It's no secret that small cars haven't been Mercedes-Benz's thing in the past. Well, the Germans now beg to differ - they not only want to perform with the CLA, they are determined to dominate.
The first step Mercedes chose in its plan was aiming to enslave. A simple glance at the CLA reveals that this is a car that aims to conquer through its appearance. The CLA may share its platform with the third-generation A-Class and second-gen B-Class, but when it comes to looks, the CLS was its role model.
Let's not forget that the Mercedes CLS was the car that brought the four-door coupe segment to the popularity it enjoys today. With that kind of looks, people have been talking about a "baby CLS" for years… and here it is.
Still, if this is a car that takes itself so seriously, the front-wheel drive nature of its MFA (Modular Front Architecture) platform raises some questions. Can the CLA's overall assets match its looks? Is the car able to fill the gap created by the C-Class's slight upmarket move?
Before we even started trying to provide some answers, out CLA test car greeted us in a stunning Northern Lights Violet hue, which it pulled over its AMG
styling package. Speaking of the latter, the CLA doesn't necessarily need the racing apparel to impress, but we think it's a pity not to make the most out of the already impressive design.
And to appeal to our engineering side, the CLA whispered something in our ears - With a drag coefficient of 0.22, the CLA BlueEFFICIENCY is the most streamlined production car in the world. While that is a special edition, the standard model's 0.23 Cd still makes it wear a proud smile on its diamond radiator grille.
Speaking of which, the CLA displays a chin-focused look, with a long front overhand and a massive front end. Of course, the profile view is the actual hero here, with that sloping roof line basically saying "Buy me!". The list of options also allows you to add a panoramic sunroof, which takes things to a whole new level, whether you look at it from outside or inside the vehicle.
As for the Mercedes CLA's rear end, it sports plenty of tricks aimed at making it look wider. The aim here was to take some of the attention away from the front, so that the car would pass as one of the "big" Mercedes models rather than a compact wearing designer clothes.
While the CLA is definitely an appearance, there are certain details that have been exaggerated in order to achieve this effect. If you look at them from the wrong angles, you'll notice the "trying too hard" effect. The radiator grille is one of the examples here.
Moving inside the CLA, we find a cabin that matches the exterior's aesthetic claims. We are treated with the same concave-convex play designers used for the CLA's exterior and it all spells "premium". When night falls, the ambient lighting around the cabin accentuates this effect. Unlike other new Benz models, the CLA's cabin is not a scaled down version of the S-Class interior,
but the ambient lighting part is clearly inspired from the Mercedes flagship.
The pillarless doors were a must here, with an aural downside though - closing the doors doesn't bring that solid sound Mercedes cars are famous for.
Then there's the infotainment screen. Its add-on looks are a matter of subjective appreciation, but the modest size of the default display is not. This leaves thick edges that make the whole thing seem like a DIY job.
Nonetheless, the Mercedes-Benz CLA respects its driver, as the dashboard instruments and the deeply-profiled AMG steering wheel (optional) bring one into a sporty mood. The seats offer decent lateral support, in line with their racing-like look. They don't look soft and they certainly aren’t, but this doesn't prevent them from being your friends over long trips. Bonus points for the cozy integrated headrests. Overall, this is a very good effort from Mercedes.
Since we reached the soft versus firm topic, the padding around the cabin falls close to the latter category. It's kind of ironic how this is an aspect where Mercedes could learn from Lexus, a company that's been using the German brand as inspiration from its very first day.
As far as the cabin space is concerned, there's plenty of it up front. However, the rear finds itself somewhere at the limit of being able to accommodate two adults on long trips. The headroom is obviously the limiting factor here and 1.75 m (5ft 8) is the highest a rear passenger can go. The side visibility also influences this conclusion - while the roof line doesn't affect headroom by all that much, the rear greenhouse is smaller than you'd like.
Behind us sits a 16.6 cubic feet (470-liter) luggage compartment. The value is generous and the rear seat backs are easy to fold, but you'll have to mind the rather narrow opening.
