The all-new 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class is a class leader in the fittingly small subcompact luxury car segment. In its basic form, it provides all the refinement, comfort, performance and style of larger Mercedes in a small, affordable package. The CLA in particular brings sleek, coupe-like styling to the platform shared with the more traditionally styled A-Class. While the shape does bring a few compromises, it’s still a generally excellent car. It’s one that can be had with large amounts of performance with the 300-horsepower CLA 35 and 380-horsepower CLA 45.
The only true competitors the CLA-Class has are the mostly similar A-Class, plus the Audi A3 and the BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe. The Audi is soon to be replaced, which is good as it’s become long in tooth, although the RS 3 sports sedan has a spectacular 400-horsepower five-cylinder engine. The 2 Series Gran Coupe has just been introduced, and it’s a very close match to the CLA. In our experience, it’s about as fun and fast as all but the top CLA 45, and it has a nicely appointed interior. It lacks some of the specialness of the CLA inside, though. And there’s no competitor to the aforementioned CLA 45 and the RS 3. Of course, you can also consider non-luxury models including the cheaper and surprisingly luxurious Mazda3, or the larger, similarly priced Kia Stinger.
What’s the CLA’s interior and in-car technology like?
The CLA-Class takes the established styling cues of bigger Mercedes, and shrinks it down to fit in the little four-door. The low dash features a monolith containing the instrument and infotainment screens. Materials are a mix of high-quality plastics, aluminum accents, and, for a little extra, real wood trim. Ambient lighting that can turn the interior into something out of Tron or a flashy night club is also available. Physical toggle switches and knobs provide easily accessible controls for the stereo and climate control.
The infotainment system can be controlled in a number of ways to suit your personal preference. You can touch the screen directly, use the touchpad in the center console, or use the touchpad on the right side of the steering wheel. Regardless of input preference, the infotainment system responds quickly. The displays are bright and sharp, making them easy to read. Main functions are divided into easily accessed categories, though there are some sub-menus and functions that aren’t immediately obvious and can be tricky to find. The Mercedes MBUX voice recognition system is also included as standard, and it’s one of the simpler and more responsive voice systems we’ve experienced (though still far from perfect).
How big is the CLA?
The CLA-Class is sized comparably to the Audi A3 and BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe, but its wheelbase is longer by a couple of inches, and its overall length is greater by half a foot or more. Interior dimensions differ only by an inch or two here or there. Though the CLA is the longest of the three, it’s not the cargo king. It has 11.6 cubic feet of space, almost perfectly splitting the difference between the front-drive and all-wheel-drive Audi A3. The BMW on the other hand offers 15.1 cubic feet, but we have a sneaking suspicion BMW’s approach to measuring may not be comparable to those of other brands.
Moving beyond the numbers, we find that the CLA-Class’s interior is compromised in some areas because of the small size and coupe-like roofline. It starts with access, as the raked windshield means you’ll have to duck a fair bit to climb inside, even more so for rear occupants. The driver and front passenger will find that leg, hip and shoulder room is more than adequate, and the reasonably supportive seats are comfortable. Front occupants measuring 6 feet or more may find their heads closer to the roof than they’d like, and the top of the windshield is a bit low. On the whole, the driving position is still fairly comfortable, even for those 6 footers.
The rear seats, once accessed via the small rear door openings, are nearly useless. This 5-foot-11-inch, roughly 300-pound editor found his knees rubbing against the hard plastic back of the front seat when the front seat was set to his preferred spot. Sitting straight up was impossible, as your head will have to lean forward to avoid whacking the sloping rear roof. In this sense, Mercedes-Benz calling the CLA-Class a coupe is quite accurate.
It should be noted that apart from legroom, the mechanically related A-Class corrects most of the CLA’s space issues with its higher, more conventional roof. It’s easier to get into and more spacious once inside. The A-Class’s shorter length does reduce cargo space, though. Other, even more practical choices include the GLA-Class and GLB-Class, which both share the platform of the CLA and A, or the larger C-Class.
What’s the CLA’s performance and fuel economy?
Three powertrains are available in the CLA-Class, all of which are turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinders with different outputs and corresponding internal upgrades.
At the bottom of the range is the CLA 250’s engine that makes 221 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque and features a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. It’s available with either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive (4Matic). The FWD version is more efficient with fuel economy numbers of 25 mpg city, 35 mpg highway and 28 in combined driving. The 4Matic version returns 23/33/27. Mercedes estimates 0-60 times at a quick 6.3 seconds and the top speed is limited to 130 mph.
