Mercedes miniaturises its ‘added grace and space’ estate concept, but established small wagons like the VW Golf Estate provide more room

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The CLA Shooting Brake is the fifth model in Mercedes-Benz’s compact range, all based on the front-drive platform that underpins the Mercedes-Benz A-Class hatchback.

Like the saloon version, the CLA wagon is intended to offer buyers an extra-powerful hit of the design flair that originally made the larger CLS so popular. A similar trick seems to have worked for the CLA, with its maker rating the model’s launch as one of the best in recent years, particularly in the United States, where small ‘sedans’ are generally preferred over hatchbacks.

The CLA shares the same platform as the A-Class, while receiving styling pointers from the CLS

The UK doesn’t share the same predilection, but it does tend to look favourably on small estates, and as a niche oversubscribed with mainstream workhorses, the implied luxury of a dashing Merc could be the ideal fix for those with slightly deeper pockets and two pedigree dogs to walk.

Increased practicality, of course, is the pith beneath the shiny body, so the manufacturer singles out the Shooting Brake’s increased spaciousness in comparison to the standard CLA as the substance on which to build a rational buying case.

It is this car’s mixture of space, style and affordability that Mercedes is selling as new and, while Audi would disagree, it might have a point. The CLA was no ordinary compact premium player in the first place.

The car is actually longer than the previous-generation C-Class, as well as significantly longer than many of its hatch-based rivals – and that advantage in visual presence may help to convince buyers who pause to consider what else the model’s £26k starting price could buy them. In spring 2016, Mercedes gave the CLA coupé and shooting brake a facelift, which was dominated by a diamond effect grille, revised interiors and tweaked powerplants.

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At that entry level, the estate comes with a 1.6-litre petrol engine and a manual gearbox. Mercedes’ Sport and AMG Line trims will bulk out the majority of sales, with its 2.1-litre diesel engine (in 200 and 220 d forms) taking the spoils. Four-wheel drive is available too, most prominently in the CLA 45, a 375bhp super-wagon, but also its available in the range-topping 250 AMG and 220 d. That’s for another day, though. Here, we drive the 200 d in its most affordable guise.

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The CLA Shooting Brake shares the same A-Class platform

Coldly considering the Shooting Brake from its spec sheet is not the most helpful way to understand what it is. Like the Mercedes-Benz CLA saloon that spawned it, the car doesn’t quite measure up in terms of segment positioning, by which we mean it’s too big and too expensive for one class and possibly a little too mediocre underneath for another. Better, then, to forget how you might characterise the model and simply decide whether you like its looks.

And that is what Mercedes intends you to do. A Mercedes-Benz C-Class estate, after all, is slightly bigger, more sophisticated and only modestly more expensive, but it has a more conventional shape.

It’s heartening to find a more balanced dynamic compromise on the CLA’s baseline comfort settings

Mercedes wants the CLA to make less sense and for you to simply want one. That decision made – typically on the basis of the plunging D-pillars used to great acclaim on the CLS – Mercedes will furnish you with the facts to back it up.

Several of these are no-brainers. A wagon’s profile means that the Shooting Brake’s back-row occupants should get 40mm more head room compared with the CLA saloon, while rear access is a little easier because the doors are slightly bigger.

Load space swells too, with 495 litres (a quoted capacity five litres superior to that of the Mercedes-Benz C-Class) now on offer with the rear seats up and 1354 litres in total with them down.

Underneath it all, the front-drive architecture is carried over from the saloon, as is the MacPherson strut front suspension and the multi-link rear. The suspension is available in three different tunes: comfort, lowered comfort and the lowered sport springs of Engineered by AMG trim.

Opting for anything other than straight comfort means a 15mm drop at the front axle and 10mm at the rear – a fate our test car was mercifully spared. No matter which set-up you choose, every CLA comes with Mercedes’ Sports Direct Steer variable-ratio electric power steering.

