The big conundrum: choosing between the Mercedes-Benz compact range

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Say you’re a die hard Mercedes-Benz fan and, for whatever reason, you want to buy a compact car. You’d think the hard part is over – once you’ve made up your mind on one brand in particular, the choice becomes obvious.

But you’d be wrong. While most car makers have one, two or maybe three compact models on offer, Mercedes-Benz has no less than five. And to top it all off, they aren’t as similar to one another as you might expect.

That’s precisely why we’ve gathered all five of them here in an effort to find out which is the most sensible choice among the ever expanding compact Mercedes-Benz range. But there’s a catch. What you might find sensible, I might consider ridiculous and we’d probably both be right in our own ways.

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So to counter any subjectivity, expect a lot of numbers. You can view this mono-brand comparison as a buyer’s guide to the Mercedes-Benz compact range, something that nobody deemed necessary a few years back but now presents itself as a very useful tool.

Let’s meet the protagonists: starting in alphabetical order we’ve got the A-Class (A 200 CDI 4MATIC), the B-Class (B 200 CDI), the CLA (CLA 200 CDI), the CLA Shooting Brake (CLA 220 CDI Shooting Brake) and the GLA (GLA 200 CDI 4MATIC). Three of them are white, one is red and the other is a color we’re afraid to even try and name (it’s some sort of purplish black that’s actually plain black most of the time, except when the sun hits the paint at a certain angle).

Amid they’re distinct personalities, there is one thing all these cars have in common: the MFA (modular front architecture) platform that was first launched with the B-Class in September 2011. A veritable flood ensued: the A-Class in March 2012, the CLA in March 2013, the GLA in March 2014, B-Class facelift in September 2014 and more recently the CLA Shooting Brake in January this year.

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You could say the Mercedes-Benz compact range made a habit out of launching a new model each year, and that only goes to show how important this segment has become for the Stuttgart brand.

Since we’re on the subject of the compact range weight inside the company’s plans, I’m gonna make good on that earlier promise involving some numbers – don’t worry, there’s still a lot more to come. So, Mercedes-Benz has sold over 463,000 compact cars in 2014, which amounts to an increase of 24.7% over the previous year. At the same time, the total global sales of the company were up to 1,650,010 units, also on the rise compared to 2013, but with only 12.9 per cents.

This numbers tell us two things: a). the compact range had an almost double increase rate than the total sales figure and b). compact cars make up 28% of the total Mercedes-Benz cars sold world wide during 2014. That’s almost a third which, in case you were wondering, is a lot. True, they are the more accessible Mercedes-Benz products, but that alone cannot explain their success.

It can explain, though, why 50% of the new A-Class owners never had a Mercedes-Benz car before. The company shifted its approach on its most iconic compact car by ditching the tall, family-friendly looks of the first two A-Class generations in favor of a dynamic and sporty design that would appeal to a much younger audience. Without any lack of consideration toward the first two A-Class iterations (after all, during the first 15 years since the 1997 launch of the A-Class, together with the B-Class it sold over four million units), the move proved to be the right one with Mercedes-Benz been seen as one of the most active and innovative car brands in terms of design at the moment.

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A 200 CDI 4MATIC (with the AMG Package)

Even though the B-Class was actually the first car to use the MFA platform, the new A-Class is the one credited for the beginning of the compact range makeover. Blame it on the fact that the B-Class had to substitute all the practical aspects of the old A-Class, while the new A was free to turn into the enticing car we all know and love right now.

Even though it seems to be the smallest of the bunch, it actually isn’t: all cars have virtually the same interior dimensions (you can see a full chart at the bottom), only the B-Class offering slightly more room at the back.

The test car had the optional AMG Package installed which, apart from a flat bottomed steering wheel with red stitching and all sorts of other visual paraphernalia, it also adds a sportier suspension, lower ground clearance, the Direct-Steer system and 18 inch wheels with the thinnest strip of rubber around them. All this translates into a very hard ride with a rather noisy suspension, compensated by good handling and a composed attitude around bends.

The sporty feel is also accentuated by the very thin windows which don’t help visibility that much either. That being said, the A-Class is more practical than the exterior would have you to believe: there’s plenty of backseat legroom and headroom while the luggage compartment offers a decent 341 liters (expandable to 1.157 with the backrests folded, which create a perfectly flat loading surface).

The engine in the A 200 CDI is the well known 2,143 cubic centimeters turbodiesel that we all love and, to a smaller degree, hate at the same time. We love it because it delivers a hefty amount of torque (300 Nm) from as low as 1,400 rpm and a nice power figure of 136 hp, but it’s still got that unsettling rattling noise that doesn’t sit well with the modern look of the car.

