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2021 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class Overview
It may be small, but the CLA is worthy of the Mercedes-Benz badge.
The entry-level luxury car market has come a long way in the past decade. When upscale automakers first went downmarket, they tended to miss the mark and fail to reach the level of quality that buyers associate with their badges. But they have often come around and finally started producing compact cars with legitimate luxury credentials. One such comeback story is the 2021 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class.
When the CLA was first introduced as a 2014 model, it did not live up to the Mercedez-Benz reputation for luxury. It was underpowered, had a harsh ride, and had a low-grade interior. That all changed with the arrival of its replacement for the 2020 model year. The coupe-like sedan was a significant improvement and it carries over to the 2021 model year. The current CLA has sharp styling, energetic performance, and a high-class interior that’s outfitted with an advanced user interface.
Look and Feel
We call the CLA “coupe-like” because it is a four-door car with a rakish rear window. We refuse to call it an actual coupe because coupes have two doors and in these unsure times, some things are still sacred. Nonetheless, the CLA has a very sharp design that is more eye-catching than the affordable A-Class sedan it shares basic underpinnings with.
But the cabin is where the CLA really shines. It’s modern, functional, and elegant. The standard 7-inch digital instrument panel and 7-inch center touchscreen are combined in one continuous bezel that dominates two-thirds of the dash. Trims for the CLA class are CLA 250, AMG CLA 35, and AMG CLA 45. Standard features on the CLA 250 include dual-zone automatic climate control, remote start, synthetic leather upholstery, five USB ports, power-adjustable sport seats, and HD radio.
An available Premium Package upgrades the instrument panel and infotainment unit to larger 10.25-inch screens. It also adds satellite radio. The AMG CLA 35 and AMG CLA 45 feature all the equipment of the CLA 250, as well as the Premium Package.
All versions of the CLA feature a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine of varying outputs. The CLA 250’s engine makes 221 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Power is routed through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission to front-wheel drive (FWD) or available 4Matic all-wheel drive (AWD). The AMG CLA 35 makes 302 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, routed through that same seven-speed transmission to standard AWD.
The range-topping AMG CLA 45 also features a turbo-four that puts out an impressive 382 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque. It routes that power through an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission, and also gets standard AWD. This setup yields a zero-to-sixty time of just four seconds, according to Mercedes.
The CLA has taut, playful handling. The steering is well-weighted and turn-in is quick. The downside is that the ride can feel stiff at times, especially if you’re used to the gracefully composed ride quality of other Mercedes models. The available adaptive damping suspension helps somewhat in this regard, but the overall ride quality still trends towards firm.
Form and Function
Being a subcompact sedan, there are some pros and cons to the CLA. On the plus side, the CLA is very maneuverable in tight spaces and it has surprisingly spacious front seats. The downside is it has tight rear seats and a small trunk. Its trunk provides 11.6 cubic feet of cargo space, which is small, even for the subcompact car segment.
Due to its coupe-like profile, the CLA is lacking when it comes to rear headroom and legroom. The only way to get any usable rear-seat space is to slide the front seat forward a good amount. You know what? It does sound a lot like a coupe after all!
The CLA makes solid use of its front-seat space. Thanks to the ergonomic controls layout, there is plenty of usable space to put items. The cupholders are also a decent size for a small car, and there are large in-door cubbies for water bottles.
The standard MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) infotainment system can be controlled via the center touchscreen, a dial in the center console, or through voice recognition. Both the touchscreen and instrument cluster can be controlled via small touch-sensitive toggles on the steering wheel as well. There is a bit of a learning curve, but once you get the hang of it, it allows you to do a lot with minimal distraction.
MBUX has a sensible layout and includes standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Wireless device charging is optional, but wireless CarPlay and Android Auto are not available. The one major setback for American drivers might be that the CLA exclusively uses USB-C outlets. Not everyone has made the move over to USB-C, and they might be disappointed to be paying for a premium sedan, only to find they need to spend even more to get an adaptor cable. You'll have to go out and buy an adaptor yourself, or wait for the 2022 model year CLA, which will come with the adaptor.
The CLA-Class comes with a solid list of standard driver assistance features, including automatic emergency braking, forward collision warning, blind-spot monitoring, and a driver attention monitor. The CLA also comes with a crosswind assist, which (as the name implies) can compensate for hard gusts in highway driving.
While that’s a solid list, there are a whole host of additional safety features that require selecting one or more packages. The Driver Assistance package ($1,700) adds adaptive cruise control, rear collision braking, lane departure warning, and rear cross-traffic alert. This package also includes Mercedes Pre-Safe Sound, which emits a noise-canceling tone to protect your ears in event of a crash. You can add adaptive headlights for $900. For $1,100 you can add a parallel park assist and surround-view parking monitor.
The base FWD CLA 250 returns an EPA-estimated 25 mpg city, 35 mpg highway, and 29 mpg combined, making it a standout among small luxury cars. The CLA 250 4Matic returns a still-respectable 24 mpg city, 33 mpg highway, and 27 mpg combined. Fuel economy for the AMG CLA 35 is 22 mpg city, 29 mpg highway, and 25 mpg combined. The least-efficient version is the high-performance AMG CLA 45, which returns 20 mpg city, 29 mpg highway, and 23 mpg combined.
Base MSRP for the 2021 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 is $37,850. Adding 4Matic AWD brings the price to $49,850. The sporty Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 starts at $47,850 and the potent AMG CLA 45 starts at $55,350.
Both the BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe and Audi A3 have a lower starting price, and the recently updated Audi RS 3 offers similar performance to the top AMG CLA 45 (at a similar price). The Gran Coupe does not offer a dedicated M-branded model, but it’s also a car that we would not recommend as a serious competitor. The CLA stands out for its interior aesthetic, ride quality, and seamlessly integrated technology. The CLA-Class has proved that luxury brands are finally getting their heads around what’s important in an entry-level luxury subcompact car.
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