Can driving a Mercedes be disappointing?
My first Mercedes drive experience
We Indians have a preconceived notion about various things. One of them is that foreigners are considered to be the smarter ones. A degree from a foreign college has a higher appreciation in our society. And all Mercedes cars are regarded as extremely comfortable machines. Even though I myself am guilty of the last one, however, I learnt my lesson via a more hands-on approach.
This was my first encounter with a three-pointed star in the driver’s seat. And to be honest, I had my fair share of expectations from a Mercedes. For instance, the ride had to be comfortable. The drive had to be joyful and encouraging. No buttons should fall off on touching them, and there should be a decent amount of tech inside. Did the Mercedes meet all of it? Let me fill you in.
The first instance when my eyes were taken aback was when I saw the Mercedes standing in front of me. For a four-year-old car, it still looked quite pretty. And as my eyes were having trouble in keeping up with reality, I had a sense of breathlessness when I was about to open the driver side door. The weighted door felt good to hold and the moment I lay my gaze on the frameless doors and that stylish dashboard with those turbine-resembling AC vents, I knew I was about to sit in something special.
The well-cushioned seats welcomed my bottom, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel spoilt my palms with luxury. But as I was about to embark on my first Mercedes first experience, I was left confused. There was no gear lever. The owner of the car noticed my puzzled look and was quick to point towards the stalk gear lever mounted on the steering column. And just before I thought I had everything figured out, my perplexed look came into form, yet again. This time, as I couldn’t locate the handbrake/parking brake on the center console where it’s supposed to be. The owner chuckled after looking at my bewildered face and showed me the lever for it, stationed beneath the steering column. Off to a brilliant start then!
At last, when I was finally about to have a crack at my first Mercedes by lifting my foot off the brake, my body glitched a bit as my mind started flooding with everything that could go wrong. I could recall the shape of the beautiful headlights that could get broken, the fantastic grille that could get smashed or the pretty tail lamp that might not survive this drive. But as I clutched the leather-wrapped steering wheel, took a few deep breaths and gradually lifted my foot off the brake, I made my mind believe that everything will be alright! And if not, we have insurance, and I would have to prepare an apology letter before leaving town.
Haha, great! But which Mercedes is this?
This sedan with a coupe-like silhouette is the 2016 Mercedes CLA 200d. This is the very first iteration of the two derivatives launched in India and is the cheapest Mercedes sedan one could buy in India with prices hovering around the INR 35 lakh(or $46,300) mark.
So, why were you left disappointed with your first Mercedes drive experience?
It all comes down to the ride. As this was a Mercedes, I was expecting it to go over potholes in a cushiony fashion. But, in the CLA, I could feel the bumps when the car went over them. I admit, the thuds weren’t as audible as in a Hyundai, and yet the vertical motion of the car could be felt by my bottom but rather subtly.
On retrospection, the CLA was built for a younger audience. And since Mercedes’ target audience for this car comprised the younger sections of the society, I believe they won’t mind trading a stiff body for more composed handling by the car at higher speeds. If one has a comfortable ride as their priority, the C Class Mercs and above are built for that, and not this. The CLA is there to encourage you to drop the hammer down when you see an open stretch of road.
Okay, that was perceptible. Did any part of the drive make you happy?
Yes, the CLA drive had its moments. For example, the steering itself was a good chunky unit. It had bits of leather at the right spots so that your palm experiences everything except suffering. The wheel was light for city driving and weighed up reasonably well when the car started gaining speed. But at no point did it feel like I had to wrestle with it. By the end of the drive, my arms were as relaxed as a man chilling on the beach.
The engine had a good mid-range punch. Mash the throttle, and it takes just about a second to react and get going. But once you find its sweet spot which is above the number 3 in the rev counter, the 2.2-litre turbo diesel motor producing 136hp and 300Nm of torques pulls linearly. You wouldn’t experience a sudden spike of power anywhere when the speedometer needle climbs as uniformly as clockwork. Unfortunately, the occupants will hear it working.
Then comes the chassis. I liked the CLA’s underpinnings. The car managed to hold its own while cornering. At no point did I feel the weight of the vehicle pushing me outwards while trying to turn the car at a smudge over city speeds. At all speeds, the body turned quite effortlessly along with the road and felt planted.
How is the CLA to sit in?
Compared to the first Mercedes I ever sat in? Cramped. The only way you can make tall occupants sit at the back is by asking them to keep their heads tilted. The sloping roofline eats up a good amount of rear headroom space while the high transmission tunnel entails the middle seat is best for adolescents. The CLA is best suited for three people or maybe four, that too if really necessary.
For drivers, the seating position is low and snug. The car wraps around the driver, enhancing driving confidence. However, the sloping roofline also means rear visibility is terrible. Hence, reversing is only advisable if the rear parking camera is functional.
Does it have a lot of gadgets to play with?
If it were a new model, technology would’ve been offered in abundance. However, this car dates back to more than four years and considering that it has a decent bit of kit. You get various driving modes, namely, Eco, Sport, Comfort and Individual. Toggling through these modes has a prominent effect on the engine response and the steering feel. For instance, the Eco mode makes the engine go lazy while the Sport mode provides it with a bottle of Red Bull.
For entertainment purposes, the car features a radio with Bluetooth and USB connectivity. This particular iteration doesn’t get equipped with Android Auto or Apple CarPlay due to its age. However, the CLA comes with a central command screen via which functionalities of both the car and the infotainment can get adjusted through a rotary dial.
That appears to be satisfactory. And did any buttons fall off?
Didn’t seem possible. The Germans are known to offer the best build quality when it comes to cars, and this being a Mercedes, the benchmark is set at a higher level. The buttons had a sturdy feel to it. To get it operational, one had to really press them all the way. But for a four-year-old car, the dashboard looked modern enough.
So, what kind of person would buy this Mercedes?
I believe the Mercedes CLA was built to serve as a doorway for capable buyers who would want to join the club of the three-pointed star. The affordable pricing meant the brand could lure customers from bulky full-sized SUVs in the same price to a more upmarket luxury sedan with a reputed badge.
Not ideally suited for an entire nuclear family as the rear seats aren’t very welcoming, especially for tall people. But it would suit as a great marriage gift to a young couple or a young graduate who landed a new job.
Buying this CLA means you’re basically buying a Mercedes badge with a pinch of power, a bucket full of stunning looks, German luxury and build quality and a car for two.
P.S. - A big thank you to Ankit Garg for lending me his car and still letting me drive it even though I didn't know where the gear lever was.