Like the saloon, the Shooting Brake comes with either a 1.6 or 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine or the 2.1-litre diesel unit, subdivided into 134bhp or 174bhp for the 200 d and 220 d respectively. The latter comes only with the 7G-DCT dual-clutch automatic gearbox (an option on the otherwise six-speed manual 200 d). The 220 d is also the only diesel offered with Mercedes’ 4Matic all-wheel drive system, which sends torque to the back axle via a rear mounted multi-plate clutch when it deems necessary.


A look inside the Mercedes-Benz CLA Shooting Brake

Given that the Shooting Brake shares its wheelbase and overall length with the Mercedes-Benz CLA saloon and isn’t likely to match a more conventional wagon on outright boot space due to that steeply raked tailgate, we should first address how much estate car there really is on offer here.

Front-row occupant space is certainly competitive but, moving backwards, our tape measure recorded 660mm of typical rear leg room and just under 900mm of second-row head room.

I prefer the CLA’s old infotainment controller to the new one in the C-Class. Glossily intuitive it isn’t

The latter is particularly disappointing, given the 40mm gain claimed by Mercedes compared with the CLA saloon (which measured up almost identically for us on head room). 

Regrettably, the difference made to the CLA’s passenger-carrying abilities is negligible. Integrated headrests and pronounced bolstering for the outer seats makes the back row useful for two occupants only – and smaller occupants at that.

Once you’re in, larger adults will find the car tighter on both knee room and head room than plenty of conventional five-door hatchbacks in the compact premium class.

But looking at the cargo bay will give prospective CLA Shooting Brake owners better news. Outright volume is about 100 litres shy of the estate car norm, at 495 litres with the seats in place and up to the window line. But that bald statistic actually does little to describe the usable space available.

Compared with, say, a Volvo V40 hatchback, the CLA Shooting Brake provides an additional 250mm of loading length behind the seatbacks. The car’s tapered hatchback and consequently narrow loading lip could make accommodating bulky items tricky, but there’s good boot width inside it, while 60/40 folding rear seatbacks split conveniently in order to make optimal through-loading space in a right-hand drive car (which you don’t get, incidentally, in an Audi A3 Sportback).

The rest of the CLA Shooting Brake’s cabin is carried over mostly unchanged from the saloon. You get slightly narrow but comfortable sports seats as standard and some appealing design touches such as red-accented instrument needles, wave-look silver fascia trim and feature air vents. The car’s driving position is good, save for a minor pedal offset, and its material quality levels are high.

It’s not often we get a chance to test a Mercedes that isn’t fitted with its full-house Comand multimedia navigation system, but the CLA Shooting Brake afforded one.

In entry-level Sport trim it gets Merc’s six-speaker Audio 20 radio/CD set-up, which sounds powerful and clear enough for most purposes. The Bluetooth phone connection is easy to establish but only produces averagely good call audio quality.

Our test car had Mercedes’ Garmin Map Pilot navigation system fitted — a reasonably priced solution (£495) with decent but not outstanding graphics, if a little slow to render.

The usability of the system is a tad confusing; the rotary controller is mainly only useful for the navigation menus and won’t allow you to navigate away to the radio and phone screens.

Upgrading to the Comand Online system is pricey at £1870, but it gets you an 8.0in control display, live traffic information and access to internet radio and social media channels via bundled apps. DAB digital radio is another £420.

There are three trim levels to choose from - Sport, AMG Line and, confusingly, 250 AMG. That comprehensive roll-call of kit extends to safety equipment, which means you shouldn't necessarily need to add a load of optional extras when speccing your CLA.

The entry-level Sport trim comes equipped with 18in alloy wheels, comfort suspension, auto wipers, parking sensors and cruise control, while inside includes an infotainment system complete with a 7.0in screen, Bluetooth, USB port and smartphone integration, sports seats covered in Artico leather upholstery and dual-zone climate console. AMG Line models get 18in alloys, LED headlights, lowered suspension, and part leather/part-microfibre upholstery, while the 250 AMG models receive speed-sensitive steering, sports suspension, a modified stability system, Garmin sat nav and heated front seats.

