Nice, and nearly as pretty as the CLS Shooting Brake. Nearly…
Agreed. The A-class wears its CLS-inspired bolt-on bottom well, despite the car’s more modest proportions, and manages a fair impression of the bigger Merc’s arcing elegance.
We’ve sampled the range-topping 45 AMG before, but it’s the 200 and 220 diesels that account for the bulk of sales. This is the ever so slightly more enthusiastic of the two, with prices from £30,930 and a turbodiesel four summoning 175bhp and 258lb ft. Despite sounding nicely aspirational, Sport trim represents the lowest rung of the CLA ladder, and does without its siblings’ lowered ‘comfort’ suspension, flashier wheels and grille, xenon lamps and jutting splitters. But it’s a handsome car nevertheless, inside and out.
Mini S-class inside?
Not quite – the CLA shoots for a timeless elegance, though some will feel it falls short, achieving a kind of dark, uninspired lethargy instead. But we like the lack of body-coloured trim strips and shiny clutter. The near-vertical dash may rise like a sheer cliff face of textured black plastic but it’s lifted by nice touches like the sculptural vents (whose clockwise turn to off is a tactile tour de force by some anonymous engineer), the myriad cubbyholes where the gearshift would normally be (it’s on the right-hand column stalk here, obviously) and a steering wheel matched in ergonomic magnificence by a great driving position and fabulous seats; low-slung, stylish and immensely comfortable.
The main screen makes no attempt to appear integrated but the display’s crisply defined, its iDrive-esque functionality intuitive enough and the primary school on-screen graphics faultlessly clear, if a little patronising and incongruous in a car that’s trying so hard everywhere else to come across as a grown up.
That indicator stalk gear selector isn’t to everyone’s liking but it works well enough, and there’s something likeable about making a lowly stalk responsible for something as momentous as whether or not the car’s in gear. It also adds to the CLA’s likeable, laidback feel. Despite its modest price, it’s a car that encourages the kind of relaxed, super-smooth progress its bigger stablemates have been doing for decades. A creaky dash tried pretty hard to spoil the illusion of big-budget refinement on our test car (intermittent, and silenced by a judicious thumping), generally there’s a little more road and engine noise than is ideal (predictably, the 250 petrol does better here) and rear legroom isn’t up to long journeys with grown-ups in the back, but if you rectified these you’d have a C-class estate…
Fidgety and keen or lazy like a lounge lizard?
The seven-speed DCT transmission promises both at the prod of a finger, with a button shifting between eco- or performance-centric shift maps. The third option is to take things in-house via the paddles. All three modes are distinct and have their uses. In fact cycling between them becomes so instinctive it’d be nice to have the button on the steering wheel. The shifts themselves are smooth and quick enough, as is the engine 90% of the time.
The chassis is similarly capable and balanced, if unspectacular. It’s surefooted and agile without managing to ever feel truly keen, and while there’s the pliancy to cruise despicable back road tarmac in relative comfort, helped by modest 18in wheels, the ride’s not from Stuttgart’s top drawer.
While the CLA Shooting Brake hasn’t got BMW overly worried – the very talented 320d Sport Touring is only a few hundred pounds pricier – it is charming beyond the sum of its parts. It’s not standout brilliant in any area, with too small a boot to be truly practical (the Shooting Brake’s is only 25 litres bigger than the saloon’s) and a driving experience that’s perfectly accomplished if lacking in outright refinement or flair. But it’s a likeable car nonetheless, the feel-good factor of its handsome lines, well-resolved basics (driving position, infotainment system) and agreeable all-round proficiency bolstered further by that star on the prow.