Mercedes CLA Shooting Brake review: a silly niche too far?

By topgear, 03 February 2020

OVERVIEW - What is it?
Ready? It’s the estate version of the coupe-style saloon version of Mercedes-Benz’s family hatchback. Yes, the CLA Shooting Brake is really an A-Class, except more practical, but not as practical as it could be, because style. If you’d suggested this car to the stuffy, traditional Mercedes-Benz of say, 20 years ago, you’d have been dropkicked out of the boardroom. Now, it’s golddust to Merc, because it’s a niche that the likes of BMW and Audi haven’t tapped into. Yet.

But, does that means it’s a pointless one? Well, the original CLA was a sales phenomenon so Mercedes was always sure to bring it back, and we’ve a soft spot for its ‘Shooting Brake’ estate sister because wagons are cooler. Especially now they’re a rare-groove choice against the Attack of the Crossover Clones. Clones like the GLA. And the GLB. See what we mean?

Better looking, isn’t it? Less nose-heavy, than the old CLA. And not as fussy. Mercedes realised it was adding too many lines, creases and swooshes to its bodywork, and it’s deleted them on the new CLA.

Course, you still get a ‘floating’ front splitter, big bonnet power domes that the engines don’t really justify, and massive fake exhaust trims, but that’s nit-picking – this is a better-proportioned, more dignified mini-Benz than the one we used to have. And a smidge larger, too. 

The new CLA is 48mm longer than the old one. Doesn’t sound like much, but all of that growth spurt has been injected between the wheels, to unlocks more cabin space. It’s roomier in the back and the boot’s a tad bigger too. But it’s the wider tailgate that’s a much more useful practicality boost.

The oily, spinny, noisy bits are all shared with the A-Class. That means there are some very good powertrains, and some versions to be avoided like a flatulent relative after Christmas lunch. Most versions are front-wheel drive, but there’s 4Matic all-wheel drive on offer on the loftier versions in the range, and it’s standard on the two go-quick Shooting Brakes: the AMG CLA35 and AMG CLA 45 – which add supercar-chasing performance to a car already niched to an inch of its life. 

Inside, the dashboard and systems are all familiar from the A-Class too – love it or hate it – but there are some new Easter egg features – chiefly the CLA knows how many people are in the car, where they’re sitting, and when it’s being spoken to. Clever? Scary? That’s the future, apparently.

All UK variants are AMG-line, which means the style-first bodywork will roll around on sportier wheels and there’s a snouty front grille and flared bumper arrangement. Prices kick off just over £30,000, and don’t stop until you’ve got one with 400bhp and a £50k price tag. But before we get corrupted by power, let’s focus on the basics.

DRIVING - What is it like on the road?
It’s actually – whisper it – a bit lazy to brand the CLA as just an A-Class with a dinner jacket on. It’s actually set up to be better to drive. Or should that be ‘less disappointing’. Anyway, although the CLA shares its basic chassis with the A-Class, it’s been to a better handling school. The CLA rides on wider tracks, the front anti-roll bar is stiffer, and the springs and dampers have been retuned.

The first result of this is a curious one: on the speed-hump-infested roads that lead to the Top Gear office, the CLA is far less prone to flopping its nose onto speed bumps. That’ll be tighter body control at work, then. And so it proves as we leave the city behind and take the CLA Shooting Brake towards corners. 

It’s a much more willing steer than the A-Class. It feels pointy and poised where the A-Class is all at sea. The limiting factor will be the engine you’ve asked Mercedes to install in the nose. If it’s a patrol, it’ll turn in crisply, but the lustier diesels like the CLA 220d are leaden and blunt the car’s responses. 

That said, we’d vouch for the CLA 220d as the sweet spot. It’s one of Merc’s newer diesels, so it’s a low-friction smoothie allied to an eight-speed automatic – a far cry from the dismal old 2.1-litre diesel and seven-speed dual-clutch snore-box. 

Floor it and you’re left in no doubt it’s a four-cyl turboderv, but under lighter duress it’s as polite as these powertrains come, good for an easy high-40s to the gallon (approx. 7.0 litres/100km) and delivers you from 0-100kph in 7.8 seconds. Truthfully, in everyday use it’s tricky to see why you’d need a wider spread of abilities than that. Though keep an eye out for when we drive the CLA 35 and CLA 45, just in case big turbos change our mind…

ON THE INSIDE - Layout, finish and space
Normally we’d kick off with rants and/or raves about the dashboard here, but since you might well be familiar with all that from the A-Class and saloon-shaped CLA, we’ll save it for a second. This is the Shooting Brake after all, and you come to Top Gear for top-notch up-to-the-minute boot space analysis.