Those lucky enough to opt for the CLA 45 will find that the AMG comes with an aggressive bodykit, interior styling and decals, a sports exhaust, a seven-speed auto sports transmission complete with paddle shifters, and AMG performance seats.


The Mercedes-Benz CLA Shooting Brake

After our road test of the CLA 220 d saloon granted a chance to get to know the car in higher-output diesel form and on lowered springs, we now have a chance for a more pragmatic combination to demonstrate its mettle.

The CLA 200 d uses a detuned version of the same 2.1-litre diesel engine, and it betrays that relationship the instant you start it up through equally poor mechanical refinement.

It would take a long time to get used to the Merc’s 7G-DCT gearbox - it’s as if first and second hardly exist

Clattery from the outside and unusually gravelly and uncouth from behind the wheel, the Shooting Brake’s engine fails to make the sophisticated first impression that owners may be expecting of it.

In that respect, opting for a lower specific output than in the C 220 d gets you nowhere with this car. And for us, the diesel’s coarseness only serves to underline the need for Mercedes to invest in an all-new family of compact and economical four-cylinder diesel engines as soon as possible, in order to keep pace with its German and British-built rivals.

Move off and your perception of the car improves. However noisy that engine seems, it is at least decently smooth, with little in the way of vibration in evidence through the seat and controls.

Outright performance levels are respectable, with our 10.1sec 0-60mph time recorded in wet conditions and Mercedes’ 9.9sec 0-62mph claim, however undistinguished, looking achievable in the dry.

The car’s diesel engine offers a broad tranche of peak torque and, although it doesn’t rev as keenly as some, is flexible and potent enough at high revs for comfortable overtaking.

But Mercedes’ optional seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox seems an unflattering fit for it, just as it seemed two years ago for the C 220 d saloon. Although adequate and functional under modest throttle openings, it flounders once you ask it to operate briskly, being slow to engage at initial step-off, slow at times to kick down and managing its clutches quite abruptly.

The gearbox is better in manual mode, although even here the unintuitive spacing of its ratios can trip you up, while it can be downright trying with its hesitancy when manoeuvring.

It wastes few opportunities to remind you that it’s incapable of changing gears as smoothly as you could yourself – which is surely the cardinal sin of any two-pedal transmission.


The 18in wheels transmits bumps into the Mercedes-Benz CLA Shooting Brake's cabin

The CLA Shooting Brake, like its four-door sibling, offers comfort, lowered comfort and lowered sport suspension tunes, fitted as standard to entry-level, mid-level and top-level Engineered by AMG trim levels respectively.

And given that we found the lowered comfort tune skittish and uncompliant when we sampled it on the Mercedes-Benz CLA saloon, it’s heartening to find a more balanced dynamic compromise here on the range’s baseline comfort setting.

The CLA can run out of grip first at the front, then at the rear, when pushing hard

While it still has its shortcomings, the CLA’s ride is much more supple, and its handing more natural, thus configured.

The damping is fairly gentle, just as it should be for a bias towards refinement, and allows its wheels plenty of vertical travel when absorbing bigger lumps and bumps in the road without disturbing the body too much. Body roll is distantly present in the handling mix but doesn’t prevent the car from steering crisply and cornering with poise.

Those standard 18in rims feel a size too big for the car at times, causing the suspension to thump over sharper edges and making for notable road roar over coarser surfaces. But they also grant a nicely judged lateral grip level, which is sweetly balanced between the axles.

Mercedes fits its variable-ratio Direct Steer steering set-up to the CLA as standard. It is a passive system that becomes more direct off-centre. We’ve found it a mixed blessing in stiffer-sprung, bigger-tyred applications, but in the entry-level Shooting Brake’s case it didn’t feel so woolly or drowning in power assistance as it has elsewhere, instead allowing weight to build helpfully with lateral load and communicating grip levels well.