The AMG CLA 35’s engine brings power up to 302 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. It comes exclusively with a performance-upgraded pairing of 4Matic and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The 0-60 time drops to 4.8 seconds and the top speed limiter is raised to 155 mph. Fuel economy is 23/29/25.
The top of the line CLA 45 gets a 2.0-liter four-cylinder built by AMG with a twin-scroll turbocharger and several other mechanical changes. It makes 382 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque. The AMG verison of 4Matic is standard, and a torque-vectoring rear differential is added. The CLA 45 also gets a dual-clutch automatic transmission, but this one has eight speeds. The 0-60 sprint is estimated at 4 seconds and top speed is restricted to 155 mph. Fuel economy numbers hadn’t been announced at the time of this writing.
What’s the CLA like to drive?
The standard CLA 250 is easily the class leader for subcompact luxury sedans, right there with its more traditional A-Class sedan sibling. The ride quality is excellent, offering a smooth compliant ride in all situations. With the optional adaptive suspension, the Comfort setting is particularly cushy, and even in Sport mode, the ride is only just on the firm side.
The chassis is tight and responsive. Going the corners, the CLA exhibits minor body roll and feels secure. Steering is a bit numb and light, but very precise and accurate. The cabin is hushed with just a hint of tire noise on concrete freeways and some engine noise when pushing it hard. The CLA accelerates effortlessly even with the base engine, which offers over 30 more horsepower and nearly 40 more pound-feet of torque. Power comes on smoothly, and the smoothness is enhanced by the almost seamlessly shifting transmission. It’s a shame there’s no way to lock the transmission into manual mode, since it’s quick and fun to shift, but the automatic mode is smart about when to change gears and when to hold them, regardless of setting.
The CLA 35 is a bit of a different story. With the added power and handling upgrades, it’s a much faster, sportier experience than the regular CLA 250. The exhaust sounds aggressive, and the transmission has particularly smart shift timing. It feels very neutral in corners thanks to both the reworked suspension and the standard all-wheel drive. The trade-off is that it’s much less comfortable. It’s stiff and transmits every bump on the road to the cabin. It also generates much more road and tire noise.
We haven’t had the opportunity to try the CLA 45 yet. Expect it to be even more raucous and exciting than the CLA 35, and possibly even less comfortable. We will update this section when we’ve driven the car.
What features are available and what’s the CLA’s price?
The base CLA 250 with front-wheel drive starts at $37,645. It comes standard with 18-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, a panoramic sunroof, dual-zone automatic climate control, power front seats, MBTex premium vinyl upholstery, leather-wrapped steering wheel, driver memory settings, dual 7-inch screens for instruments and infotainment, the MBUX infotainment system, five USB-C ports, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and HD radio. There’s an abundance of optional equipment available, much of which comes from bigger, pricier Mercedes models.
The CLA 35, in addition to its mechanical upgrades, also comes standard with the larger screens and ambient lighting as standard. It also has unique exterior styling. Options for the CLA 35 include interior and exterior changes, the ability to monitor and record vehicle telemetry and lap times, and its own version of an adaptive suspension. The even more powerful CLA 45 gets larger 19-inch wheels and proximity locking and unlocking in addition to the CLA 35’s features and the CLA 45’s unique engine, drivetrain and chassis upgrades. The CLA 45 also has some visual enhancements available, as well as a “Dynamic Plus Package” that adds electronically adjustable suspension, an upgraded top speed of 167 mph, even bigger brakes, and “Race” and “Drift” drive settings. Base pricing for all these models is listed below.
– CLA 250: $37,645
– CLA 250 4MATIC: $39,645
– CLA 35: $47,895
– CLA 45: $54,095
What are CLA’s safety equipment and crash ratings?
The CLA-Class has not yet been crash tested by a third party. The CLA comes standard with forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, a driver inattention monitor system and basics such as traction and stability control, airbags and a rear-view camera. Blind-spot monitoring is available as a standalone option, while several other driving assists are part of the Driver Assistance Package. This package includes the same substantial array of advanced, well-executed safety tech that’s available on much pricier Mercedes models. These include a highly advanced adaptive cruise control system (offers stop-and-go traffic capability, automatic lane changes, highway steering assistance and automatic speed changes based on speed limits), cross-traffic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, evasive steering assistance, and crash preparation technology that activates the seat-belt pretensioners early, and adjusts sound to protect occupants’ ears. There is also a Parking Assistance Package that adds surround view cameras and automatic parking.