all about that three-pointed star

2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class First Drive: Big Style, Small Size


January 24, 2020 Cars By
Brand: Mercedes-Benz
Product: CLA250 4Matic, AMG CLA35
Release Date: Out Now
Price: $38,650, $46,900
From: mbusa.com

Mercedes-Benz created the CLA-Class in 2013 to be, in effect, the gateway drug for the brand. It debuted at a low price — just under $30,000, assuming you forget about details like delivery fees, taxes and options. It was created to lure younger buyers into the Mercedes fold, then keep them around until they began making potentially bigger and more expensive car purchases down the road.

Now, the new excellent A-Class has taken over that entry-level role. That development leaves the second-generation CLA-Class free to define a new niche for itself as a more stylish, luxurious and performance-oriented option. The new car is bigger, wider, more powerful, and more expensive. It offers what Mercedes initially termed a “puristic, seductive” design…which I presume refers to its sloping roof.

Mercedes brought me (and other members of the automotive press) out to Scottsdale, Arizona to test two versions of the new CLA-Class. One was the CLA250 4Matic model, starting at $38,650. The other was the AMG CLA 35, Mercedes’s new “attainable” AMG model, which starts at $46,900. We assembled journalists drove through picturesque mountains and deserts, as well as ample time in both cars in what will be the CLA’s natural environment: rush-hour traffic in an affluent suburb.

With that broader mandate and price hike come increased expectations. The new CLA-Class improves upon the first generation. But it doesn’t establish why it’s distinctive beyond the three-pointed star on its grille, or fun.

What We Like

Reviewers knocked the first-generation CLA-Class for being too small and too cheaply-made for its eminent brand. Mercedes addressed those concerns on the second attempt; like the A-Class and the new GLB-Class SUV, a little interior luxury and technology goes far with buyers  — and, frankly, writers.

Mercedes chose to launch the CLA-Class at CES 2019, so it’s not surprising that the vehicle showcases many of the fancy tech features one would expect to find in the likes of the S-Class. You can control the system using gestures. You can spec the car with dual 10.25-inch infotainment and instrument cluster displays that offer the Siri-like MBUX assistant and augmented reality navigation. On the luxury side, you can include leather seats and real wood trim for not that much extra money. And the front seats sit at the apex of the sloping roof, so, from there, it feels airy and spacious.

Mercedes also upgraded the CLA-Class’s performance specs. The base model receives a power bump to 221 hp, which is 13 more than the previous model (and 33 hp more than the A-Class). A wider stance gives it better stability. You can opt for a capable, reasonably-priced adaptive suspension system. Both vehicles felt composed on the road, if not all that visceral.

Watch Out For

Don’t expect the “four-door coupe” CLA-Class to serve as your family sedan. It’s quite small, and the sloping roof impugns upon the rear seating area. Mercedes did not offer a set of golf clubs to try and wedge into the trunk, but it looked like it might take some effort.

During my test drive, I noticed substantial road and tire noise entering the cabin — to the point where it could be hard to hear the other passenger. Suffice it to say, it detracted from the luxury experience.

Further irritating me, the lane-keep assistance feature on my CLA 250 4matic tester was aggressive, and set on a hair-trigger. It deployed about 10 times over my two-hour drive — including once during a lane change with the turn signal engaged. And on a tech-related note of frustration, the virtual assistant pipes up every time anyone says “Mercedes,” which becomes annoying quickly.

Prices can escalate quickly as you climb the option, especially if you start tacking on AMG’s fashion accessories. My CLA250 4Matic test vehicle cost $53,945 with options — well above the starting price. My Mercedes-AMG CLA35? It cost $64,755.

Other Options

Mercedes’s luxury rivals offer comparable options, if not exact parallels. The BMW 2 Series ($35,300+) offers more power than the CLA250 4Matic, but two fewer doors; meanwhile. the M235i xDrive Gran Coupe ($45,500+) offers similar specs to the AMG CLA35. The 288 hp Audi S3 sedan ($43,000_) slots a hair under the CLA35 in performance and price. A buyer could consider the Lexus IS 300 ($38,560+) and IS 350 ($42,180+), too.

Verdict

It’s hard to make an objective case for the CLA-Class as a value proposition. If you’re buying it, it’s because it’s a relatively affordable Mercedes, and you think it looks cool. Between the two, I would choose the Mercedes-AMG CLA35. It’s more tame than its rip-snorting AMG brethren, but with an added 80 horsepower and a crisper shifting transmission, it feels like much more of a sports car (and thus worth the price) than theCLA250.

Unless you’re an infotainment fiend, however, I would consider leveling up to the C-Class, in the form of a C300 or AMG C43. Mercedes hasn’t updated those cars as recently, but they offer more power, caché and practicality for not that much more money.

The ultimate question in this price range, though, is whether you want the most a mass-market manufacturer can offer — or what a luxury carmaker can build on a budget. From a pure performance perspective, you can buy a better car for a lot less. The CLA 250 4Matic starts at $10,000 more than the comparably-powerful Volkswagen GTI ($27,595+), while the CLA35 is more than $10,000 more expensive than the Honda Civic Type R ($36,300+). The Mercedes nameplate matters, but, in this case, you’re paying a steep premium for it.

Mercedes-Benz hosted us and provided this product for review.

2020 Mercedes-Benz GLB-Class First Drive

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Tyler Duffy

Tyler Duffy is Gear Patrol's Motoring Staff Writer. He used to write about sports for The Big Lead and The Athletic. He has a black belt in toddler wrangling. He's based outside Detroit.

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