MUNICH, Germany—Slalom through the tiny hamlets dotting Bavaria’s hilly hinterlands, and you’ll inevitably stumble onto detours that are even tighter and twistier than the beaten path. Case in point: The time the 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA250’s navigation system politely instructed us to drive directly into a road closure, leading us to randomly pick a squiggly line from the map and thus discovering a smorgasbord of scale-model S-curves. Turns out the re-route more closely mimicked an Isle of Man rally stage than a public road—and provided the perfect opportunity to flagellate the CLA like a rental car. Eureka!
Mercedes-Benz’s CLA- and A-class are a 1-2 product punch that can confound the uninitiated. Built on the same platform but positioned as two different models, the A-class sedan is a more traditionally silhouetted four-door better suited to people-hauling duty, while the four-door CLA is the so-called “coupe” with a sleeker, cabin shrinking roofline. In spite of the sporty posturing, we had no idea what to expect from the newest baby Benz when encountering those tasty backroads.
Unlike the previous model, the new CLA no longer has to split its attention, its jauntier looks and skill set leaving its A-class stablemate to hold the line on practicality. First introduced in 2014, Benz’s original CLA initially rang in at just less than $30,000, a then unimaginable price point for Sindelfingen’s prestige brand. The new version grows in virtually every dimension: length (1.9 inches), width (2.1 inches), wheelbase (1.2 inches), front headroom (0.7 inch), and track (2.5 inches front, 2.2 rear). Shrunken proportions are few and far between, but height has dropped by 0.8 inch, front legroom by a negligible 0.04 inch, and trunk capacity by 0.4 cubic feet. Price has yet to be announced, but anticipate an MSRP that’s dearer than the 2019 A-class’s $33,495 sticker.
More Mature but Not Entirely Full-Grown
Though the CLA is not quite entirely grown up (and certainly not bloated), its larger proportions do reflect a newfound maturity for the starter Benz. First, the build quality inside is vastly superior compared to the old car’s. The cabin design still veers on the masculine side, with large round HVAC vents punctuating otherwise linear, chunky shapes. But the latest incarnation is far more satisfying to see, touch, and feel than before, with a decidedly future-friendly widescreen display flipping a virtual bird to analog gauges. Bonus points for substantial trimmings that include options like brushed aluminum and open-pore wood.
The available sport seats have decently attractive perforated leather, but you won’t be confusing the upholstery with the hides in an S-class—or even a C-class, for that matter. The front seats manage to feel reasonably spacious for the class, while the rears prove a bit snug for big folks. At 5 feet, 11 inches, I didn’t have much knee room when seated “behind myself” with the driver’s seat positioned comfortably. There’s about an inch or so of space between the top of my head and the roof, suggesting taller passengers might get claustrophobic—or need a post-ride neck massage—if relegated to long hauls in the rear.
Thoughtful UX, Handsome Sheetmetal
The CLA’s ergonomics and driver controls should feel familiar to Mercedes traditionalists, save the new touchpad that works in conjunction with the MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience) voice assistant that debuted in the A-class. The voice recognition works well, although perhaps too well in certain cases: It’s programmed to respond to the verbal cue of “Hey, Mercedes,” making it difficult to discuss the German brand without summoning the disembodied voice every time. Not possessing the knowledge of how to change the default trigger, I found myself reverting to uttering other German brands in order to avoid intervention from the perky robot voice. The system also responds to hand and arm gestures. Overall, the multimedia system proved mostly easy to use, with the optional 10.3-inch touchscreen offering an intuitive and quick-reacting alternative to the late, not-so-great dial-operated COMAND system. A 7.0-inch touchscreen comes standard, but once you go 10.3 it’s hard to go back.
On a strictly aesthetic level, the CLA’s sheetmetal manages to pull off a sleeker, less awkward and intrinsically front-wheel-drive look than its predecessor. Mercedes cleverly cheated the proportions by sweeping the A-pillar line rearward and moving the door seam forward while retaining the same firewall and pedal-box positions. Subjectively speaking, it’s also possessed of more visual interest than its bigger and arguably blander looking sibling, the CLS.
The U.S. version’s 221-hp turbo 2.0-liter inline-for delivers steady, linear power with 258 lb-ft of torque that peaks between 1,800 and 4,000 rpm. Paired with a smooth-shifting seven-speed dual-clutch, the gearbox avoids jerky low-speed engagements that have plagued some other dual-clutches. Mercedes says the engine is good for a respectable zero-to-62-mph time of 6.3 seconds, beating the 188-hp A220’s time by 0.8 second. (We don’t get an A250, the better to differentiate the models.) But it’s hard not to rubberneck at the just-announced Mercedes-AMG A35 and CLA35, whose 302-hp mill does the 60-mph tango in just over 4.5 seconds, according to their maker.
That said, the CLA does slice and dice corners with surprising verve. Pushed harder and deeper into corners, the compact four-door, aided by its wider stance and reworked suspension, manages to both fling through and cling to each corner. The test car was aided by the optional adaptive suspension, which adjusts valve damping individually to cope with road surfaces and driving styles. Reasonably supple when needed and taut in its more aggressive setting, the system helps the CLA punch above its weight in agility and body control. There isn’t a great deal of feedback through the steering wheel; again, expect more from the AMG model. But there’s enough transparency between input and response to encourage brisk, naughtier than average cornering speeds.
Autobahn blasts revealed no big surprises about the CLA’s high-speed handling. With its wide footing and solid underpinnings, the small sedan feels unruffled and secure, though underpowered on the unrestricted stretches where traffic routinely cruises at speeds upward of 110 mph. EPA fuel-economy figures are still to be announced, but expect a reasonably impressive highway figure considering the seven-speed’s tall overdrive gear and the Mercedes’ claim of extra-slippery aerodynamics.
The adaptive cruise-control system follows traffic ahead smoothly, as does its new lane-change assistant function, which glides the car into the next lane when the driver activates a turn signal. Less successful is active lane-keeping assist, which intends to keep the car from straying laterally by applying the brake on one side when imminent lane departure is detected. The system’s intentions might be good, but it sometimes provokes more anxiety than safety with jerky and disconcerting corrections; at least you can disable it via the onscreen menu.
While it can no longer hang its hat on a sub-$30,000 starting price, the new CLA reaches into more ambitious territory with its modernized hardware and mature interior finishes. Best of all, though it lacks the outright grunt and outright handling acumen we expect from the upcoming AMG variants, the new CLA just might surprise and delight you when the road gets unexpectedly bendy.
2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 Specifications
|ON SALE||Late 2019|
|PRICE||CLA250, $36,500; CLA250 4Matic, $38,500 (est)|
|ENGINE||2.0L DOHC 16-valve turbocharged inline-4; 221 hp @ 5,800 rpm, 258 lb-ft @ 1,800 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD or AWD sedan|
||23–24/34–35 mpg (city/hwy, est)|
|L x W x H||184.6 x 72.0 x 56.7 in|
|0–60 MPH||6.2 sec|
|TOP SPEED||130 mph|