With the A-Class sedan now serving as the most affordable Mercedes-Benz car in the US, the second-gen CLA-Class has a chance to go upmarket. The 2020 CLA250 is a little more focused on design and sportiness than its predecessor, and as such it'll wear a slightly higher price tag. But the biggest revelation, after driving the new CLA on the roads in and around Munich, Germany, is that it now feels like a premium car from behind the wheel.
The Mercedes CLA250 features a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four engine coupled to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. The engine is rated for 221 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, and can be had with front-wheel drive as standard or 4Matic all-wheel drive as an option. It's a nice step up from the engine in the A220 sedan, which offers a comparatively lackluster 188 hp and 221 lb-ft. Later on, there will also be an AMG model rated for 302 hp.
The 2.0T is a potent powertrain, with lots of torque and supremely smooth power delivery all the way to redline. The Dynamic Select switch livens up throttle and transmission response quite a bit when turned to Sport mode, though the paddle shifters never deliver especially crisp gearchanges. But the CLA250 is powerful enough to do triple-digit speeds in the left lane of derestricted autobahn sections without breaking a sweat. And it's responsive enough to quickly dispatch slow farm equipment on two-lane roads.
The second-gen CLA250 has a much wider track than last year's model, by 2.5 inches in front and 2.2 inches in the back, contributing to more planted handling through bends. My test car has the available adaptive suspension and Pirelli P-Zero summer tires on 19-inch wheels, too, so it rewards brisk driving with crisp turn-in and sharply damped body motions. (Mercedes officials weren't able to confirm whether P-Zeros will be offered on US-spec cars.) Between the capable chassis and the power boost over the A220, it's clear the CLA250 delivers on its promise of being the sportier entry-level Mercedes four-door.
The electric power steering is, just like in the larger C-Class, delightfully tuned with extremely natural action. It's not very feelsome through the wheel, but its just-right weighting strikes a nice balance between urban ease and back-road enjoyment. The CLA also has a great sense of straight-ahead on the highway, making high-speed autobahn runs (and thus your 75-mile-per-hour Interstate commute) relaxing.
The more important test of the 2020 CLA250, though, is how it copes with stop-and-go driving and potholed roads, situations which tended to flummox the outgoing model's clunky gearbox and crashy suspension. Returning to Munich at rush hour proves the perfect test, as I take half an hour to drive only a handful of kilometers through heavy traffic.
The CLA-Class acquits itself well, with the dual-clutch transmission slipping away from a start smoothly and the chassis soaking up imperfect bumps and tram-line crossings with little fuss. It's a quiet and comfortable car, and one that feels pretty settled in urban driving. It contributes to an overall feeling of refinement and smoothness for the whole car. The exception is the transmission, which downshifts noisily and with a clunk when braking to a stop and sometimes reengages jerkily when you get back on the throttle.
As before, the CLA-Class has what Mercedes calls a "four-door coupe" design, with a plunging roofline and frameless windows. The body lines are a fair bit simpler than before, with gentle curves rather than aggressive creases, and nice proportions for a car based on a front-wheel-drive chassis. Compared to last year's model, the CLA250 grows by 1.9 inches in length and 2.0 inches in width.
Notable design changes include a shark-nose style grille that angles forward, the relocation of the license-plate holder from the trunklid to the rear bumper and taillights that are higher on the car and wider. The rear turn signals, which are downward-pointing orange LED strips on European cars, look a bit odd when viewed from a trailing car. Personally, I prefer the more traditional three-box shape of the A-Class sedan, but there's no disputing the elegance of the CLA.
It's an aerodynamic design, too, with the entirety of the car's underside covered, aside from the exhaust and the front wheel wells. Mercedes cites an slippery 0.23 drag-coefficient figure, right behind the 0.22 Cd of the A-Class sedan. All of the car's aerodynamic improvements save as much fuel as pulling 220 pounds of mass out of the car, Mercedes claims.
Inside the Mercedes CLA, technology abounds. You get a 7-inch digital instrument cluster and infotainment system as standard, with twin 10.25-inch displays available as an option. Either option has a touchscreen with the new MBUX infotainment system that we quite like in other cars.
In addition to touching its many buttons and menus on-screen, you can navigate by swiping a touchpad on the center console or a pad on the right-hand side of the steering wheel. You can also say, "Hey, Mercedes" and use voice commands to "talk" to the system. There's also an augmented-reality option for the navigation which overlays road-sign markings and directional arrows over live video of the view ahead when you're approaching a junction.
Support for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay comes standard. Like many newer cars, the CLA-Class comes only with USB Type-C ports (one up front, two in the smallish center console), so iPhone users will need an adapter to plug in and charge. Wireless charging is offered as an option.
Other standard interior equipment includes push-button start, dual-zone climate control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and cruise control. Heated and cooled seats, a heated steering wheel, 64-color ambient lighting, a head-up display and a Burmester sound system are among the options list.
Design-wise, the CLA's cabin is familiar, with turbine-style circular air vents, a row of climate-control buttons and various stitched-leather and metal accents. This may be one of the more affordable Mercedes cars you can buy, but all those trim pieces and switches feel just as nice as any other car. On the other hand, my test car still has a manually adjusted passenger seat, which feels a bit stingy.
As to the back seat, legroom is just fine but my head touches the headliner if I sit up straight -- that's the downside of that sloping roofline. If all your friends are NBA players, this might not be the car for you. And although the trunk opening is 3.9 inches wider than before, its capacity is down by 0.4 cubic feet in European measurements. (A US-specific cargo capacity figure isn't yet available.)
In addition to the aforementioned interior tech, the 2020 CLA-Class is better-equipped than before in most other ways. For instance, you get 18-inch wheels and LED headlights as standard, and the list of driver-assistance options is extensive. The CLA250 can be optioned with adaptive cruise control that can, optionally, automatically adjust its set speed to new speed limits, for instance, as well as all the expected features including lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, a 360-degree camera, precollision braking with forward cross-traffic braking and even steering assistance on the highway.
Pricing for the 2020 Mercedes CLA250 has yet to be set, but it should slip somewhere in between the $33,495 A220 and the $42,395 C300. With a much more generous standard-equipment list than before, shoppers shouldn't need to add too much to that entry price to get all the features they need or want from a modern luxury car, either.
There's probably quite an overlapping Venn diagram between the people who might want the A-Class and the CLA-Class. But the latter impresses with its greater approach to style and driving dynamics, as well as its improved feature set. For buyers interested in an affordable entry-level sedan, the 2020 Mercedes CLA250 makes quite the compelling argument.
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