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2017 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class Test Drive Review
Like designer clothes that end up on the T.J. Maxx rack, consider the Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class as runway-grade fashion for a fraction of the price. Introduced for 2014, this curvy compact is the cheapest entry into the Mercedes brand. The CLA is not a Benz on clearance, yet it’s also not the typical Benz you’d expect from the company that claims to have invented the automobile. Younger buyers and budget trendsetters, continue reading.
Look and Feel
Remember the diamond-studded chain Rakim wore in the late '80s, the one with the Benz star dangling from his neck? The CLA is the modern equivalent of flashy jewelry, only with far more taste. This car’s chrome-toothed grille and oversize emblem are only the start to a positively beautiful profile. It’s so streamlined that Mercedes calls the CLA a “four-door coupe,” just as it does the bigger CLS. The frameless windows, set upon curves layered over creases over more curves and chrome, looks rich. An Audi A3 or BMW 2 Series is plain, boxy, and basically vanilla.
Even the taillights—redesigned along with the headlights, bumpers, and wheels for 2017—don’t illuminate in straight lines. They sway in thick bands from the fenders to the trunk. The CLA is so shapely our video crew took twice as long to suction the GoPro cameras to its body. It takes longer to get out of tighter jeans, too, but for anyone watching, it’s usually worth the wait.
Inside, the CLA equips one-piece front bucket seats with neck cutouts—the sort high-end sports cars use to attach five-point seatbelts—along with fixed rear outboard headrests. Each outboard position casts an LED glow around a passenger's neck, and after shutting off the engine, they can cycle among a dozen optional colors for no engineering purpose whatsoever. Circular vents rotate and twist to control air flow without any separate dials. The infotainment screen animates all sorts of vehicle controls, though its slap-on placement is a sore spot in a generally attractive interior. Our car’s Lunar Blue Metallic is new for 2017, and while it can appear black, sunlight reveals a royal, sparkly sheen. Paired with brown leather with contrast stitching and the Sport package’s 18-inch AMG wheels, the CLA is dressed to kill.
The CLA comes in two strengths: low and extreme. The CLA250 4Matic we tested comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four that makes 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. It’s a front-wheel-drive car, like the GLA crossover this chassis is based upon, with optional 4Matic all-wheel drive. Either configuration sends power through a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic. This is the lowest-rated engine in the Mercedes lineup, and acceleration can be described only as decent. Shifts, however, are among the quickest of Mercedes' models, with the kind of crisp downshifting you’d expect in a manual (which, at its core, is how a dual-clutch transmission works). Our only gripe: It’s not very smooth in regular driving. You can always feel the gears change, which is exactly the opposite of how traditional Mercedes automatics work.
There’s enough thrust for driving around town, though this engine peters out quickly even with the Dynamic Select button engaged in Sport. That system modifies the throttle, transmission, steering, and suspension settings so you can find an appropriate level of aggression no matter how you feel each morning. Under acceleration, the CLA is obstinately loud and groaning. So is the AMG CLA45, except that car’s engine does so deliberately. With 375 horsepower, 350 pound-feet of torque, and an optional sport exhaust, the CLA45 rips and snorts its way through traffic; the high turbo boost presses your neck permanently against that pretty seat. There is a way to unlock more power from the CLA250’s engine: You must purchase the pricier C300.
Despite all that, the CLA250 shines in the turns. Steering feel is light yet faster to react than most Mercedes models. The suspension keeps this short-wheelbase car tucked and balanced, with none of the understeer (the tendency of a car, at its limit, to plow toward the outside of a curve) you feel in most front-wheel-drive cars. It’s a little too stiff at times, especially with the run-flat tires and our car’s optional adjustable dampers, yet on a back road this little Benz can hold its own against faster sports sedans. Brake performance and pedal feel are exemplary in their confidence and stopping power. At higher speeds, the CLA is every bit the German car—poised and locked, dead straight.
The CLA250 4Matic is EPA-rated at 23 mpg city/32 highway, while the front-wheel-drive version rates 24/36. We averaged 25 mpg over 545 miles, most of them on the highway. Larger, heavier cars with bigger engines have performed equally well or better in our testing.
