Grace and Favour

We consider the Mercedes X-Class. No, not that one…

Mercedes CLA Progressive Line. Image: Mercedes-Benz

Much metaphorical ink has spilled forth on the pages of Driven to Write since its 2014 debut, a sizeable proportion of which has been flung in the direction of Sindelfingen’s current styling leadership. Not without justification either, for little of Mercedes-Benz’s stylistic output has risen above the level of banality for longer than we’d care to acknowledge.

Not everyone has been gripped with paroxysms of delirious pleasure over the broadly welcome shift in Mercedes’ Sensual Purity-themed styling away from the more striking forms and graphic elements of yore, with what some might discern as calmness equally being viewed as a lack of definition. Perhaps the most convincing case for that point of view lies with the current era A-Class. The W177 has been with us a number of years now, carving for itself a position in the European C-sector sales charts that might have given VW more to worry about by now had Wolfsburg not been busy placing all their Golf balls into an electrified basket of an entirely different stripe.

Debates around stylistic tentativeness aside, and the A-Class is an insipid looking thing by all accounts, its lack of visual pop has not acted as an impediment to uptake (or whatever one calls it these days). The A-Class is sold in bewilderingly fecund varieties – Rastatt pumping out the standard hatch, two different CUV crossovers, a minivan-MPV, a three-volume saloon, a lifestyle estate, and a coupé. Now that’s what I call platform amortisement.

It is the W177’s most glamorous derivation however that I wish to highlight today. Glamorous? That would be a matter for debate in today’s market, where anything of a remotely raised height variety cuts more of a dash. But that is not to say that the coupé format has lost its allure entirely. More to the point, it has in too many cases (and not least in Mercedes terms) lost touch with the concept of grace.

Mercedes-Benz offer the current-era CLA as the range-topper, with a price tag that places it well past entry-level C-Class territory. While the first-generation CLA was an alarming confection of stylistic flourishes appended to a set of proportions locked in a fight to the death for possession of an over-riding theme, the current model offers a far more cohesive visual palette. Nevertheless, at those prices, one would really need to be swayed by what it is offering.

Mercedes-Benz UK probably know their market, and have in their wisdom elected to only offer the CLA in emboldened AMG-Line form (albeit in three distinct flavours of emboldened), replete with ugly alloy wheels, enlarged (fake) air inlets, even more pointless rear outlets and faux-diffuser. Rather misses the point in my view, but the target customer knows what they want and the CLA AMG-Line provides it – in 64 ambient interior lighting shades. That’s choice, that is.

Here in the Republic of Ireland, the CLA is also offered in three flavours, but in this case only one of them is AMG-themed. Entry level is dubbed Style. Nobody ticks this box. Next up is Progressive Line, which adds a few bells, whistles and LEDs, (and fancier rims) but maintains the entry level car’s more restrained exterior treatment.

It is this latter model line that appears to make up the bulk of Irish market CLAs, or at least the ones I tend to notice in this increasingly affluent enclave of West Cork. And notice them I do, largely because I find to my surprise that the CLA in its untattooed, devoid of Botox, non-AMG form amounts to quite a pleasant looking motor car – by contemporary standards at least.

Assuming one can avert one’s eyes at the now traditional shutline crime scene that characterises the products of Sindelfingen’s design studio, the CLA is a commendably well proportioned shape, one which hides its unenviable dash to axle ratio rather well. If anything, it is a neater piece of work than the larger and more cumbersome looking CLS coupé from which it derives the bulk of its styling theme.

Image: Mercedes-Benz

In fact, observing a CLA in motion recently it occurred to me that Mercedes-Benz have succeeded in producing a latter day Jaguar X-Type, albeit with one marked difference. Execution. The low-slung CLA is everything Jaguar most likely wanted to achieve with X400, but found themselves unable to. But unlike the Jaguar, the CLA, by consequence of its more practical saloon sibling is free to adhere to its more indulgent brief and can instead major on style and perceived one-upmanship, with a price to match.

It has been apparent for some time that Chief Design Officer, Prof. Dr. h.c. Wagener’s appreciation for the Geoff Lawson-era Jaguars knew little bounds. With the CLA the homage is clear, even allowing for the fact that the stylistic end result is rather more easy on the eye.

