Merc-i Beaucoup

A few weeks ago I actually had chance to do what some might constitute as grounds for a real life road test – I not only took one car for a test drive but also had a chance to have a decent sit in one of the latest models from a brand I really like, Mercedes Benz.

My turn in the driving seat was behind the wheel of a factory fresh Mercedes CLS250 CDI, a car with which I have some experience with in Shooting Brake (aka estate) guise but was this time a saloon version. The CLS itself is a very fine car which benefits from very nearly the latest technology from the Stuttgart brand, wrapped up in a striking package; sleek low down looks combined with large 19″ wheels in AMG Sport trim mean this is not a car that goes easily unnoticed on UK roads – yes the load-lugging variant is even more distinctive but the regular saloon car will likely appeal to those who are willing to settle for more traditional looks and still have room enough to pack the golf clubs. Inside I’ve always been a fan of the CLS with it’s tasteful use of metallic accents and classy analogue clock, but this saloon example came with updated TomTom based traffic reports on the navigation unit…a small but very useful addition which could make commutes a lot easier.

As somebody who drives a SUV that towers over most traffic, the driving position of the CLS was of course going to be a big adjustment for me, but even having experienced life as a passenger various times I was still surprised at quite how low down and hemmed in I felt behind the wheel. The window-line is very high in the CLS and can be borderline claustrophobic if you’re not used to it, but thankfully after a while I ended up being totally comfortable and arguably more connected to the road. Seats have a wide range of adjustment too, but it’s worth noting that the steering is not electrically adjustable unless you get the memory package…not a massive blow considering manual reach and rake is standard but the electric adjustment is probably worth the cash (especially as it means seats come with lumbar and more adjustment too). As my BMW has a relatively conventional control layout it also took me a little while to come to grips with the foot-operated parking brake; combined with a column mounted gearshift it means the centre console has extra space for cupholders and other cubbies, but while the gear lever becomes second nature quickly I think an electric parking brake would be much more fitting. Thankfully though Mercedes have finally done away with their ’10 and 8 o’clock’ positions for their indicator and cruise stalks…the indicator/wiper stalk is now at the more conventional 9 o’clock position and the cruise stalk is further back and now less likely to be nudged by accident.

Now after these pre-drive observations are out the way, what is the CLS250 actually like to drive? Pretty damn good as it would turn out, and not like any car I’ve really driven before. That 250 designation is actually in reference to Mercedes’ 2.1L 4-cylinder diesel engine which lies under the CLS’ massive bonnet, in a 204bhp state of tune – when combined with the faithful 7-speed Geartronic automatic it gets this big saloon/coupe to 60 in around 8 seconds, more or less similar what it takes for my BMW X5 to reach 60 too as it happens. Yet despite having 2 less cylinders and less bhp/torque than my big Beemer it feels a hell of a lot quicker thanks to that aforementioned low driving position and the fact you don’t mind flooring it (it was a courtesy car after all!). Considering this car had less than 100 miles on the clock and had not fully loosened up that’s fantastic, and it’s pretty amazing what modern 4-cylinder diesels are now capable of considering it’s stil possible to buy one with well under 100bhp. This same engine is fitted to the larger ML250 and some have expressed concern that it does not quite shift the SUV’s bulk or have a sound befitting a premium vehicle, but if it’s anything like this admittedly lighter (if equally expensive) CLS then buyers have nothing to worry about going for the more economical engine.

The ML250 shares an engine with the CLS250, but has been called too slow for a premium model

I was lucky enough to be able to drive the CLS on a variety of roads even though it was a short test drive, and while handling was commendable (even if the turning circle was large) it was the high speed comfort and refinement which really won me over – this thing will sit at just above the legal limit and the engine is barely more than turning over! I’m sure the 3L V6 diesel in the 350 would be even more amazing on these fronts but the 250 is all most buyers will ever want, and it even manages to return over 45mpg in everyday driving! Admittedly I have not driven rivals but based on my brief experience driving the CLS (and longer experiences as a passenger in the CLS Shooting Brake) I would whole heartedly recommend it for anyone in the market for this type of vehicle…the only problem now though is that the 250 has been superceded by the less powerful/more economical 220 in the new facelift, and that might tip things in the favour of the 6 cylinder for buyers after good performance.

Now after helping return the courtesy CLS to it’s main dealer home I was able to have a good nose around one of the more intriguing new Mercedes models – the GLA, a small crossover based on the new A Class family of vehicles and one which gives Mercedes to win some serious sales in an uber-competitive market. Now I have to say that although I was initially enthusiast about the launch of the GLA, the more I have seen pictures and even seeing this one (and others) in person have given me the impression that it’s definitely more of a pumped up hatchback than either of it’s immediate rivals (the Audi Q3 and BMW X1). The A Class which the GLA is heavily based on is a smart looking car, and the crossover version certainly has even more visual flare with it’s larger wheel arches (and wheels) and chunky body cladding, but to these eyes it appears more similar in concept to the Volvo V40 Cross Country than anything else.

Inside the cabin and things are again very similar to the A Class, not a bad thing but possibly another missed trick in making the GLA more distinctive. I really like the classy air vents and dial layout which Mercedes are putting into their newest cars, but I am less a fan of their tacked on iPad-like infotainment screens, which somehow manage to appear more aftermarket than similar systems in BMW’s and Audi’s (especially as Audi’s usually have screens which disappear into the dash on request). Still the large swathe of metal/wood/plastic that runs across the dash is at least distinctive, and whilst some areas of trim are definately sub-par compared to more expensive Mercedes’ I’ve sat in, they are no doubt better than in the BMW X1 which as always been criticised in that department. I only had a brief chance to look in the rear seat of the GLA but I was pretty disappointed considering my Mum’s Honda Jazz has miles more space in a car that’s smaller and about a third of the price in base spec.

Prices for the GLA start at around £27k, which is more than both rivals cost, but when engine and gearbox options are taken into account, a mid spec diesel auto GLA will cost a chunk less than similarly equipped Q3’s and X1’s…something that came as a pleasant surprise. I hope for Mercedes’ sake that the GLA does well, as the new BMW X1 looks to have stepped up it’s game big time, and the Audi Q3 whilst older is still selling like hot cakes.

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