The A-Class, then, is the all-rounder of the group: it doesn’t really excel at anything, but it’s good for everything. It looks good (but not as good as the CLA), it’s got decent amounts of space (but it’s not quite as roomy as the B-Class) and it drives well (but the CLA just seems that much better balanced). In the end, it should all come down to the pricing, and the A-Class is, indeed, the most accessible of the whole range. With the 4MATIC all wheel drive system, though, it’s becomes more expensive than the B-Class which makes the choice between the two a matter of style over substance.

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B 200 CDI

It’s the S-Class of this comparison. It’s got the most interior space – especially at the back – and it is by far the most comfortable option. If you like your trips comfy and you’re never in a hurry, this is the car for you: the driver sits higher, in a more upright position, the seats are more on the armchair side than the sporty options available in the other cars and the tall figure of the car makes itself felt during cornering. For no additional cost, you can opt to have the same suspension but with lower ground clearance, which offers a decent compromise between the ability to absorb bumps and more stability while cornering.

It’s got the same 2,143 cubic centimeters turbodiesel engine so expect the same advantages/problems. The B-Class, on the other hand, can also be had as a fully electrical vehicle, but that’s a story for another time. Only to mention that the new architecture does not lose the advantages of the sandwich double floor. Even in the new B-Class generation is still enough place under the floor for the batteries or in the future for the hydrogen tank.

For maximum versatility, we recommend checking the Easy Vario Plus options which comes with a foldable passenger seat, a three point reclining backseat backrest and a completely flat luggage compartment loading space when the rear backrests are folded.

Make no mistake – this is a family car, and a very good one at that. Still, with some clever speccing, it can become a family car that the father (or mother, we’re not being sexist here) can really enjoy driving when he feels like it.

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There’s no two ways about it: this car is all about the looks. Well, not really, since apart from the (let’s face it) abysmal rear headroom, it’s quite a useful sedan, actually.

The design of the car may strike you as a bit odd once you see it in the flesh, but it grows on you slowly until you realize it’s actually a brilliant piece of art. It’s no CLS, granted, but it’s a beautiful vehicle which successfully morphs the four door coupe mantra into the Mercedes-Benz compact range.

Along with the Shooting Brake it is the best to drive out of the whole lot – probably due to the fact that it’s got a better front/rear weight distribution balance – and it appears to be better soundproofed than the other (high speeds on the freeway are not a problem while the engine rattle is less of a nuisance). The boot is massive (only the Shooting Brake and – marginally – the B-Class surpass it) and the two front seats offer sublime comfort.

There’s also another explanation for the better driving feel in the CLA – the flexible mountings of the rear axle onto the subframe. This arrangement makes the CLA considerably more comfortable and less noisy than the A-Class, bringing it closer to what we’ve come to expect from a Mercedes-Benz car.

The CLA is over 5,000 euros more expensive than the equivalent A-Class, but even so, I’m sure none of the current (or future) owners had any doubt when choosing between the two. If you’re a sensible client, you go for the A-Class; if you’re looking for style and exclusivity, you go for the CLA. Or for our next car…

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CLA 220 CDI Shooting Brake

This is the car that a combination of the two clients described above would choose: all the styling extravaganza of the CLA (and then some) plus the practicality of a station wagon (sort of).

From the front, the CLAs are identical to an A-Class up until the A pillar. From then on, they differ almost completely from the hatch and from one-another. The Shooting Brake uses a visual trick to fool us into thinking the roofline is dipping more than it actually is by making the rear windows line drop while the actual body has lower descent rate. Not only does it work, but I’ve always felt the Shooting Brake is actually better looking than the regular CLA.

This also allows the Shooting Brake to have a decent amount of headroom for the rear seats and a perfectly usable 495 liters bootspace – which extends to 1.354 with the rear seats folded.

The Shooting Brake was the only car in our test to come with the more potent version of the 2,143 cubic centimeters turbodiesel engine which had recently been bumped to 177 hp (from 170). If the CLA 200 CDI is anything to go by, it doesn’t really need it, but it’s nice to have it. The extra 41 hp quickly make their presence felt and the engine noise is even more muffled than in the CLA.

Being the most recently launched car, the CLA Shooting Brake brings another novelty, this time on the inside: it’s the new COMAND control module, with different buttons and a larger eight inch display, as opposed to the old, seven inch one.

This car is your perfect cruiser with a powerful and refined engine, comfortable seating for four and plenty of luggage room – it’s the closest thing you will find to a GT in the compact segment. And it’s not half bad looking either.

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If you ask me, the only argument against the GLA and in favor of the A-Class is the price – the 4,000 euros premium you have to pay for the compact crossover from Mercedes-Benz over the hatchback sibling.