Mercedes-Benz in X-Type shock! Well at least it isn’t a pick-up truck – this time. Small mercies…

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

29 thoughts on “Grace and Favour”

  1. Good morning Eóin. Try as I might to like Mercedes-Benz’s new calmer styling theme, in this case I Just can’t get past its rather flaccid form (and those bonnet shut-lines). To my eyes it lacks any tension or athleticism and I’m completely bored with that side DLO shape, which seems to have been a feature of Mercedes-Benz saloons for ages now.

    For all its flaws, the Jaguar XE is, to my eyes, a much better articulation of a small sports saloon.

    1. The XE is incredibly sensitive to colour and wheel choice. There is a facelifted version near me in red with contrast diamond cut wheels which looks very sharp.

    2. Hi SourDiesel. You’re right about the XE’s colour-sensivity. I was going to post this photo above, but thought grey would make a fairer comparison with the CLA.

      Very nice (although I’m no fan of diamond-cut alloy wheels).

  2. Comparatively speaking, Mercedes design is currently rather good. Compare and contrast with what BMW has done with the just released new 2 series… good God, it’s awful.

    However, I agree that ‘sensual purity’ lacks any real purpose or definition.

    1. New 2-Series. Just checked. John 11:35!

      It has the look of a small tank, without the purposeful elegance.

  3. Good morning Eóin

    It was only a few months ago that I had an in-depth look at both the Mercedes-Benz CLA and the Jaguar. Actually, at first it was merely a matter of friendship, born out of an act of desperation.

    I happen to have this very good friend, a person who, in my eyes, has exquisitely good taste in everything that surrounds him. It comes from a simple, unobtrusive elegance that he prefers to cultivate. And that also applies to the contents of his garage.

    For a long time, this was the home of a now aging BMW 335i (model E92), which had to be replaced due to its increasingly run-down condition. Right away it was clear that another BMW would never be an option due to the current design philosophy. That was the point at which he called on me for some assistance.

    And that is how the hunt commenced, initially also touching on the Mercedes-Benz CLA. And yes, at least from one angle or another, the vehicle certainly has the substance for a favourable consideration. And yet you can’t escape the feeling that you’re looking at a deceptive package. A suspicion that was quickly reinforced during the test drive, which was then prematurely terminated.

    That left the Jaguar XE, which was initially not fully convincing in terms of design (like many of Ian Callum’s creations, it has formal genes that somehow smack of Ford and reveal that its creator went through an obviously formative school of style there). And yet the car has a substance that initially positively surprised me too and in this case was decisive for the purchase.

    From my modest point of view, the Jaguar XE is not the product that can live up to the brand’s claim.In this respect, it is absolutely right that there will be no direct successor. And yet, as absurd as it may sound, from the points of view described above, I think it is currently the best choice in its class.

    1. The only other saloons close to the XE in my view are the Giulia (although the pricing is ridiculous – the base XE is a bargain in comparison and looks anything but ‘base’ in its spec) and … the Mazda 3 saloon. The latter is clearly not viewed to be in the same class, but it’s a lovely thing to look at, drives nicely and and has a very nice interior, as well as costing less (albeit having nothing like the power and torque of the XE).

    2. I had a conversation with one of my friends about this lately. I do not intend to replace my E92 anytime soon, but if I had to I narrowed it down to a Guilia or XE. The Guilia is actually a lot cheaper in base trim in the Netherlands than the XE. € 45,390 against € 56,826. The CLA can be had for € 38,874.

    3. I too would prefer a Giulia or XE over anything from the German premium trio at the present time. This looks rather appealing:

      At least buying a Jaguar or an Alfa-Romeo would demonstrate a capacity for independent thought!

    4. Same for me. The over-aggressive design of the Germans is not something I’d want to be seen in.
      Although engine-wise it’s probably a class below, I’d also take the Peugeot 508 into consideration. Not quite sure if it’s actually considered a saloon because of its hatch, but exactly that would be welcomed by my taste.

    5. That’s interesting. When I was faced with the decision of replacing my A4 B8 I also looked at the XE and Giulia as more attractive alternatives to the German design mess.
      The XE was dismissed for its crude detail solutions (AdBlue filler neck in the boot – an absolute no no) and the Giulia for its lack of acceptable service infrastructure. In the end it becaue a pre-facelift A4 B9, the last acceptable Audi. But if this is to be replaced I do not know what to buy.

