When I first laid eyes on the Mercedes-Benz “Style Coupe” on the Concept Car lawn at the 2012 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, I thought that it was one of the best-looking vehicles at the show.
As a Mercedes owner and a fan of the CLS, the Style Coupe’s sporty proportions, dynamic design, and interplay between concave and convex surfaces strongly hinted at the much anticipated baby-CLS coupe that was to arrive at a Mercedes-Benz dealership in the not too distant future.
Alas, when the production Mercedes-Benz CLA made its debut for 2013, the results were a little less glamourous. While the front had been toned down significantly from its concept car looks, at least the power domes on the hood, a throwback to the iconic 300SL Gullwing, had made the cut.
The story towards the rear was less successful with the tapered rear end of the production CLA looking like it had spent a bit too much time in the oven. The beautifully aggressive rear haunches and curves of the Style Coupe had largely been lost on the production floor.
Despite my disappointment in the design, the original CLA was a resounding success. Over a six-year life cycle, the first generation CLA racked up an impressive global production run of around 750,000 units.
Mercedes-Benz’s bosses were naturally delighted. The CLA four door coupe was part of the onslaught of new vehicles that the company had introduced to pump up its global sales volume and lower the average age of its customer.
2020 brings the much-anticipated successor to the first-generation CLA-class. My all-new and totally redesigned CLA250 4MATIC test vehicle has a lot more in common with the new entry-level Mercedes-Benz A-class sedan.
Mercedes starts the CLA off on the right foot by immediately positioning it for stronger correlation to the more expensive CLS rather than the entry level A-class. It’s not surprising then that Mercedes expects equally big things of this second-generation CLA.
Both are based on the company’s latest MFA2 platform as a starting point, sharing cabin architecture, engines, suspension hardware, and technology. However, not everything is identical under the skin when you peel it back. While the wheelbase is shared with the A-class, the CLA’s roofline is lower, more elongated, and clearly more distinguished than before.
Compared to its predecessor, the CLA has grown in terms of overall size as well as between the axles. In fact, my CLA250 as tested, is longer than the current-generation C-class and even has a bigger trunk capacity at 460 litres.
The CLA does share some similar suspension hardware as top spec A-class models, but with different tuning. While the MacPherson struts up front and rear multi-link set-up at the rear is carried over, the CLA’s wider track has resulted in a different set of calibration with respect to the springs and dampers. There is also a stiffer front antiroll bar than the A-class, and different hydraulic bushings on the front axle to help reduce NVH.
These hardware changes pay dividends from the driver’s seat because, as Mercedes-Benz claims, the CLA250 is notably more dynamic in its handling prospects compared to the A220 or A250.
Every CLA in Canada, except the CLA45AMG receives the same engine. A stout 221 horsepower 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine mated with Mercedes’ seven-speed dual clutch transmission.
This CLA’s ‘250’ designation means it’s the most powerful CLA coupe before you go to an A35, the only common ground between the 250 and the 35 being that they both have a two-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
Updated high tech interior
Whether you choose the A220 sedan or the CLA250 four door coupe is a matter of styling preference. The CLA’s longer, tapered tail and its slopping roofline does have compromises. It’s the classic case of form over function. The slopping roofline and narrower door openings make it harder for passengers to get in and out of in the rear. The driver and front passenger fair better.
Despite the CLA’s swooping profile, the clever Mercedes-Benz engineers have packaged the vehicle well. There’s more than enough head room for most drivers, even those over 6 foot 2 inches, despite a panoramic moonroof being fitted. Space for adults in the back seat is average, as long as they’re of the shorter variety.
Credit where it’s due, the CLA has a beautiful new interior and excellent fit and finish. You’ll find upscale touches from more expensive Mercedes-Benz vehicles such as the turbine-like air vents, multi-coloured and animated ambient lighting, nicely grained and soft touch dash and door panel surfaces, as well as expensive looking and feeling switches.
There are high-grade materials, plenty of stitching, bits of chrome and glossy black trim, and real wood. The MB-Tex faux leather seats do a good job of looking and feeling like the real thing.
The artfully designed air vents have a delightfully fluid feel to them when adjusted to redirect the air and are incorporated into the ambient lighting system. At night, this accent lighting frames the dashboard, and the vents even glow red or blue when the climate control is adjusted hotter or colder, respectively.