Form and Function
As you can guess, passengers can’t spread out in the back of a CLA. Anyone over 5-foot-9 must slouch, knees against the front seat, neck craned. It’s not like that in any competitive cars, but here the marketing message of a “coupe” is a little too accurate. Material quality takes a dive, particularly when measured against other entry-level Mercedes models like the C-Class, which sells for just a few thousand more. Hard plastics, wood that feels like plastic, thin padding, and minimal noise insulation reveal themselves after you’ve admired the top-stitched dash and chrome switches.
Aside from that, the CLA’s controls are easy to use, with hard buttons for radio, navigation, radio presets, and other functions that don’t require wading through the central-mounted rotary knob for the COMAND infotainment system. The LCD within the instrument panel is also simple, and thankfully, these buttons and switches keep that fine Mercedes tactility we’ve come to expect. A 13-cubic-foot trunk is just fine for a car this size, plus the rear seats fold down in case you find yourself hauling sheetrock. Visibility is above average considering the slim glass openings, and it’s a remarkably easy car to park. The panoramic moonroof opens like a regular moonroof and will automatically slide the shade forward to eliminate glare from the glass portion that stays fixed. If it’s just you and one person, a CLA can work fine for longer journeys. But it’s not a true sedan.
An 8-inch infotainment screen is standard for 2017, and it's among the highest-res displays we’ve seen. While it’s not touch-sensitive, using the multi-axis rotary knob is simpler than it seems—and much easier than the newer COMAND systems in other Mercedes models that rely on a touchpad mounted over the same knob. A customizable home screen puts functions and other shortcuts right up front. Navigation includes real-time traffic info that can handily suggest detours, although the voice recognition still isn’t as fast or accurate as it should be. Telematics apps for remote vehicle unlocking and similar services are available right from the car, as is a built-in (and clunky) web browser. Configuring the CLA’s various options, say for lighting, brings an animated version of the car on screen and spins it around to highlight the desired function. The owner’s manual is integrated, too, and pops up in certain menus to quickly explain the car’s features (for example, what video formats the USB interface can play).
The Harman Kardon stereo was pleasantly punchy, and Bluetooth calls ring clear for both parties. With the Premium and Multimedia packages ($2,350 and $2,300, respectively), the CLA comes with everything you’d want to play with in a modern car—and does so competently. Push-button start with a proximity key, a foot-swiping gesture control to open the trunk, and auto-dimming mirrors are part of a $500 Convenience package. Naturally, our car had that option ticked. Optional LED headlights and taillights ($850) are a worthy upgrade over the standard halogen and incandescent bulbs.
The CLA has never been rated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That said, while the interior is lacking in upscale refinements, the body structure feels like pure Mercedes: solid, stiff, and strong. Count on it in a crash. Among standard driver-assist features are auto-braking with forward collision alert (new for 2017), a very clear backup camera that can switch between two angles, and Attention Assist, which can alert you if sensors detect the onset of drowsy driving. The Driver Assistance package ($1,500) bundles blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assist, and adaptive cruise control—though these have not been updated to self-steer or be self-aware like the semi-autonomous controls in the new E-class.
Our test car’s $50,250 price is not reflective of most CLA250 models on dealer lots. You’ll likely find cars in the upper 30s and lower 40s, but with less equipment, like the CLA we last tested in 2014. Those prices keep the CLA further from the C-Class, which is roomier, plusher, and an altogether nicer car to drive. But the CLA benefits from its entry-level pricing, and namely, its unabashed style unmatched by other small sedans. At lower prices, it’s a compelling proposition among conventional luxury cars, because let’s face it, you’re driving this because you want everyone to know you’re in a Mercedes. Just remember that the CLA sacrifices some luxury and refinement in the quest for that low starting price.
Clifford Atiyeh has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own. Raised in Volvos, he has grown to love fast, irresponsible vehicles of all kinds. He is the East Coast Bureau reporter for Car and Driver and writes for various publications.
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