      The Giulia in the picture above is quadrifoglio verde with five hundred-something PS…

  4. Seen from behind most of the current Benzes have an excessively domed roof which looks like an egg and the curved outline of the rear screen looks like a toilet seat.

    1. Mr Robinson, the Mazda 3 saloon is available here in top trim with a 2.5l 250 hp turbo and AWD. Costs about $34K Canadian. The hatch is more. And with 420 Nm of torque at 2,000 rpm, it doesn’t hang about at low speed. Or high. The same engine in my larger and heavier Mazda 6 flings it about with abandon, but since only FWD was available at time of purchase that’s what I’m stuck with. All these tinny A and B Class Mercedes with superficial gilt cost 50% more than the 3. For nothing. But the badge. The A3 is the nearest, because the small BMWs are nothing if not rebodied MINIs, but the interior is not as good as the top trim Mazda, which perhaps the new one will correct. Still costs 30% more, and up if you specify some of the more navel-gazing options. And the Mazda is built to last. Any survey will show that. They do not go wrong. Of course, with that turbo engine, the CO2 output is likely prodigious. My 6 has averaged 9.2 l/100 km over two years.

      I test drove the 2015 CLA with its 2.0l turbo when it was new, and it was plastic city inside, had excessive tire roar even at town speeds and seemed completely underdeveloped. What a joke.

  5. Good morning Eóin. Help me please. What am I missing?
    “Assuming one can avert one’s eyes at the now traditional shutline crime scene that characterises the products of Sindelfingen’s design studio”

    1. Hi Mike. (Please forgive me for jumping in, but this is one of my obsessions!)

      Mercedes-Benz has a shocking recent track record of poor shut-line and panel gap management. The CLA is by no means the most egregious example of this, but take a look at this photo:

      The bonnet shut-line looks uneven because the plane on which it sits continually changes angle. There is no angle from which you can view the car so that it looks satisfyingly consistent. The gap is also wider than other manufacturers achieve, which exacerbates the problem. The nose cone to wing panel gap is poorly handled in the way it is ‘broken’ either side of the headlamp, so it looks misaligned.

      Mercedes-Benz’s recent vehicles always give the impression that they were designed without any thought about where the shut-lines and panel gaps would sit, then these were carelessly added at the last minute.

      For an example of how to manage the same shut-lines and panel gaps properly, take a look at the current Škoda Superb:

      The clamshell bonnet to wing shut-line is nicely concealed within the body size crease, while the bumper to wing panel gap is a neat short horizontal line. These were obvoiusly carefully considered during the design process, not added as an afterthought.

      Glad I got that off my chest!

    2. Hi Daniel. You are forgiven and I have sympathy for your condition too. Fortunately I don’t look too closely at such things as they might prevent me from purchasing any car ever again. It’s good that we are not all the same I think.

    3. In fairness to Mercedes-Benz, they can and do make a better job of this on other models. Here’s the GLE coupé, a ridiculous car, but with much better shut-line management:

      Allowing the bonnet to meet the top of the headlamps and grille improves matters by eliminating a shut-line across the front of the car. The bonnet to wing shut-line is aligned with the base of the DLO and looks much more ‘natural in that position.

    4. Here’s another example of perfect shutline management, including an invisible one between bumper and wing:

      The Audi is funny because its bonnet is hinged on a parallelogram mechanism which moves the bonnet forward and gives access to the screen washer filler neck in the front wing’s upper horizontal surface immediately in front of the A post. It also does without a plastic nose cone because the bonnet latch is set back by about fifty centimetres so pedestrians don’t hit it but fall on the long and soft double-skinned bonnet nose.

    5. That’s a great example, Dave. That continuous bodyside groove that conceals the bonnet to wing shut-line is a lovely detail. It’s a shame that Audi messed around with it in the facelift:

      The facelifted car not bad in absolute terms, but looks like change for change’s sake, and is not an improvement on the original, IMHO.

  6. I think that if I were in the market for a small, premium saloon, I’d either go for a Tesla, or the Volvo S60 (based on the interior alone, in the case of the Volvo). Actually, if I had to have a saloon, I’d probably get a Passat.

