What is the difference between a Mercedes CLA and a Mercedes C-class?
Apart from their prices, that is. I´ve been looking through the spec sheets again.
We know that the CLA is a front-wheel drive vehicle, related to the A-class which is now essentially MB’s offering in the Golf/Focus/Astra sector. The C-class is a monument in the automotive firmament, with roots going back to the rear-wheel drive 190E of the ’80s. That car was the first sign that Mercedes was interested in capitalising on its prestige by bringing their quality down to a smaller class of car than they had been offering up to that point.
The CLA has an in-line 4-cylinder 16-valve engine. And so does the C-class. Let´s look at a numerical comparison of the cars to see how they differ…
The C-class is lighter, taller, wider and longer than the CLA but not by very much. 50 mm separates them in length, nothing you´d notice on the street. The C-class driver has 10 litres more luggage space but you would have to use standardised volume blocks to detect this. A full boot of C-class luggage could be transferred to a CLA if the need arose. Everything is squashy when you are desperate enough. Both cars have similar base engines but the CLA has a fuel tank that is disproportionately smaller (for no obvious engineering reason). It is in matters of acceleration, power output and top speed that the C-class bests its front-wheel drive sibling but the differences are nothing greater than those which often separate different versions of the same body shell (e.g. the 1.4 to 1.6 to 2.0 to 2.0 turbo hierarchy). £2080 is what one pays for another ten miles per hour top speed, a two second advantage in the 0-60 time and ten more litres of luggage space.
So, far it seems to me that most of the differences between these two cars could have been easily accommodated in the same body shell. And while at first one thinks that means the CLA is supernumerary, it actually implies that the C-class RWD platform is not wholly justified. Not with differences these modest. At the least, the saloon version of the A-class is a niche too far.
Some could point out that the C-class offers the delights of rear-wheel drive handling. To which one might respond that Audi have sold plenty of A4s to people wholly unconcerned with such matters. As BMW memorably said when selling the FWD Rover 75, most people don´t care. In almost all normal circumstances, the supposed advantages of RWD are of no relevance and are only really discussed by motor testers and the odd driving enthusiast.
I did not expect to find the differences between the cars to be so slight. And of of those that stand out the most, the differences in performance are ones that could easily be addressed by modest changes to the CLA. But Mercedes won´t address those. Not because it is not possible but because they don´t want to further erode customers´ reasons for spending the extra £2080 one needs for those extra 10 litres of luggage room (at £208 per litre). It is also worth pointing out that the perceived quality of these cars can´t be differentiated all that much since MB wants buyers of top-spec Golfs, Astras and Focuses to trade up for a reason: the nice plastics and solid finish. So, it´s not as if MB has much leeweay to worsen the impressions the CLA makes when you sit in so as to preserve a relative superiority of the C-class.
Capping it all, the CLA is arguably the nicer looking car. I don´t think so as I prefer the C-class´s comparative restraint. But when I was last at the MB showroom I noticed the customers admiring the CLA for its rakish looks and ignoring an identically painted C-class.
I don´t think Stuttgart is a big enough town for both of these cars. In a decade, the CLA may turn out to be the cuckoo in the nest.
[Post-script: Mercedes Benz of New Orleans offer their own guide to spotting the difference between the two cars here].