The CLA will obviously spend a lot of time in the city, where the vehicle gets an eight out of ten from us. The car is in its element here, whether we're talking about boulevard cruising or crawling though the occasional rush hour parties. Especially in the color of our tester, the CLA draws attention on the street. As you might have guessed by now, visibility isn't exactly the Mercedes-Benz CLA's top asset and this is partially why the remaining two points escaped the car.
Furthermore, the sports suspension included in our tester’s AMG package, brings the already low ride height down by 0.4 inches (10 mm), to a supercar-matching 3.54 inches (90 mm). Mind you, this is the minimum value, achieved only when the car is fully loaded.
Throughout the drive, we only encountered issues while going over some serious potholes in an industrial area. Still, having such ground clearance on a "civilian" car can be frustrating. For instance, even mentioning parking over a curb is blasphemy.
The ride, on the other hand, is a good compromise. While it is comfortable enough for most road inconsistencies, it does get rougher when you encounter potholes that the non-AMG suspension could swallow. Still, if you want your CLA to also work well outside the city, this is the choice to make.
Around town, the optional 7G-DCT
seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox can be caught red-handed in heavy traffic - when you get back on the power, it can get jerky. However, the transmission is fine most of the time. This is a gearbox developed by Mercedes, but we would've preferred the ZF 8HP torque converter box. While the Merc unit almost matches the ZF in terms of comfort driving, it clearly falls behind when it comes to quick shifts and driver interaction - the paddles on the AMG steering wheel are aptly placed, but the setup doesn't necessarily invite you to use them.
We spent most of our time in a CLA 200 CDI
. This is what the majority of European buyers will do, since we're talking about the mid-range diesel. Interestingly enough, while the rest of the MFA platform models (A, B and GLA) have moved on to a newer engine, the CLA 200 CDI still works with the turbocharged 1.8-liter oil burner. The unit delivers 136 hp at rpm and 300 Nm (221 lb-ft) at rpm.
The powerplant does a decent job at moving about the CLA’s 1,485 kg (3,274) lbs. Its resources are enough for casual everyday driving and yet its refinement is only average. This becomes obvious when using the Sport driving mode, which, among others, makes the car hold on to the gears for longer.
The 9.3 seconds the engine needs to push the car to 100 km/h are within the average of 2.0 diesel-powered vehicles of this size. When it comes to efficiency, the unit does please. Depending on the weight of the traffic and out right foot, our city fuel efficiency ranged between 6l/100 km (39.2 mpg) and 9l/100 km (26 mpg).
You can truly feel the difference between the Comfort and the Sport driving modes. All hail the electronics!
There is a price you have to pay for this though. In the versions fitted with modest engines, the two modes are pushed a bit too far. Since the powerplant doesn't have all that many resources, the engineers turned to this tuning in order to make it work. Well, at least this path beats having a set of Placebo settings.
The CLA should follow its platform cousins by the end of the year, moving on to a downtuned version of the 2.1-liter diesel currently offered on the CLA 220 CDI. This will match the 1.8-liter engine's output, but it will sport increased efficiency and meet the Euro 6 emission requirements.
Once you step out onto the open road, it feels like the CLA grows in size. Forget the compact platform, this is a serious car that can easily take you on a trip across the country, at least as far as the front seat passengers are concerned.
We do recommend both the AMG suspension and the sportier Direct Steer option. Among others, the latter means you'll have to spend 2.6 turns from lock to lock. With these two hardware bits, the CLA feels just like it should. The thing drives with confidence.
While the power-harnessing front axle gets a stiffer setup, the rear is a bit less firm. The setup brings a nice result, as the CLA comes with a pretty precise handling. Unless you take things to the limit, the understeer is well kept in check. What this means for the normal drivers is that the car doesn't place any strain on them due to the front-wheel drive.
In fact, you can even trailbrake the rear into sliding a little bit, with the ESP
allowing you to play for let's say 20 percent of the way until it kicks in to stop the back end from stepping out further. The steering itself offers the driver a fair amount of feedback.
