It was dusk. The car pulled up at a PLUS lay-by after winding its way down the hills of Tapah.
Three middle-aged men stood nearby, staring at it in apparent admiration. They looked animated, passing remarks about it and continued doing so as the Mercedes-Benz pulled away and merged with highway traffic following the refuelling stop.
The CLA certainly stands out not just for its rarity (for now) on local roads but for the fact it’s quite the looker.
And then there’s the bigger picture. The way Mercedes-Benz is telling it, the CLA is doing so well around the world, it’s hard keeping up with demand, being forced to start a third shift to fill orders.
It’s a good problem to have and comes as a big relief to Dieter Zetsche whose continued career as Daimler boss, some pundits say, was dependent on the success of the car.
Unveiled at last year’s Detroit auto show, the CLA imported to Malaysia earlier this year came in the form of the CLA 200 and the extreme variant, the CLA 45 AMG.
The CLA is based on the new A-Class platform, which also has an AMG hatch which we had tested in December – and liked a lot.
AMG had done a great job, creating the most potent 4-cylinder engine in series production, delighting the senses with its power that was aligned with the car’s refined driving dynamics.
Like the A 45 AMG, the CLA 45 AMG uses the same powerplant. Why waste a perfectly good engine?
Selling a car is as much about the packaging as it is about pricing and aftersales support.
Compact products from budget to luxury car makers are generally looking better with each iteration.
As a totally new model, the CLA joins the club of small cars, with the mission to attract younger buyers and/or rich kids living off their parents’ money.
Mercedes-Benz is not stopping at the CLA sedan;a Shooting Brake CLA is planned for next year so this breakthrough model from Mercedes’ Hungarian plant is among the new compact cars that hold the promise of extending market share for the Stuttgart crew.
The CLA is undoubtedly eye-catching. Mercedes stylists have carved out elegant lines in the four-door compact coupe that is reminiscent of the CLS that debuted in 2003 - and combined it with a swoopy look that doesn’t look awkward despite the smallish dimensions.
On the contrary, it makes the car look distinctive through the interplay of concave and convex surfaces.
Bold expressive features include powerdomes embedded in the bonnet and the diamond radiator grille.
The light modules and LEDs behind the headlamp cover glass have been arranged in such a way as to create the characteristic “flare effect” for the daytime driving lights and indicators.
This light signet defines the car’s appearance and shapes a new Mercedes face.
Adding contrast are black wing mirror caps.
The width-emphasising rear end radiates power and athleticism, a result from the drawn-in C-pillars in conjunction with the shoulder muscle over the rear wheel arch linings.
The tail lights, arranged arrow-style, are framed by the muscular lines of the shoulders which extend into the rear where dual tail pipes complete the picture.
The CLA moves on 18-inch run-flat tyres, a surprise considering Mercedes-Benz is finally following what arch-rival BMW has been doing for years.
Run-flats were first fitted to the W246 B200, and in future such tyres will be used in other selected models.
Models not equipped with run-flats will use a Tirefit kit (fix-a-flat type of goo with a pump).
Cabin instrumentation is clean and attractive.
Touch and feel remains premium with the dash top layered with soft-touch leather and plastic panelling. Five round vents add a degree of sporty ambience. Unlike most Mercs, the gearshift selector is a stalk behind the steering wheel. But you quickly get used to it.
As the base car, the CLA 200 still gets paddle shifters and leather seats but loses other perks such as start/stop button and GPS.
The free-standing infotainment screen is small, priming you to the fact that this is a car bereft of navigation aid, an option to be fixed at the factory level.
Mercedes-Benz Malaysia has told us that “this option cannot be fitted on an existing vehicle that does not come with COMAND Online. The NAV button on the CLA 200 is a common button but only with COMAND Online does the NAV button work.”
A simplified dial on the centre console offers a quick way to navigate screen displays.
While front-row seats look the part in a coupe and are functional with enough elbow room, they could do with better thigh support.
Legroom is adequate in second row, enhanced by scooped surfacing in the back of the front seatback but headroom is, as expected, wanting on account of the rakish roofline. And that space is really meant for two passengers although a third could squeeze in at a pinch.
For the driver, rearward visibility is severely restricted but only if the middle head restraint is up.
At 470l, boot space is big for a car this size; the rear seatback can fold forward almost flat to enlarge storage space when needed.
With a set-up like the CLA, you are bound to think it ought to be nimble-footed - until proven wrong.
A terrain like Cameron Highlands is a good playground to let loose the CLA. And so it was taken up the slopes over a weekend via the Simpang Pulai route and went down the old Tapah way the same day.
The CLA 200 comes with a 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine that produces 154hp and 250Nm of torque.
Traversing Camerons and its countless bends proved to be an enjoyable experience.
We had many opportunities to power up and speed past slow-moving traffic and to brake in a hurry when an overtaking pass failed in the face of an approaching lorry.
Such occasions are when you are encouraged to use paddle shifters as you sweep through corners.
The engine was peppy and traction was excellent as the car navigated the twists and turns with confidence and agility. Feedback from the steering wheel is none too sharp but placement of the driven front wheels was accurate nonetheless.
In ECO mode, the car went into periodic auto starts/stops, much appreciated as we inched through a traffic crawl on low fuel load midway up Camerons.
Helping fuel efficiency along is the innate sleekness of the car, which at a Cd of 0.23, is said to be the most aerodynamic of any road car, according to Mercedes-Benz.
Turn off ECO on the dash, and the car feels much more alive, being quicker off the line though it didn’t blow us away. After all, an 8.6s sprint time from 0-100kph is hardly spectacular.
Cabin insulation is decent but engine noise and tyre roar are intrusive at high speeds.
In normal driving, the firm suspension and run-flats do offer some measure of comfort and is not as harsh as it may seemed because the suspension of the CLA has been tuned to compensate for the increased tyre rigidity.
So ride in most cases is still refined until you cross a patch of poorly paved tarmac, where the low-profile tyres will start to pick up vibrations and noise that will be relayed to the driver's fingers.
The accelerator pedal has a rather mushy pedal travel - quite out of character for a sporty car like the CLA - and detracts somewhat from the driving experience.
On balance, this is a respectable first stab at doing a compact four-door sports coupe for Mercedes-Benz. It’s version 1 and there are some niggles.
But things can only get better from here on. We hope.