Apart from that, everything seems to be going GLA’s way: it’s arguably the better looker of the two (I know that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, but my eye says that the more aggressive and athletic stance of the GLA is a better match to the similarly bold lines of the A-Class’ design); it’s the more practical with a larger boot and better backseat room; it’s got better ground clearance; it’s got similar dynamics (it’s just six centimeters taller than the A-Class and the driving position is only four centimeters higher) and it only weighs 50 kilograms more.

Being so similar to the A-Class means it also inherits some of its drawbacks, like the poor all-round visibility, for example. For a tall person like me, driving the GLA through a busy town is a stressful activity: with the seat pushed all the way back, all I see to my left is the B pillar, while the narrow windscreen is basically halved by the rearview mirror. Add to all this the presence of a panoramic roof which cripples even further the limited headroom and I ended up driving with the head tilted to the right and bent forward, so I could actually see where I was going.

Even though it’s more of a luxury crossover, GLA comes with a bunch of useful off-road features like the optional comfort suspensions which adds three centimeters to the existing ground clearance, but also a range of standard features like the off-road display menu showing a compass and lateral and longitudinal tilt, modified ESP, different engine and gearbox response and hill descent control.

The four wheel drive system (available on three of the eight versions) is not only useful for off-road incursions, but also for better handling characteristics since it helps reduce understeering and vastly improves grip. And this conclusion is valid for all the compact range.

If you can spare the extra cash for the GLA, there’s really not much sense in going for the A-Class. You don’t lose anything and gain quite a lot (if it’s enough to justify the increase in price, only you can tell) so don’t mind those who don’t appreciate crossovers and think they’re useless – you know better than that.



compact - (7)It’s hard to give a final verdict. Personally, I would choose between the CLA Shooting Brake and the B-Class, but the GLA is not far behind. I like the airiness of the MPV, but I’m not so crazy about the way it drives. The CLA Shooting Brake, on the other hand, ticks all the boxes and can also come with the 4MATIC system (even though the price tips over the 40.000 euros mark). But it’s the best looking car (you’ve probably noticed this is a big thing for me) and one of the most practical, while the ride is comfortable enough and that pesky engine sound is dealt with better than with the others. So there it is, I’ve made up my mind: I’d go for the CLA Shooting Brake and don’t try to change my mind (because you’d probably succeed).
TECHNICAL DATAMercedes-BenzMercedes-BenzMercedes-BenzMercedes-BenzMercedes-Benz
ModelA 200 CDI 4MaticB 200 CDI Auto.CLA 200 CDI Auto.CLA Shooting Brake 220 CDI AutoGLA 200 CDI 4Matic
Cylinders/engine typeL4, turbodieselL4, turbodieselL4, turbodieselL4, turbodieselL4, turbodiesel
Displacement (cc)2,1432,1432,1432,1432,143
Power (hp)/rpm136/3,400-4,400136/3,200-4,000136/3,200-4,000177/3,600-3,800136/3,400-4,400
Max torque (Nm)/rpm300/1,400-3,000300/1,400-3,000300/1,400-3,000350/1,400-3,400300/1,400-3,000
TiresDunlop SportMaxxContinental EcoContactGoodyear Ultragrip 8Goodyear Eagle F1Yokohama 2
Tire size225/40 R18 92Y205/55 R 16225/40 R 18 92V225/40 R18 92W235/50 R 18 97V
Brakes front/rearVentilated discs/discsVentilated discs/drumsVentilated discs/discsVentilated discs/discsVentilated discs/discs
l/w/h (mm)4,292/1,780/1,4334,393/1,786/1,5574,630/1,777/1,4324,630/1,777/1,4354,417/1,804/1,494
Wheelbase (mm)2,6992,6992,6992,6992,699
Interior width front/rear (mm)
Interior height front/rear (mm)1,017/9521,047/9851,006/9051,016/9471,015/971
Rear legroom (mm)693728690690693
Turning radius (m)1111111111.8
Weight/max load (kg)1,545/5151,505/5201,525/4801,555/4951,595/480
Boot space (l)341-1,157488-1,547470495-1,354421-1,235
0-100 km/h (s)
Top speed (km/h)210210220228200
Fuel economy urban/extra urban/combined (l/100 km)5.5/4.1/4.64.7/3.5/4.05.2/3.3/4.04.8/3.6/4.05.8/4.3/4.8
Euro norm/CO2 emissions (g/km)Euro 6/121Euro 6/104Euro 6/104Euro 6/105Euro 6/127
Fuel tank capacity (l)5650505056
Price (euro with 19% VAT)32,87331,08833,94439,06136,806