We're doing about 100 mph (160 km/h) through a heavy storm right now and the CLA feels as solid as we'd like it to be. Don't worry, it's all taking place on a deserted road - the CLA is just the kind of car that gives you confidence to perform such moves. The same can be said about the brakes, whose bite is sharp, being mixed with fitting stopping power.
We've reached the safety area of our review and this is where the CLA gets nine out of ten. While US safety regulators have not shared their opinions on the baby Benz yet, the Euro NCAP treated it with five stars.
The CLA 200 CDI is also safe as far as your wallet is concerned. Sticking to the speed limits on the highway and to a moderate driving manner makes the car return an efficiency of 5l/100 km (47 mpg). As for the overall efficiency throughout our drive, we got 7l/100 km (33.6 mpg), with this covering all sorts of driving conditions. With most petrol and engine version you have to struggle really hard to upset the chassis through the bends. This is why the 4Matic all-wheel drive is only available as an option on the CLA 250 warm model, which delivers 208 hp (211 PS). AWD
is standard on the CLA 45 AMG though. A stint in the AMG revealed precise handling. The car still tells you that the front axle is in charge, unlike in the BMW M135i xDrive
. (Yes, we do know the two aren't exactly what you'd call direct competitors)
The difference to the BMW also becomes obvious in terms of the overall feel. While the M135i xDrive is a comfortable fast hot hatch, the CLA 45 AMG is the stingy type that trades in some of the coziness for the performance stuff. The turbo lag will be with you up to 2,000 rpm and once you go past that value it all feels like a roller coaster ride.
Returning to the non-AMG CLA, we really don't understand why this car has had quite a few negative reviews, especially from a number of "big names". What we found here is an accomplished vehicle. It is obvious that the Germans spent a lot of time working on this car.
As for what Mercedes wanted to achieve with the CLA, it all depends on how you look at it.
Consider this a coupe and you'll find the two extra doors and the rear seat space a joy. Label the CLA under "four-door" and the whole story in the back gets downgraded.
It is this shape of the Mercedes CLA that makes it hard to compete with. The Audi A3 Sedan, a car of many assets, knows what we're talking about. And despite BMW still not having a direct competitor for this, we can clearly state that the premium feeling in the CLA is above what most Bimmers have to offer.
At least for now, Mercedes handles making small cars better than BMW deals with building large models.
When it comes to the optional extras, things are generally good, but we do have a few complaints. The best example is the use of a stick for keeping the hood raised. Aiming for the more refined pleasures, we'll mention the smooth blend of the CLA would've been nicely complemented by all-LED headlights. Perhaps when Mercedes develops laser headlights like Audi and BMW, LEDs will make their way down to the CLA.
Mercedes' CLA matches its pretty face with quite a lot of assets. Even though it isn't a dynamic performer, the way in which it delivers comfort doesn't make you feel numb. No wonder then that the vehicle has managed to lower the average Mercedes buyer age in an unprecedented manner for the brand.
The three-pointed star usually comes with a price, but the CLA offers Americans the most affordable path to driving a Mercedes. The US pricing starts at just under US$ 30,000, actually surpassing that value when the destination charge is added. That money buys you the CLA 250 with the entry-level trip. The only other engine option on this side of the ocean if the CLA 45 AMG.
Over in Europe, the CLA begins at EUR 29,214 including 19 percent VAT. The range starts with the 122hp CLA 180 petrol. The diesel side of the line-up starts with the CLA 180 CDI, which will set you back at least EUR 31,416, 19 percent VAT included.
Fret not, Mercedes fans, your favorite brand hasn't lost its minds. The CLA can still burn a hole through your bank account, with the trick being found in the options. To give you the most extreme example, a fully-loaded CLA 45 AMG can reach US$76,600 or EUR70,000.
And when you do gift a CLA with so much stuff, the resulting price takes the car out of its financial comfort zone - capable it may be, but it still can't offer a package large enough for that kind of money.
The Mercedes feel-good state is definitely here. This is the thing you take home with you once you've parked the CLA, an operation which, by the way, the car can handle on its own.