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2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class Test Drive Review
In recent years, first-time luxury shoppers have had plenty of choices, but those choices haven't always been great. In the past decade, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi have offered “fun-size” subcompact luxury cars and crossovers. But “subcompact” is typically synonymous with “budget,” and the German Big Three have had a hard time rectifying “small” with “upscale.” Look no further than the woeful Mercedes-Benz GLA-Class or the underwhelming BMW X1. These cars might have luxury badges on their hoods, but they hardly live up to them.
As subcompact luxury cars go, a “4-door coupe” like the 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class makes a lot more sense than I initially expected. For commuters and first-time luxury buyers who simply want a comfortable place to sit on their way to work, and who occasionally need a backseat for guests or kids, the CLA makes more sense than paying a premium for a crossover or larger sedan. It has the lines of a coupe but is more sensible than one.
The CLA has been redesigned for 2020, and as Mercedes has unveiled a more affordable A-Class sedan, the CLA is no longer the most affordable vehicle in the German luxury brand’s US lineup. This allows the CLA to grow in new and interesting ways, becoming a more dramatic performance luxury car. Read on to learn if the CLA-Class is the right choice for your first luxury car as well as which specific trim CarGurus recommends.
Look and Feel
The first things you’ll notice when comparing the new CLA-Class to its predecessor are the headlights. Gone are the massive eagle-eye headlight clusters, replaced with far more elegant units. These wedge-like headlights are designed to more closely connect the CLA with its larger sibling, the CLS (another 4-door coupe).
The roof and trunk finish elegantly and remind me of the full-size Mercedes-Benz S-Class Coupe (which was once called the CL-Class). Those features give the CLA an almost boat-like appearance, and while they restrict the car's functionality to a degree, they certainly look dramatic and live up to the luxury billing.
But the real treat is inside the CLA, where the driver and front passenger are treated to a comfortable, modern, and upscale cabin with a dramatic multi-tier dash and vintage-looking climate vents. At night, it all comes alive with available ambient cabin lighting, which individually illuminates the various tiers and vents. In fact, when you change the climate control, it will illuminate red or blue as you raise or lower the temperature, respectively.
The instrument screen and new infotainment screen form a single panel that sweeps across two-thirds of the dash area. This falls in line with the new Mercedes design approach, and while the panel is comprised of two screens, it looks like one sweeping, stunning display.
The brushed aluminum panels are complemented by the steering wheel, which has similar brightwork on it. Together with the other various details, the CLA has an instantly timeless cabin that stands with the current Mazda3 as one of the best small-car interiors on the market.
There are four variants of the CLA: the CLA 250 and CLA 250 4Matic, and the performance-oriented AMG CLA 35 4Matic and 45 4Matic. Standard equipment on the CLA 250 includes LED headlights, 18-inch wheels, a panoramic moonroof, push-button start, dual-zone climate control, sport bucket seats, and a new infotainment system with a 7-inch touchscreen and center-console trackpad.
Our test model came with such options as the AMG appearance package, a larger 10.25-inch infotainment screen, heated front seats, the ambient lighting package, a Burmester sound system, and a wireless charging pad for cell phones. Our test car also came with the AMG Line multi-contour front seats, with a combination of leather and suede, as well as fetching red stitching.
The CLA's different tiers each include a different powertrain, and the options and packages are more a la carte. That makes it a bit more difficult for CarGurus to recommend a specific trim, but we’d suggest going for the CLA 250 4Matic, like our test model, and spec'ing it to your needs.
Passive entry is among the long list of optional features. Passive entry allows you to keep your keys in your pocket when you grab the handle to open the door. The car senses the keys and unlocks the car just based on the touch of your hand. This feature is optional on many cars, but it also comes standard on plenty of vehicles out there, too. We would have loved to see this feature come standard on a car as technologically impressive as this Mercedes-Benz.
As we mentioned, the four versions of the CLA-Class break down into four different powertrain configurations. Both of the CLA 250s feature a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine making 221 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque that gets sent through a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission with paddle shifters. The base CLA 250 sends power to the front wheels, while the CLA 250 4Matic that we drove adds the all-weather benefit of all-wheel drive (AWD).
For a car this size, the 4-cylinder engine makes great power, and the transmission holds the right gear long enough to take advantage of the engine’s optimum power range. The CLA jumps off the line around town, but it shows its strength at running speed when the turbo is fully doing its thing. When paired with the optional lowered suspension, the CLA becomes a fantastic driver’s car.
Modern performance cars often have stiff suspension systems and lead-heavy steering, resulting in poor driving characteristics when you’re sitting in traffic or getting around town. Happily, the CLA’s steering is light but refined, and its cornering is precise without being too stiff. Overall, the CLA is athletic, but you pay no penalty in ride quality for that.
The EPA estimates that our CLA 250 4Matic returns fuel economy of 23 mpg city, 33 highway, 27 combined. In our week of driving, we observed just over 25 mpg. The front-wheel-drive CLA 250 should do a bit better, as it's rated at 25 mpg city, 35 highway, 28 combined.
