2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 review: Big improvements in style and substance
The new Mercedes-Benz A-Class is indeed a huge improvement over the old CLA-Class . But this subcompact didn't replace the CLA entirely. Instead, there's a new CLA-Class on offer for 2020, and it features all the same luxury, tech and performance upgrades as the new A-Class, just with a bit more visual flair.
The 2020 CLA-Class is available with front- or all-wheel drive, and is a mere 2 inches longer than its predecessor. You'll soon be able to opt for higher-performance AMG CLA35 and CLA45 variants, but this review focuses on the entry-level CLA250, which still offers plenty of punch.
The CLA250's 2.0-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine puts out 221 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque -- 13 more hp than before, but an identical lb-ft spec. The seven-speed automatic transmission is quick to upshift and oftentimes slow to downshift in the car's default Comfort mode, but switching it over to Sport improves the behavior noticeably. Here, the transmission will preemptively downshift while I brake for a turn, skipping a few gears when necessary. This means I've got the tach needle right in the heart of the powerband when it's time to hit the throttle again, and don't have to wait for the transmission to catch up.
No, 221 hp and 258 lb-ft aren't crazy amounts of power, but that makes the CLA easy to wring out at legal speeds. You can sing the praises of high-horsepower cars all day long, but the truth is, most folks don't have the skill or the pavement to exploit huge power. On my backroad runs in Sport mode, I'm able to drive the car briskly without feeling like I'm overdoing it. Mercedes-Benz gave the CLA250 thicker sway bars for 2020, and the car has a 2-inch wider track than before, which helps it feel a lot more stable and confident while cornering. The new CLA is a much more rewarding steer than its predecessor.
While I certainly enjoy pushing the CLA250 through turns, don't be fooled, this is not a quick car. Mercedes claims a 0-to-60-mph time of 6.2 seconds for both front- and all-wheel-drive versions, a time that seems a bit ambitious to me based on my highway merging experience. Those looking for a sprightlier sport sedan will want to wait for AMG CLA35 and CLA45 models.
Still, the CLA250 is perfectly fine for its intended daily-driver lifestyle. If slogging through traffic is part of your life, Mercedes' tech can make it much easier. The adaptive cruise control adds route-based speed modulation for 2020, so the car will automatically slow down for curves and toll plazas, and reduce your speed should the limit change. When you get to your destination, the blind-spot monitoring stays active for 3 minutes after you turn the car off to warn of any oncoming cyclists, pedestrians or cars, which is a nice upgrade for 2020, especially if you're a frequent parallel parker.
The CLA's lane-keeping assist, however, can be a bit finicky. It panicked when I came across a wall adjacent to my lane, some 5 or 6 feet to the right of me, activating the brakes and pulling me to the left when I was in no danger whatsoever. Also, while this technology keeps the car dead center on straightaways, it tends to turn in and unwind late, essentially keeping the car to the outside of the lane on sweeping bends. The latter doesn't quite blend with the natural motion of my hands while turning; this system is best left for straight-ahead drives.
Moving inside, Mercedes' in-dash technology is brilliant, with the optional 10.25-inch center screen (a 7-inch display is standard) running the MBUX infotainment system, coupled with a reconfigurable gauge cluster of the same size. MBUX can be operated by touch, but I find myself using the touchpad on the center console or the thumb pads on the steering wheel.
Of course, I can also just speak to the MBUX system. A simple, "Hey, Mercedes," brings up the voice assistant, and it's pretty good. Granted, some of the Spanish-language street names in California confuse it a bit, but by and large, MBUX does a decent job of recognizing natural speech. The assistant will even tell you a pretty funny joke if you ask.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, and I usually use my smartphone for navigation, but the CLA has some trick augmented-reality tech in its embedded system that I really like. When you're approaching a turn, an arrow appears on a video display from the forward-facing camera, so you know exactly where to go. When you're searching for an address, the house numbers appear right there on the screen. I wish the display were on the gauge cluster and not the center screen, as I feel like I'm taking my eyes off the road a little too much, but overall, I find this tech extremely helpful.
What doesn't seem so helpful is the available Interior Assistant gesture-control technology, which turns on the overhead light when you move your hand over to the passenger seat. Not only is it kind of iffy in its response, it's solving a problem I can't imagine having. It's easy enough for me to press the button for the interior light, since in order to activate the Interior Assistant I usually end up having to wave or flail my hand. I really feel like this is tech for tech's sake.
The CLA has upgraded charging ports, so make sure to grab your USB-C cables. There is one port up front for smartphone integration and there are two in the center console. Rear-seat passengers get two USB-C ports, as well. Wireless charging is available if you haven't made the jump to USB-C, and one 12-volt outlet is included, too.
As for the interior design, it's just like any other new Mercedes, which is to say fantastic. I love the turbine-inspired air vents, and the whole cabin looks sleek and sophisticated. I also dig that I can choose a host of ambient lighting colors. The front seats are supportive yet soft, and while I do have to duck my head a bit to get into the back, I have enough headroom, even with my tall hair and 5-foot, 9-inch frame. Taller folks will be more comfortable up front. And if you do plan to have back-seat passengers on the regular, perhaps consider the more upright A220 sedan.
The outside is just as classy as the inside -- a good thing, since the old CLA was pretty frumpy-chunky. For 2020, the car's hindquarters are much easier on the eyes, with sleek taillights and a license plate mounting point that's been lowered, making room for the Mercedes-Benz star to take center stage. In front, the headlights have been tightened up, the grille enlarged and extra vents added for a menacing look. It all works, though I'd be lying if I said I didn't prefer the slightly cleaner looks of the A-Class.
The 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 starts at $36,650; add $2,000 if you want all-wheel drive. But good luck keeping that price low, friends. My tester has the $2,250 driver assistance package, the $1,150 navigation package and the $1,100 premium package as well as a bunch of appearance add-ons, and it comes in at $54,110, including $995 for destination. Personally, I'd nix the fancy paint upgrade (though the car does look really good in yellow) and forgo the AMG Line treatment, blacked-out night appearance package and 19-inch wheels. I'd drop all-wheel drive, too, since I live in California. That gets the price down to around a much more reasonable $46,000.
As for the competition, you could look at the Acura ILX or Audi A3 , but really, the CLA's most compelling alternative is the Mercedes-Benz A-Class. It's essentially the same car minus the swoopy roofline, and a little less power under the hood. Both of Mercedes' new subcompacts are seriously good cars, with smooth power delivery and top-notch interiors. Some prefer the look of the A while others will go CLA. Either way, you can't lose.