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19 Jul 2022

Mercedes-Benz CLA180
Swankier and prettier
Gorgeous cockpit
Roomier backseat
Sportier performance
BMW 216i Gran Coupe
Better perceived build quality
More user-friendly interface
Smoother drivetrain
More pliant ride

The CLA180 is a feast for the eyes and offers more passenger room. But the 216i GC, with its polished performance, is the entry-level 'four-door coupe' to beat.


The term 'four-door coupe' is a misnomer, but going by the number of Mercedes CLA and BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe (GC) models seen on our roads, it clearly hasn't affected the buying decisions of many a customer.

Both the CLA and 2GC are the entry-level saloons in their respective lineups. Admittedly, pitting the A-Class Saloon against the Bimmer here would also have been correct, but since the 216i is a Gran Coupe, then it's only right that it takes on the CLA180.

Both cars are marketed as four-door coupes that offer the feel of a grand tourer in a compact and stylish package. But as we shall soon discover, each one has taken a surprisingly different approach in fulfilling its purpose.

Style sensation

The 216i Gran Coupe (left) has a clean and eclectic design, while the CLA180's charisma makes it an immediate draw
There's almost no contest when it comes to looks. If both cars showed up to a party, the CLA would clearly draw the most admiring glances, like a pretty lady in a short dress.

From front to rear, the CLA oozes swankiness and elegance, its lines adding curviness and athleticism.

The 216i, on the other hand, has an avant-garde design. Its front end is conventional BMW, but its rear is an eclectic mix, with the boot lid ending in what resembles a ducktail spoiler, and relatively long tail lamps.

It could have had a more pert and attractive-looking rear, but the designers obviously decided to make it more 'distinct' instead.

The CLA continues to dazzle drivers with its interior design. It's easy to be mesmerised by the car's MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience), which combines the instrument cluster and infotainment system into one long display.

(Left) The CLA's mood lighting and its very numerous colour options can give the cockpit the atmosphere of a cool lounge
The MBUX graphics are gorgeous and the colours are richer as well. It even gives you six different layouts to choose from, which is twice as many as what the 216i GC offers.

But although the display looks great, the interface could be better. The touchscreen for one, is a bit far from the driver. And if you decide to use the touchpad instead, it's not as accurate as the control dial on BMW's iDrive.

It's the same story with the Merc's steering wheel touch sensors. You'll eventually get the hang of them, but they won't be as precise as actual buttons or switches.

Now, while the 216i GC's dash doesn't look as pretty as the CLA's, its interface is both more functional and intuitive. BMW's OS 7 iDrive is just more user-friendly, so everything from pairing your phone to navigating the various menus is easier.

Lounge and storage space 

(Left) CLA180's rear bench looks sportier thanks to the fixed headrests, but the lack of air vents is a bummer in our weather
The 2 Series Gran Coupe may have the better cockpit, but because its wheelbase is shorter than the CLA's (2,670mm vs 2,729mm), its backseat is consequently less roomy as well.

Occupants taller than 1.75m will probably find both headroom and legroom lacking, although foot space is still adequate. The 2GC makes up for these shortcomings by having air vents, which the CLA doesn't have.

The lack of air-con vents means the CLA's rear bench is less comfortable on even warmer days, but there's at least more room for passengers here to stretch out. Ingress and egress are easier as well, as the door apertures are larger than the BMW's.

(Left) CLA's boot opening makes it easier to find your belongings, especially at night or in the dark
As the bigger car, the CLA's 460-litre boot is more practical than the 2GC's 430-litre cargo hold. But what makes it useful is the larger opening, which makes the loading/unloading of items easier.

The 2GC's boot aperture isn't small, but because the deck of the boot lid is shorter, retrieving your belongings requires you to bend down to peer inside. It's not a deal-breaker, but it is inconvenient.

Drivetrain and performance

(Left) CLA180's motor is punchier but has workmanlike vocals, whereas the 216i's engine, though less muscular, is a lot more refined
Both the CLA180 and 216i GC are Cat A models, but it's the Merc that offers better performance. The turbocharged 1.3-litre four-cylinder produces 129bhp and 200Nm, compared to the 216i's turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder that makes 107bhp and 190Nm.

Both engines are paired to seven-speed dual-clutch gearboxes. However, since the Merc has the edge in output, it finishes the century sprint in 9.4 seconds, whereas the Bimmer does it in 10.8 seconds.

The Merc feels like the quicker car, too, with the engine always eager to rev and the gearbox keen to swap cogs. The paddle shifters here are pretty handy. The 2GC doesn't have paddle shifters, so manual override means tapping the gear lever up and down.

The Merc (left) is larger and quicker, but the Bimmer's cushier ride/handling balance makes it more ideal for longer drives
But while the Merc is the sportier drive, it's less refined than the BMW. Despite the 216 GC 'only' having a three-cylinder unit, it's smoother than the Merc's in-line four. Keener drivers will like the fact that it has a rorty soundtrack when stretched as well.

So, while the 216 GC isn't as quick, it is more polished and thus more rewarding to drive fast. Its ride quality is also surprisingly more pliant, so for road trips, it would be the preferred drive.

Decision-making

The CLA will tempt you with its looks and responsiveness, while the 216i GC appeals more to your sensibility and need for comfort
Now, while the 216 GC is the nicer drive, the CLA180 isn't exactly forgettable. Blame me for being swayed by its design, but a good-looking car just can't be so easily dismissed.

The same is true for its interior. MBUX and mood lighting make the cockpit an elegant space, even if the menu navigation isn't as user-friendly as the Bimmer's.

Indeed, looks are a powerful thing. The CLA's design can even distract me from the lack of rear air vents. What I can't forget, though, is the buzzy engine. Had the Merc's drivetrain been as smooth as the BMW's (or close to it), the CLA would've been the first choice.

The 216 GC does a lot of things right. Its drivetrain, chassis and damping are all well-tuned and work in unison. So, even if it's less athletic, its smooth performance and quieter ride is more in line with its remit as a compact grand tourer.

Of course, the 216 GC's smaller boot and backseat are still bugbears. But considering that the Bimmer costs $18k less than the Merc (at time of writing), this four-door coupe is the one that's even harder to resist.


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Car Information
spacer

Price

: $225,888

Engine Type

:

4-cylinder in-line 16-valve Turbocharged

Engine Cap

:

1332cc

Horsepower

:

96kW (129 bhp) / 5500 rpm

Torque

:

200 Nm / 4000 rpm

Transmission

:

7G-DCT (A)

Acceleration (0-100 km/h)

:

9.4sec

Top Speed

:

216km/h

Fuel consumption

:

16.9km/L

spacer

Price

: $209,888

Engine Type

:

3-cylinder in-line TwinPower Turbocharged

Engine Cap

:

1499cc

Horsepower

:

80kW (107 bhp) / 6500 rpm

Torque

:

190 Nm / 3800 rpm

Transmission

:

7-speed (A) Steptronic DCT

Acceleration (0-100 km/h)

:

10.8sec

Top Speed

:

200km/h

Fuel consumption

:

18.2km/L

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