The CLA is a compact 5-passenger luxury sedan designed to lure younger buyers into Mercedes-Benz dealerships. First introduced in 2014, the CLA was most recently redesigned this year when Mercedes added a lower-priced A-Class model. Both the CLA and A-Class share underpinnings, with the CLA being slightly larger and having a sloping rear roofline designed to mimic that of a coupe. The CLA is offered with front- or all-wheel drive and comes only as a 4-door sedan. Competitors include the Acura ILX, Audi A3, BMW 2-Series, Cadillac CT4 and Lexus IS.
In its 2020 redesign the CLA grew about one inch in wheelbase and two inches in length and width. More importantly, overall track grows by about 2.5 inches. Three models are offered: CLA 250, AMG CLA 35 and AMG CLA 45.
The CLA 250 is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that makes 221 horsepower, 13 more than last year. AMG CLA 350 models get a massaged version of the 2.0-liter turbo that makes 302 horsepower. Both the 250 and 350 get a 7-speed automatic transmission. Front-drive is standard on the 250. All-wheel-drive is standard on the 350 and optional on the 250. The AMG CLS 45 also gets a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4, but in this case, the engine makes 382 horsepower and comes standard with an 8-speed automatic and all-wheel drive.
Standard features include Mercedes-Benz MBUX infotainment system, which now supports both Android Auto and Apple Car Play, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, LED headlamps, panorama roof and all digital cockpit. Prices start at $36,650 for the front-drive CLA 250 and climb to $54,800 on the AMG CLA 45.
In terms of performance, the CLA 250 isn't all that inspiring. The engine provides solid, if somewhat uninspired, acceleration and will push the 3.300-pound sedan from 0 to 60 MPH in about 6 seconds. Though that's pretty quick, it's average for the class. Buyers wanting more power can opt for the AMG models, of course. The 7-speed automatic in the 250 is buttery smooth and provides seamless shifts when acceleration. Downshifts are somewhat more pronounced, but that's more of a case of the engine getting into the appropriate powerband than it is slow reaction time.
The all-wheel drive CLA 250 is EPA rated at 23 MPG city and 33 MPG highway. Those numbers are respectable and compare favorably with most competitors. Like most in the class, premium-grade fuel is required. In routine suburban commuting it is easy to eclipse the EPA numbers in both city and highway driving.
Given the fact that Mercedes-Benz has only offered rear-wheel-drive based vehicles in the US for decades, some people might be surprised to learn that the CLA, and the A-Class upon which it is based, is a front-driver. That means that you don't necessarily need to pop for all-wheel drive as long as you make sure you have a set of all-season tires for the winter. Still, all-wheel drive can provide additional security and slightly better driving dynamics.
On the road, the CLA proves to be a competent luxury sedan, with a refinement that defies its diminutive stature and front-drive underpinnings. The suspension is firm and responsive. Going through the corners, the CLA exhibits minor body roll and feels secure and tossable. Steering is very precise and accurate. Brakes have excellent stopping power.
Where things fall apart, if at all, is the ride-comfort equation. On rough roads, things can grow busy and large impacts tend to pound through, especially at the front. Though the ride is certainly better controlled than a typical compact sedan, there is definitely more impact harshness than you might expect. On the plus side, the CLA rides very quietly, with little road noise and almost no wind rush. The engine is only audible in hard acceleration, where it emits a refined, yet subdued growl.
Inside, the CLA sports premium materials and plenty of soft-touch surfaces. The design is contemporary and modern with just enough brightwork to make it appear upscale. Most controls are conveniently placed and properly marked; however, the climate controls are a bit small and can be confusing to operate without a long look away from the road. M-B has conveniently placed the seat controls on the door panel for decades, a trend that, unfortunately, other manufacturers have yet to copy.
The driving position is great and the front seats are very supportive and comfortable, if a bit euro-firm. Head and leg room aren't bad, considering the car's size. However, the steeply raked windshield and low roofline means it is a tight bend getting in and out. The rear seats are nicely finished, but aren't appropriate for large adults. Knee room is scant and headroom, because of the sloping coupe-like design, is very limited.
CLA comes with M-B's new MBUX infotainment system that features a 7-inch display standard and a 10.3-inch display optional. Either way, it's manipulated by a touch pad on the steering wheel or a console-mounted control pad. Android Auto and Apple Car Play support are standard. Other tech goodies include 5 USB ports, NFC phone paring, head-up display, wireless charging and an available 12-speaker Burmester sound system. Also offered is built-in navigation with augmented reality.
Cargo space isn't a forte of compact luxury sedans. Offering 11.6 cubic feet, the CLA trails most in the class. The Audi A3, for example has 12.3 cubic feet. Making matters worse for CLA buyers is a small opening with a fairly high liftover. Thankfully, the 40/20/40 rear seats fold flush with the trunk floor to expand capacity when necessary. Interior storage is par for the class with an open bin in front of the shifter and a decent sized center console bin and glove box. Map pockets are scant.
Bottom Line -- The all-hew CLA is a great improvement over the outgoing model. In fact, it's better in just about every conceivable way. For most buyers in the class, the CLA offers a great blend of comfort, athleticism, refinement and technology. Prices can be deceiving though, as more power and more tech come with a considerable bump to the sticker. Shop around, especially within the M-B showroom to the less-expensive A-Class (if you don't mind the more upright styling).