    I wonder what Genesis will come up with.

    1. I thought they had split up a while back?
      Sorry but couldn’t resist it. I’ll get my coat…

    2. Oh, I’d forgotten about the S60. It’s absolutely a contender:

      The Genesis G80 looks quite nice from this angle:

      But the grille…YIKES!

      Trying far too hard to make a big impression, like that annoying bloke who thinks he’s the life and soul of the party.

  7. I was driving along slowly behind and then next to a standard A class hatchback model recently and was shocked to discover myself admiring it somewhat; it has a clean, quite well proportioned shape that looks good in motion. Bland, perhaps, but far from offensive and that must put it in the top 1% of current production designs.

  8. Hi Eóin, insipid as it may be, I rather like the A-class, particularly the saloon (which you pointed out as well). As to Daniel’s point: its DLO is slighly less blancmangey. Such things being relative, of course, given the current state of car design. Only the Mazda Mazda3 (or something) springs to mind as a succesful design. Maybe if Volvo made a C-segment car (as opposed to an SUV). I seem to remember reading that the CLA has a slighlty longer wheelbase and rear overhang (or maybe just the rear overhang) to improve proportions over its hilarious predecessor. I thought the previous A3 saloon was quite a handsome thing as well:

    A-class, 1 series and A3 selling like they do, seems to be the harbinger of the C-segment facing the same fate as the D-segment: only “premium” sells in any discernable volume.

    Daniel: I cannot help but chuckle whenever a GLC sticks its oversized bum in front of me (usually obnoxiously close, sudden and not indicated). It is just a Terry Gilliam drawing of a car, although the most egregious view from behind is right at driver eye level and unsuprisingly, it rarely gets photographed that way. This gives an impression, though.

    As does this:

    1. Hi Tom. Yes, that A3 saloon is actually quite restrained and quietly handsome, but the new one is, of course, a mess. The GLE coupé is, as I said, a ridiculous car and that rear view is really unpleasant. In similar vein, take a look at the new 2 Series coupé:

      In addition to the horrendous surfacing and the weird ‘Roman nose’ bonnet, it appears to be suffering from a rectal prolapse…ugh!

    2. Ugh indeed 🤢, I suppose I dug that particular er… “hole” myself with that last picture. I will never be able to look at that 2 series again 😜. Whilst its predecessor was also in the “quietly handsome” category (not that that precludes rectal abnormalities). Alright, enough of that.

      It seems slim pickings regarding design these days. It’s either, as Christopher Butt argues at Design Field Trip, Auto-Tuned Sodium Glutamate, or it’s restraint that borders on insipidness (Merc, but also recent non-electric Honda designs – better than their predecessors and to be fair, Honda was never a design driven company). Much like the rest of society, extremism seems the plat du jour. Toyota seems on a decent path, and Renault have some good designs still.

  9. I find it interesting that the Mercedes is being compared BTL with mostly rear-wheel drive car designs from a class above. Given that the CLA is not marketed as a sports saloon (that’s the C-Class’ job allegedly), I’m not sure it’s necessarily a straightforward nectarine and nectarine situation. While I concede that perhaps some CLA customers might cross-shop a C-Class or one of its rivals, they are more likely to consider an A3 Saloon or a 2-Series Gran Coupé, which even the (notoriously criticism-averse) Irish motor press has described as ‘odd looking’.

    Anyway, I fear this veers from the slightly tongue-in-cheek point of the piece, which was not only to draw comparison between the CLA and the X400 X-Type, but also to acknowledge the fact that Mercedes’ designers didn’t do a particularly bad job on the car’s design, especially given the platform they were working from.

    Would I choose to own a CLA? About as likely as me purchasing an X-Type.

    Regarding the Mazda 3, I nailed my colours to that particular mast some time ago.

    The Surface of Things

    1. I think the CLA’s problem is that it starts at over £30k , which gives it some pretty chunky opposition – an Audi A4 starts at less than that, for example. And the CLA’s worth extra because… ?

    2. Indeed Charles. Its primary offering is style. As to whether one thinks that is worth the outlay, as I pointed out in the piece, “one would really need to be swayed by what it is offering”…

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