IAIN ROBERTSON

While Mercedes-Benz describes its new model as ‘the most emotional vehicle in its class’, Iain Robertson suggests that the new car might shake-off its former ‘melted cheese’ image with a stretched form and greater aerodynamic efficiency.

Possessing a sneaking suspicion that most automotive observers would like Germany’s much-admired vehicular specialist, Mercedes-Benz, to be better than its innate sense of Teutonic arrogance allows it to be, ever since its ill-fated partnership with the Chrysler Corporation was dissolved, it has been battling with a ‘dented’ reputation.

From a status as a stalwart of fine engineering, the association with the American firm inflicted immense harm upon Stuttgart’s ‘Three-Pointed-Star’. Straying just slightly, Chrysler had always been a troubled, if occasionally brilliant brand. Its current alliance with Fiat is, in reality, having limited benefits to an Italian brand still recovering from the destructive impact of its partnership with the other US giant, GM.

While DaimlerChrysler was in existence, Merc’s normally judicious eye was removed from the ball. Its cars became reliability nightmares. Recalls were abundant. Warranties were stretched beyond belief. The sigh of relief, when the relationship ended, was palpable.

Yet, Merc is also a fully paid-up ‘member’ of the ‘Teutonic Threesome’, a far from tenuous rivalry that confounds ‘behind-the-scenes’ market-rigging. Trust me! Merc, Audi and BMW are deadly competitors. When one of them makes a move, tries to cleave out a fresh niche, the other pair behave like territory-conscious piranhas, biting into their ‘oppos’’ fresh meat, with voraciousness that knows no bounds.

However, an over-riding respect that some might term ‘envy’ exists for Merc. It is the elder statesman, but it is also very wise and street savvy. I hold the brand with the utmost of respect and it has got its act back into gear, as can be witnessed in every one of its latest models. Yet, as a technological innovator, that important area away from straightforward car design, Merc is re-elevating itself to a pinnacle role.

With MBUX, Mercedes-Benz has been revolutionising how to operate a car and communicate with it, a factor most noticeable since the launch of the latest A-Class. The new four-door coupé sets fresh benchmarks for the entire class. Interestingly, the CLA customer profile shows that its users are among the youngest in the Mercedes portfolio and, in its previous iteration, the Hungarian-built saloon was known to have increased brand loyalty markedly.

The long, stretched entry line above the windows and frameless doors, gives the CLA Coupé an unmistakably sporty and elegant character. A striking front section, which is raked forwards like a shark nose, combines with the low-slung bonnet and radiator grille, with its central and iconic star, to create the vehicle’s sporty face. With the greenhouse moved back, the sportier rear-end of the 4.68m long car achieves a most elegant balance and a 0.23 drag coefficient; one of the most ‘slippery’ in the class.

For the interior, all elements are arranged much the same way as in the A-Class hatchback, with a broad sweep of dashboard and its signature freestanding and ‘wide-screen’ instrument display and driver interface. As I discovered, when sampling the regular A-Class hatchback last year, the instrument panel, which is like slotting three full-size iPhones together end-to-end, demands instantaneous rethinking by the driver but, fortunately, as a measure of Merc’s engineering gift, its operational intuitiveness ensures speedy familiarity. Ambient lighting enhances the effect, while the air vents, looking like turbines, give a more technical attraction.

In terms of driving dynamics, the new CLA boasts wider front and rear tracks and a lower centre of gravity, while the optional adjustable chassis settings, supported by range of wheels that starts at 16.0-inches and goes up to 19.0-inches in diameter, enhance grip, traction and overall balance of the car. When it becomes available in May this year, I recommend caution, if opting for the largest tyres, however attractive they may appear, as the ride quality denigrates significantly. If you want race-car ride, then go for it.

MBUX Interior Assist has been enhanced over the A-Class for even more natural operation. Its voice control now recognises topical requests across a growing range of verbal parameters, including regional accent variations. You can even make conversional requests of it that it recognises and delivers readily. It is now so user-friendly, with Artificial Intelligence (AI) inherent to it, that you wonder why it has taken so long to get there. Its gesture control function brings additional intelligence to the equation. While some of the gestures will demand minor re-education, or even realisation, they soon become second-nature. The result is simpler and more intuitive adjustments, regardless of time of day, or climatic conditions. The system can also distinguish between the driver’s and front passenger’s demands and can even tailor seat functions individually. It makes the efforts of BMW and Audi look immature and feeble by comparison.

An energising comfort control systematically uses the functions of the air conditioning system and the seats (heating, ventilation, massage) as well as lighting and musical moods, to enable a specific wellness set-up that is tailored to the mood and needs of the customer. Wear the ‘smart-watch’ available through Merc dealers and, in future, stress levels can be monitored and responded to, by the car, helping to reduce whatever might ail the occupants.

A comprehensive suite of driver aids and semi-autonomous features completes an already attractive standard specification. Of course, the main benefit with the A-Class was the amount of S-Class technology it could incorporate; it was a case of Merc appreciating that brand bolstering at ‘entry-level’ could be every bit as vital as nurturing its top-end customers’ needs. The CLA follows the pattern, which affords the saloon model a most intriguing stance in a narrower but no less competitive market sector. Prices will be announced nearer to launch date in late-spring.

Conclusion:    Merc is riding the crest of a wave at the moment, with record sales achieved for its car division in a depressed market. There is always a good reason for such performance and it lies with the brand excellence overall.