The CLA has more cargo room than the A-Class, but its tapered rear end makes for a small trunk opening and a shallow area under the package shelf. The rear seat backs fold, extending the trunk area. The trunk is almost fully lined, other than the upper/inner portion under the package shelf.
MBUX infotainment system
Like other Mercedes-Benz models, the CLA250 receives Mercedes’ hoodless MBUX infotainment system / virtual instrument cluster display, made up of two 10.3 inch screens combined into one large black paneled piece of glass.
First introduced on the A-class, the virtual instrument cluster screen, behind the steering wheel, can be highly customized in a seemingly unlimited number of permutations and combinations. The central display above the air vents is a touchscreen. However, like BMW’s iDrive system, there are a number of ways to control the interface your way.
In addition to the touchscreen, there is also a large touchpad, mini Blackberry Bold-esque trackpads on the steering wheel spokes, as well as MBUX’s Digital Personal Assistant which uses voice control. The Digital Personal assistant function can understand everyday language and does not require specific phrases to get it to do what you want. Not only does it work with navigation settings, but you can also ask it to adjust things such as the climate control. For example, just say “Hey Mercedes, I’m cold” and the system will respond by cranking up the temperature.
MBUX is also able to learn your habits through artificial intelligence, learning everything from your favourite destinations through to your daily commute route. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come standard with the system, and Siri and Google both play game nicely with MBUX.
The navigation system includes augmented reality video overlays, which help you to pick the right exit at roundabouts and can even show you a live camera feed at stop lights so that you can better see the traffic signals.
Compared to the previous generation COMAND system on the last CLA, MBUX is a leap forward in intuitiveness and presentation. It’s not perfect, as the huge number of customizations does require a bit of learning. For example, the ambient lighting is a couple of submenus deep as is the seat lumbar function. Once you understand the logic behind the menus though, it all makes sense. Like most other things worth doing, it takes time to learn.
Want to learn more about MBUX? Hop on over to my 2020 Mercedes-Benz A250 4MATIC review.
How does it drive?
The CLA is pretty agile in corners. Turn-in response is quick and the body stays nice and flat through twisty roads. This balanced handling gives the driver a good sense of control and a high level of confidence. Ride quality is firm but acceptable. Over rough roads, the low-profile tires can result in a bit of harshness and muted kicks penetrating the cabin.
Power from the turbocharged four-cylinder engine is strong and there is plenty of power on tap for passing maneuvers. 0-100 km/hr runs from the 221 horsepower engine can be completed in around 6.3 seconds and there is ample power for most situations. The engine is smooth and quiet most of the time but can sound surprisingly coarse at higher revs. At least it’s paired well with the 7G-DCT seven speed dual-clutch gearbox, which shifts smoothly and responds well to the steering wheel paddles when called upon to change gears manually.
Approach the CLA250 as a hot hatch and you’ll be a bit disappointed. The engine and transmission take a little while to get rolling and the attitude is a bit more relaxed versus urgent.
4MATIC full-time all-wheel-drive is standard equipment on the CLA250 in Canada. The relatively straightforward Haldex-style front-wheel-drive biased system makes for a blend of good fuel economy plus solid and consistent on-road traction.
My 2020 CLA250 4MATIC test vehicle was also equipped with Mercedes’ full suite of active safety systems including lane departure warning and lane keeping assist as well as active blindspot warning and adaptive cruise control. The system can also pre-charge the brakes to help give the driver a greater braking force than by simply stomping on the pedal in an emergency situation.
The second generation CLA’s exterior design can clearly be acknowledged as more successful than its predecessor. Personally, this is the CLA that I was waiting for when I first saw the Mercedes-Benz Style Coupe at Pebble Beach.
Combine the desirable exterior with an upmarket and high-tech interior and you have a strong contender in the eyes of those looking for a compact luxury car or a four door coupe.
While it’s not a set your pants on fire driver’s car (wait for the CLA45 AMG for that), the point of the CLA250 4MATIC is to look good while being able to enjoy a premium-badged car that is compact in dimensions but big on usability. In that, Mercedes has succeeded in accomplishing its goal. The 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 4MATIC starts at $43,600.
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