeball vents of the W123, 108 and 115 of the 70s. The usual adornment of brushed metal is laid on the dash, though wood and lacquers are model specific options. The steering wheel is Mercedes latest 3-spoke, festooned with remote control buttons for cruise and video monitor instructing.
Reinterpreting the Mercedes feel
Does it drive like a Mercedes? Yes and No. The rather weighty steering is muted but not dumb, very Mercedes in idiom. The brakes bite like they mean to generate phenomenal decelerating g force. The ride? Let's put it this way; if you want a classic supple Mercedes Benz ride, you probably want the space that goes with it. So if the C-class or E-class is too rich for you, CATS Mercedes Benz has chosen the GLA and B-class to serve you nicely. The CLA 250 sport is for those who want a BMW M2 or a milder EVO or WRX. And that was the mind set I got myself into.
Doing things with emphasis
Think M2 and you won't be disappointed. Forget about your rear seat passengers or if you have a few brave and compact ones in the back, at least tell them to participate in your sport driving by behaving like bob sled team members, leaning and gripping as the lateral g's push and tug in the corners. Appreciate the tight hug of the sports seats. Bumps? Smother them with the accompanying pounding. I wouldn't call it noise as the thumping suspension just syncs with the rather coarse note of the four banger. This engine is Mercedes's own, not the smaller displacement engines that is shared with Nissan [petrol] and Renault [diesel]. And as for the A's platform, it will be shared for a North American market Mexican made Infiniti.
Safety is in its DNA
Safety? Its' a Mercedes so expect Airbags galore, active and passive hardware and apps. like - lane alert, collision mitigation, anti-slip/slide, traction control, cornering balance, assisted braking, anticipatory seat belt tightening PRE SAFE, etc.– another mouthful from the alphabet soup of Mercedes safety speak.
Too smart by half?
Like a true “AMG” sports fiend, the CLA 250 comes with a slick shifting 7 speed DCT, a robot dual clutch transmission. Its 4-MATIC 4x4 is default front wheel drive with rear wheel drive occasionally engaging on demand on spirited exits through corners. And it works, making you wonder what that hullabaloo about rear wheel drive is all about, besides being a 130 year old tradition.
Comfort? Yes its got fully independent multi link suspension all around. We suspect the garden variety CLA is the one with supple spring tuning. To think Engineers spend so much time, effort and resources to make a car ride comfy – long travel springs, compliant bushings, multi-stage damping – then when upgrade models come along, all tuned for sport – the same sophisticated suspension parts are thrown out to be replaced with more pricey but harder riding hardware. It used to be that this was a job for the aftermarket which gave you a hard, harder and hardest ride. Curiously, the aftermarket never came up with products that would make the stock suspension ride even more plush and cushy. So if your benchmark is the ride of the Mercedes 220Sb, circa 1963, well, look elsewhere.
The latest crop of Mercedes models are a product of a long running revolution. Mercedes is breaking away from the past to lead the automotive world into the future and the look must reflect this. The last big revolution in Mercedes philosophy was in the 70's when it introduced and applied ideas that were thought good enough only for the drawing board. Mercedes was as daring as Citroen then. Think if you can remember them.
A dossier of significant discoveries
Zero-offset steering axis – for precise steering input for accurate return to dead straight in the event of a blow out and consistent weight transfer loading of a radial tire's sidewall. Ribbed tail lights and flanks for a self cleaning effect. Asymmetric pivot wipers to clear as much as 98% of windshield area. Door skirts covering running boards to reduce dirt accumulation and to improve side impact crash protection. Aerodynamically shaped large format side view mirrors mounted on A pillars with inboard controls. Large blunt and ergonomic shaped energy absorbing knobs and thumbwheels for all interior controls to avoid impaling or puncturing human flesh. High window sill padding for shoulder height protection on side impact crashes. ABS brakes. Padded steering wheel. Low front and high rear deck wedge profile. Aerodynamically shaped rain gutters.
Again another indigestible mouthful but many of these design protocols, and safety motives guide today's car designers.
CLA 250 and 170V – fit for the times
Save for the space it occupies, today's CLA 250 doesn't share any part or idea with the 170V eighty years ago, but the 170V's advantage is that it can seat 4 adults comfortably without making them bend and stretch on entry and exit. The CLA 250 is a compromised product of our times, where the public demands not only lighter, faster and thriftier, but also sportier [hard riding and tighter] while Big Brother demands safer and greener which contradicts what the public wants. The 170V's were slow, thrifty and quite comfortable. But then, Mercedes always plays safe. After all, the 170V's first German decade was under the National Socialists – Nazis. You can't get any more Big Brother than that. The CLA 250 looks like a radical departure from the rich Mercedes past, but when you consider the premium that Mercedes places on safety – active, passive and consumer satisfaction – the CLA 250 isn't as radical as it looks.