Mercedes opens the door to battle of new era
It's a miserably damp day along the usually sun-splashed Med coastline. Back home BMW and Audi are in pole position in the luxury car market.
Fast forward to March 2020, and, hey presto, a rejuvenated Mercedes-Benz has deftly slipped into the lead in the premium or 'luxury compact' popularity stakes. Or so it hopes.
Mercedes estimates the segment currently accounts for six million cars globally and that will rise to 10 million over the next 10 years. And it wants a piece of the action.
If it succeeds, it will put it down to its 'Next Generation 2020' business plan which is aimed at attracting a more youthful, image-conscious audience and, by the end of the decade, at knocking today's leading players in the segment off their perches.
Helping towards that is the new CLA coupe.
With the CLA, which gets here in June, Mercedes believes it can ruffle the feathers of BMW's acclaimed 3-Series and Audi's equally respected A4.
Though closely related to the curvy CLS, the CLA, as the name suggests, is in a new class of its own.
Overall, Mercedes will unveil no fewer than 10 new models here over the next four years. This includes, in 2014, a new, "slightly bigger" C-Class to rival Audi's A5, along with another newcomer, the GLA, to take on the BMW X1, X3 and Audi Q3 and Q5, giving the marque a presence for the first time in the small SUV segment.
Certainly the stylish, 4dr CLA is a head-turner, combining the familiar low-slung sportiness of a coupe with that frontal, nose-to-the-ground gait of an energetic, high-end saloon.
Exterior looks apart, though, it's far less impressive on the inside. The door aperture and curved roofline sharply compromise access to the rear seats while there's little, if any, spare headroom in the back for six-footers.
While boot space is adequate, the sill is high and oddly shaped, making loading-up more of a chore than it needs to be.
However it is, after all, a coupe aimed at 35-year-old singletons or those with young families, and throughout it does have that premium feel.
Top gong for design highlights must go to the particularly attractive rear lighting cluster.
Mercedes claims fuel economy of 4.2-l/100km with CO2 emissions in tax Band A. ECO start/stop is standard while there's a choice of 6spd manual or 7G-DCT automatic transmissions.
The test cars, the 250 (2-litre) petrol and diesel automatics, with a choice of sport or comfort suspensions, were smooth and athletic performers in murky conditions over a mixed test route through Provence of some 300km.
Expanded i-Phone and social media connectivity, the monitor with a black-piano lacquer look and silver frame, and eye-catching hand-stitching in plush seating added to an overall level of luxury that, Mercedes will doubtless insist, needn't break the bank.
First to arrive here will be the CLA 220 CDI followed in September by the CLA 200 petrol, with the 180 diesel by mid-2014.
In a full year, they expect to sell between 300 to 400 initially.
Prices have not yet been confirmed but will start at around €30,000 for petrols rising to €35,000 for diesel.
Let the battle commence.