Form and Function
Let’s get one thing out of the way: I don’t like cars like the CLA-Class being called “coupes.” I don't even like calling them “4-door coupes.” A coupe has 2 doors, while a sedan has 4 doors. A car like the 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA has a raked rear window and useless rear seats, but that shouldn't make it a coupe. It's a sedan with less functionality.
And much as I hate the term “coupe” being used for anything other than a 2-door car, there are a few ways in which the CLA sticks to some coupe hallmarks, including the pillar-less doors and a pretty tight back seat. Most notably, the roof in the rear makes it nearly impossible for an adult to sit in the backseat for anything longer than a short drive. If the front passenger slides forward, the right rear seat becomes usable, but that roof is still low. The headroom is apparently improved from the 2019 model's, but we’d never know from sitting back there.
It’s a different story up front, where the driver and front passenger are treated to those sport bucket seats, which provide plenty of bolstering. These bolsters keep front occupants planted during hard cornering, but the seats are fully fixed, lacking any headrest adjustment. This makes the CLA somewhat uncomfortable over long trips.
The CLA has 13.1 cubic feet of trunk space, which is decent for the class and the same as the previous model’s capacity. The backseat folds down with the quick flip of a switch from the trunk, but the CLA feels the need to warn you that the seats are down anytime you start the car with them folded. Still, you can fold that backseat down for larger items.
The new CLA's interior is highlighted by the latest Mercedes-Benz infotainment system, called MBUX. It replaces the old non-touchscreen and rotary dial with a touchscreen and a trackpad controller. This trackpad has a Home button, a Back button, and a volume thumb-roller beside it.
This is a big step for Mercedes-Benz. Like BMW and Audi, Mercedes spent the last decade trying to convince shoppers that touchscreens were not the right way to interact with a digital screen, despite the nearly ubiquitous adoption of mobile phones and tablets. Some say a rotary dial is less distracting to operate than a touchscreen, but menu navigation via a dial is often confusing and can be equally distracting. Thankfully Mercedes lets you touch the screen again.
Mercedes also does something a bit different with its steering-wheel-mounted controls. There are two small pads that control the digital screens. The left pad operates the instrument panel, and the right one controls the center touchscreen. There is no simple channel-changing toggle, but you can use the finger pad to easily swipe through channels and even save a preset.
In addition to all this, MBUX provides a new, advanced voice-control system. You can simply say, “Hey, Mercedes,” and when prompted, you can give it a complex command.
The CLA has five outlets, but they are all USB-C ports, which is a little ridiculous. It’s good to see Mercedes-Benz looking forward, but traditional USB cables are still ubiquitous, and so this is maybe rushing to a new tech standard.
Our CLA-Class came with a full host of driver-assistance features, which sounds great, but one feature stands out for being really bad. The lane-departure warning system has a particular version of lane-keeping assist. If you veer toward the lane line, it will slightly vibrate the steering wheel. If you don’t respond to these warnings, it will provide assistance, but you could hardly call it that. The system quickly stabs the brakes and jerks the wheel. It's extremely abrupt, and it honestly led me to think something was wrong with the car the first time I experienced it. It should be noted that many other systems provide lane-keeping assistance by nudging the car back into the lane without stabbing the brakes. This was part of a driver-assistance package that included forward-collision avoidance, automatic high beams, and a driver-drowsiness monitor.
The CLA comes standard with a full array of front- and side-impact airbags. It also comes with a reversing camera and traction control. Our test model came with the available surround-view camera, which was a nice touch; it automatically activates as you approach an object at low speed, meaning you can park nose-in with precision.
The 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class has a base MSRP of $36,650, and the CLA 250 4Matic starts at $38,650. The previous version of this car was advertised as the most affordable vehicle in the Mercedes-Benz lineup, but this is no longer the case. That accolade belongs to the new A-Class sedan, which starts at $32,800.
Positioning the CLA higher up the lineup has allowed it to grow up a bit. It's now a more sophisticated vehicle. Factoring in its higher base price and the long list of options— including driver-assistance systems as well as luxury and tech upgrades—our test car clocked in at $50,055.
That's far from entry-level money. In fact, it’s more than the base MSRP of a larger C-Class. Of course, look at the options list the wrong way, and the C-Class will shoot up past $60,000. So this is what near-entry-level luxury looks like these days. But for that money, you'll get a car that is more sophisticated than the one it replaces in nearly every way.
Consider the modern car market and how well crossovers are performing. Sedans do well in the luxury segment, but not as well as they once did. And coupes are nearly a dying breed. I realize that it violates my sensibilities, but the CLA manages to exhibit the attributes of a coupe with the added versatility of that second set of doors. Were this to be your first luxury car, it would be a smart choice… as long as you go easy on the options.
From open-wheel racecars to specialty off-road vehicles, George Kennedy has driven it all. A career automotive journalist, George has been a contributor, editor, and/or producer at some of the most respected publications and outlets, including Consumer Reports, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Autoblog.com, Hemmings Classic Wheels, BoldRide.com, the Providence Journal, and WheelsTV.
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