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Mercedes pulls out all stops

MERCEDES Benz designers are working overtime as competition hots up between the top three German premium car manufacturers. In recent years, BMW and Audi have made big inroads into Mercedes Benz (MB) market share particularly at entry level, but now the gloves are off.

MB is rolling out models with incredible speed to turn the tide, and quality in new and existing models is being improved. All models are getting a fresh new MB face and equipment levels are being upped to compete with state-of-the-art technology used by rivals.

The high-selling E-Class has got a huge makeover, with hybrid technology introduced; and a new C-Class is expected to make an appearance at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September and will be bigger than the rival Audi A5. A new S-Class will in future include a coupe, cabrio, estate and a long wheelbase Pullman alongside the saloon.

But it is with the smaller model segments that MB plans to make the biggest impression. Now in a strategic alliance with Renault/Nissan, a new 'Smart For Two' and a 'For Four' four-seater is earmarked to take on the Audi A1. The Renault's Twingo version is aimed at VW's Up! and Hyundai's i10. Also expect to see a new X-Class in the super-mini SUV segment in the coming years where Nissan has created an interest with its Juke model. BMW is also targeting here with an X City crossover and Audi also has plans for a Q2. In all, MB plans to unveil 10 new models over the next four years and an important newcomer will be their GLA model – to compete with the BMW X1 and X3 models – and Audi's Q3 and Q5 in the small-medium SUV segment.

These models will follow on the heels of the newly arrived A Class and B Class models, aimed at bringing young drivers into the MB fold. The most important launch of the year takes place next month, when another all-new model, the CLA, hits the showrooms. This four-door, front-wheel drive saloon is aimed at the younger set. The coupe style is a tilt at Audi where a lot of the younger premium car drivers have been going in big numbers in the past few years. MB believes the CLA will be a head turner and should capture 300-400 sales a year.

And it is a very stylish car, the sloping roofline, smooth side curves, striking light clusters front and rear and low- slung stance will attract attention. But it has its shortcomings too. The A-Class-derived platform makes for a somewhat cramped space for rear-seat passengers and the roofline makes tight headroom for tall passengers taking a back seat. The CLA is 40mm longer than the current C-Class but legroom has been compromised by the 470 litres of boot space, which, by the way, is bigger than the C-Class. MB says the CLA is aimed at 35-year-old singletons and young family drivers, so the rationale may be that this is transport where the priority may be for golf bags and kiddies' luggage over rear legroom.

The interior is very upmarket, with climate control, iPhone and social media connectivity, cruise control, hand stitching on the dash and excellent seats. The cabin has a luxury feel and behind the wheel you get a choice of sport or comfort suspension settings. In a short test drive at launch, handling was top rate.

There is a choice of two-litre petrol and diesel engines under the CLA bonnet and MB says fuel economy can be as good as 4.2L/100km (68mpg) with Co2 emissions of 109g/km, putting it in the lowest non-electric car tax band. The CLA 220 diesel will be the first to arrive and this 2.1-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel unit puts out 168bhp with a 0-100km sprint taking 8.2 seconds. The top speed is 265km/h (143mph). This will be followed by a two-litre petrol engine and next year a 1.8-litre diesel offering.

The importers, MDL, say prices have not been finalised yet but expect petrol models to start from €30,000 and the diesel version from €35,000.

Irish Independent