The second-generation CLA steps out of the shadows with its own brand of confidence

Sometimes you can only be honest when something is replaced, like when a mate gets a new girlfriend for instance. Only then can you tell him that you never really liked the previous one. That’s how I felt about the previous generation CLA. It looked like it was trying to be a compressed CLS and to my eyes at least, it just didn’t look right. It wanted to be something it just wasn’t.

So, like Bud Fox in Wall Street eventually figuring out he isn’t Gordon Gekko, the new CLA isn’t trying to be a junior anybody. It’s grown up and decided to be its own thing.

That said, the previous generation CLA has been a big seller in Australia, with the CLA 45 AMG variant being a significant part of overall CLA sales. For now though, the more ‘evocentric’ editions of the new CLA range are yet to launch, those being the 225kW CLA 35 AMG (think of that as the replacement for the current CLA 45 AMG) and the real king of the kids CLA 45 AMG, with reports of 285kW in the regular model and a silly 310kW in a rumoured S edition. Until they arrive in 2020, we get a taste of things to come with the CLA 250 4Matic.

The new CLA is a very polished machine that looks great from all angles whereas the previous generation felt like it had too much going on. Sitting on 18-inch alloys, the CLA 250 looks squat and well proportioned. In fact, it’s plain in comparison to the previous generation, but plain in a classy understated sort of a way. Dimensionally it’s spot on too, surprisingly being only 2mm narrower in width and 20mm shorter than the Mercedes C Class from the class above. More on that later.

However, the biggest improvement is in interior space, which is now a much more airy space to inhabit, whereas the old car was borderline claustrophobic, especially in the back seats. I’m not sure if it’s the new dash layout which copies the themes of the new A-Class but it feels a lot wider than it is. Sitting in the front you definitely feel more space around your arms, head and shoulders than before and anyone in the back seats, always a cramped experience in a previous-gen CLA, clearly has more space around their body as well. Back-seat passengers need not fear a long trip in a CLA ever again.

On paper the CLA 250 4Matic really should just be a point-to-point bit of transport, not a machine in which you would generally seek tight and twisty turns. However, on the occasion that you take the back road you will be rewarded by one of the hidden joys of motoring.

Ever since a day of snow driving at New Zealand’s fabled Snow Farm, I’ve been a fan of Mercedes-Benz’s 4Matic. Merc’s non-intrusive AWD system offers a combination of balance and safety while complimenting the driving abilities of anyone below Ari Vatanen’s skill set. Put 4Matic into practice on twisting tarmac in the hills outside of our drive location in Munich, minus the snow, and a whole world of driving entertainment is unleashed in the new CLA that is far from expected. It’s just quick enough to keep you entertained, with the 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine and seven-speed dual-clutch transmission good for a 6.3 second sprint to 100km/h. No it doesn’t punch out of corners but it does encourage you to keep up a decent pace to carry decent speed in, through and out of them, revelling in a balanced engine, drivetrain and chassis combination that equates to a lot more than the sum of its parts. It’s sure-footed with minimal body roll via the optional (but must have) adaptive damping system. The electrically assisted steering is light but direct and the brakes more than capable of keeping keen progress in check. Get into the swing of things and it’s motoring entertainment of a different kind, once again doing its own CLA thing.

The only area I’m not so in tune with is the CLA’s engine noise being plumbed into the cabin artificially via the speakers. While only something you notice in Sport mode, which admittedly we spent 95 per cent of our time in, it’s not an overly inspiring soundtrack in the first place. It’s the only pretend aspect of a car that has otherwise grown into its own and it’s just not necessary.

Overall, I’ve found myself thinking the new CLA is now a pretty cool car though, filling a place in the market that the first series missed by being either awkward to look at or just plain cramped to be in. Like I said at the start, it’s Bud Fox being nothing but Bud Fox.

With its switched-on and stylish looks, increased interior space and general all-around and surprisingly dynamic capabilities, given the choice of a Mercedes-Benz C Class or a CLA I’ve got to say that the latter of the two would get my deposit. Furthermore, if you are in the market for a current C Class, 3 Series or A4 sedan the CLA 250 4Matic really deserves to be on your shopping list as well. You might just be surprised by what’s on offer. Matthew O’Malley

Engine In-line 4-cyl, 1991cc, turbocharged
Power 165kW @ 5500rpm
Torque 350Nm @ 1800rpm
Weight 1550kg (106kW/tonne)
0-100km/h 6.3sec
Top speed 250km/h