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Plug-in hybrid sporting estate is a unique proposition with few true rivals. How does it stack up?

What is it?

This is genuinely unique offering in the premium compact car class, thanks to Mercedes-Benz's ceaseless niche-busting - something that could gradually come to an end as the brand seeks to trim costs. 

So let's celebrate (or be confused by) the properly extensive choice that Mercedes offers at the compact end of its range. Seven different bodystyles, all based on the same platform and some treading on each other's toes: for example, there's now the A-Class Saloon as well as the Mercedes-Benz CLA saloon.

What we're driving here, however, doesn't clash with anything. That's because, in essence, the CLA Shooting Brake faces only one other svelte, sporting, small estate: the Kia Proceed. But there's no plug-in hybrid version of that, so this booted CLA 250e is in a class of one. 

We're already pretty familiar with the second-generation Mercedes-Benz CLA itself, and we've also sampled the 250e's petrol-electric powertrain in the A-Class hatchback. So we'll keep the summary short.

Propelling the coupé-cum-estate with petrol is the now-familiar 1.3-litre four-cylinder turbocharged unit co-developed with Renault and Nissan. The 156bhp from that is given a healthy boost by a 100bhp electric motor. But, unlike in some hybrids, where the EV motor drives the alternate axle to the engine for four-wheel drive, all the power here is sent through the front axle. 

With some rearranging, including a repositioned and smaller fuel tank (down to 35 litres), engineers have wedged in a 15.6kWh gross (10.6kWh useable) lithium ion battery under the CLA's rear seats. That's good for a strong claimed electric-only range approaching 43 miles.

What's it like?

This is very much a powertrain of two halves from our experience. In eco-focused driving - arguably important here - it feels like a step on from Mercedes' older PHEV systems, such as that in the current C-Class

That's mainly because it seems far easier to keep the CLA 250e in electric mode than its bigger, admittedly more powerful sibling. It's appreciably sprightly in battery-only mode; you would have no issue getting it up to motorway speeds with a pure EV top speed of 87mph, and even when charge drops low, you don't find yourself feathering the throttle gingerly to avoid waking the engine. 

Sadly, once risen from its induced slumber and used to its full potential, the engine is omnipresent. Given how eager most economy-focused powertrains are to get you into the highest gear possible, the CLA 250e holds onto revs more than you would expect and in doing so exposes its biggest weakness. Once wound up above 3500rpm, the engine's refinement is poor, both in terms of noise intrusion and vibration felt through the controls. 

The surprisingly loud turbo whoosh would excite in a hot hatch, but in the context of this car and combined with the resonant, booming drone of the engine, it just seems uncouth. It's disappointing enough in the lower pure-petrol models but particularly frustrating in a car knocking on the door of £40,000.

That's a shame, because outright performance is respectable enough. The electric motor serves to boost torque and reduce lag, so initial response and urgency is good, and once in the mid-range, the combination of power sources make the CLA 250e feel pretty brisk. But there are two things getting in the way of it being in any real way enjoyable to drive. 

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The first is the gearbox. The economy bias of its tuning and the complexity of the powertrain makes it sometimes unsure of itself, either responding too aggressively to a throttle input by dropping down too many gears or taking too long to pick a cog and fire you away. Manual mode isn't much better, because paddle-prod downshifts are sluggish.

The second is the braking system. As noted when we drove the A250e earlier this year, there's an adjustable regenerative system that defaults to 'auto' in hybrid mode. This means it uses data from the sat-nav and forward-facing sensors to decide for itself how much regeneration you might need at any given moment. Clever though it is in theory, the result is a highly unpredictable response to lifting off the throttle: sometimes there's no regeneration whatsoever when you want it, and other times there's loads when you don't. 

This, combined with a brake pedal that lacks feel and responds inconsistently as it tries to juggle regenerative and friction power, makes for a plug-in hybrid that's actually quite tricky to drive smoothly at times. 

The CLA's chassis is one that lends itself to a more relaxed, detached gait anyway. Our car was fitted with the comfort suspension option, albeit combined with rather chunky 19in wheels. The result is what initially seems to be quite a soft and plush ride – one that trips up only over the sharpest surface imperfections at lower speeds. 

When little is demanded of it, the CLA is largely vice-free, with numb but predictable steering and decent grip. Press on, though, and it unravels. The soft set-up translates to a bouncing, underdamped feel on faster, undulating country roads, with a substantial amount of body movement for a relatively small and low car. Understeer also becomes the defining trait pretty quickly. 

The harder you push, the more it feels loose and heavy. Perhaps that's no surprise when we're talking about a car that weighs more than 200kg over the pure-petrol CLA 250. That wouldn't be so bad if the ride maintained its composure, but it doesn't feel particularly controlled once you're out of town.

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Should I buy one?

More's the pity that the CLA is pretty far from the dynamic standard of the best premium compact models, even in PHEV terms. It mars what would otherwise be a competitive plug-in with a unique selling point in its lifestyle-estate body shape. 

It certainly stacks up extremely well as a company car. With one of the lowest CO2 emissions ratings of all PHEVs on the market and, on our mainly higher-speed route, an electric-only range in the 35-mile region, it fulfils the brief on running costs. It can also charge at up to 7.4kW, which is faster than many PHEVs. 

The usual CLA traits remain, too, including a glitzy and high-tech cabin (that in this test car had one too many rattles for our liking); reasonable rear-seat space, given its svelte shape; and a boot that loses a so-so 60 litres in the transition to PHEV form. 

Yet it's very hard to escape the feeling that this car was designed to be efficient at the expense of any other positive dynamic qualities. The extra performance over a lesser CLA largely goes to waste as a result, so you’re left with a heavy-feeling car that has an inconsistent and occasionally downright unpleasant powertrain.

If, to you, that’s a price worth paying for the efficiency alone and all you intend to do is potter about town or ply motorways, it’s not without merit. But we would expect more polish at this price.


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rob26 29 November 2020

Awful to look at. Just why would you?

artill 27 October 2020

Surely the Peugeot 508 is

Surely the Peugeot 508 is another rather small estate car available as a PHEV, so hardly a car with no competitors. 

A 'PHEV' in the UK seems purely for company car drivers. Do the make any sense to private buyers anywhere outside the UK?

Jon 1972 27 October 2020

I drove one of these today

I drove one of these today and in the real world its absolutely fine. In pure ev mode its nippy enough in traffic and in sport mode its noisy under hard acceleration if joining the motorway but its bloody quick. Real world mpg is around 75 in ev mode but of your commute is upto 20 miles each way you won't need the engine. That said its not a b road car and if that's what you want then I think a phev isn't for you and a 320i or 330i are definitely smoother when accelerating. But they are going to cost you twice as much in petrol.