The upshot of all of this confirms what we’ve long suspected about Mercedes’ new-generation compact cars: that they’re at their rounded best and most enjoyable on the road in unadulterated specification, and that they are lowered, stiffened and endowed with larger-diameter wheel rims at considerable cost. 

Hard driving only serves to confirm the impression the CLA Shooting Brake gives at lower speeds: that it doesn’t need firmer or shorter suspension springs, or bigger wheels and tyres, to retain its dynamic poise.

Carrying big speeds into corners leads you to find the limit of the car’s lateral grip levels before it runs out of body control — although even here, the car retains decent cornering balance. It turns in keenly, rolling just enough to transfer its mass helpfully to its outside rear wheel and arcing in a balanced fashion from apex to exit rather than running wide.

The odd spacing of the ratios in the car’s gearbox means you’ll need one downshift fewer than you might first expect for any given corner or gradient. Happily, the transmission gives them up fairly freely in manual mode — provided you don’t ask it to shift within 800rpm of the redline.

The car’s ESP system is a little overactive, as is the norm from Mercedes, but it functions well enough.


Mercedes-Benz CLA Shooting Brake

Whether you consider the Shooting Brake’s pricing to be canny or cock-eyed will likely depend on how much you like its looks.

As with the saloon, most examples will be sold in either Sport or AMG Sport trim.

The CLA’s strong residual values mitigates its high price somewhat for both fleet and private buyers

The car tested had 18in alloys, park assist, rain-sensing wipers, cruise control, sports seats and automatic dual-zone air-con as standard.

With the automatic gearbox, the 200 d starts on the high side of £29k – a sum that would almost stretch to an Audi A4 estate or BMW 318d Touring, and with a Mercedes-Benz C-Class wagon only a couple of grand dearer.

Dip your toe back into hatchbacks and the choice is even broader. Not only could you have almost any diesel Volkswagen Golf estate you wanted (ditto the Audi A3 Sportback), but the handsome new Golf Alltrack – with its standard all-wheel drive versatility – would also be within reach. The same could be said for the Volvo V40 D4, a car with the added benefit of a class-leading oil-burner.

We would opt for paying the £1430 premium and going for the 220 d in Sport trim and comfort suspension, as it is two seconds quicker to 62mph and nearly as efficient.

The 200 d trails in the Volvo’s wake on fuel economy, although its 106g/km CO2 emissions figure and 68.9mpg combined claim are respectable quotations as far as they go – which is not tremendously far, given that our test car’s True MPG average finished up at 53.0mpg, representing a 23% reduction in claimed economy. That lands the CLA Shooting Brake with what could be called middling running costs – for a premium price.

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The Mercedes-Benz CLA Shooting Brake

The CLA Shooting Brake feels like a good idea in need of better execution. Plugging the gap between the hatchback and estate with something better looking and more desirable than either is niche product design everyone can get behind.

A similar tack produced the superb CLS Shooting Brake, but here – not least due to a below-par engine and gearbox – is something alternative and appealing on the face of it but undercooked underneath.

Inventive and handsome but not such a pretty thing to drive

With more elegant, alluring styling, more balanced and rounded handling and a more supple ride, this car answers some the criticisms we had of the Mercedes-Benz CLA saloon – but not enough of them.

Like its four-door sister car, it fails to offer competitive passenger space – and, while fairly frugal, it is much too unrefined and undistinguished on performance to justify its lofty price tag.

It gets a warmer welcome to our rankings than the CLA saloon, then, but only by half a star. In order for Mercedes to challenge those with a higher rating, they would need to revisit the auto ‘box, refine the engine range further and improve rear passenger space.

All of this means that the CLA Shooting Brake falls short of the solid, flawlessly laid out and good to drive Volkswagen Golf Estate, and the Audi A3 Sportback and Volvo V40 hatchbacks.

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