The CLA Shooting Brake has a bigger boot than before – it’s up 10 litres to 505 litres. Not much, but it’ll feel like a more useful space, because the tailgate opening now cuts through the light clusters, instead of meandering around them. Mind you, given Mercedes increased the wheelbase by 30mm, we might have expected a tad more load space. Then of course, the C-Class Estate might have felt the heat. Such are the pitfalls of mega-niche-ification.

Moving forward, the CLA Shooting Brake makes a good case for itself as a practical ‘coupe’. There’s more headroom than you’d expect, and even with the chunky, rather ugly one-piece seats eating up room like a sofa in a phonebox, there’s easily enough space for an adult in the back seats behind an adult in the front seats. So, if you’ve got one on the company car list, you won’t lose favour with the boss if they’re relegated to the back seat for a lunch run.

Now, the main event: the dashboard. All as per the CLA ‘saloon’; good, bad and ugly. There’s a whiff that Mercedes designed this interior more to impress your mates when you give ‘em a lift – or woo you on a quick showroom tour – than to build a cabin as good as an Audi A3’s. Oh, the 10.3-inch screens do indeed look terrific. You can touch them, or swipe at the touchpad, and there’s “Hey Mercedes” voice assistant built-in. All of this is very swish and clever on first impression, but trust us, after a weeks-worth of finger prints accumulate on the screen, you’ll yearn for a clickwheel. 


And we guarantee you’ll forget “Hey Mercedes” is listening until it interrupts a conversation because it’s misheard you. By the time you’ve said “Hey Mercedes, I’m cold, please set temperature to twenty-one degrees” clearly enough to be understood, you really might as well have used the button to rouse the heater. Only, this will have reminded you that the switchgear is worryingly cheap. Again, it looks great, but familiarity with it will show where Mercedes has cut corners on quality. This is the age of the smartphone, however, and the internet of things.

The CLA’s screens are class-leading, and for its intended audience of younger, tech-savvy millennials, that makes it a sure-fire sales hit, regardless of what kind of old Lego the buttons have been made out of. 

OWNING - Running costs and reliability
In the UK, there’s only one trimline of CLA Shooting Brake: AMG line. So, no povvo-spec bumpers or small wheels for Brits. Prices kick off at £32,280 (£1,000 more than the CLA saloon) but that only gets you into a paltry 134bhp CLA 180, and this car deserves better. Aim for the CLA 250 if you’re set on petrol (221bhp, £34k) or our pick – the CLA 220d diesel, for £35,515. It emits 112g/km, officially – even the weakest petrol version can’t get within 10 grammes of that. 

Meanwhile, as per usual for Mercedes these days, options-ticking is out and big packs of grouped goodies are in. This means adding kit isn’t cheap (the feature-packed Premium Plus pack is £3k alone) but you’re also far less likely to miss out a critical feature when adding spec. We’d be most tempted by the £1,500 Driving Assistance Package. Similar guardian angel tech to Tesla, in essence, without the irresponsible ‘Autopilot’ branding. 

Don’t go looking for a hybrid or electric version – plug-in tech hasn’t made it to the CLA (yet). Mercedes’ rollout of ‘EQ’-badged EVs has been so far rather tentative.

If, tomorrow morning, the boss of Mercedes decided to stroll into work and cull half of the models the company makes, the CLA Shooting Brake would be one of the first on the block. It’s basically an estate version of the A-Class, but it’s not as practical as a C-Class estate, nor as popular as an SUV-crossover like the GLA. Or GLB. So it’s a niche within a niche. It’s a true oddball, and big, traditional companies don’t tend to have much patience for such eccentricity. 

And yet, Mercedes has persevered with the CLA Shooting Brake, and it’s worked. It’s palpably better to drive than an A-Class, usefully roomy, and rather arresting to look at. It’s actually the most well-rounded, versatile small Mercedes, so against the odds, it should be one that Benz keeps on the books for a while yet. Every so often, a niche really hits the spot.

Much better to drive than the A-Class it’s based on, plus it’s more useful than the saloon. Buy one of these, not a crossover


Palpably better to drive than an A-Class. It’s an estate car, but sexier, so people (might) think you’re more interesting Interior is stupidly over-complicated in the tech department, not plush enough in the trim department
SCORE 7/10