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Is this new compact four-door coupé a better-handling prospect than its forebear?

Of all the smallish new cars with which, over the past couple of decades, Mercedes has pumped up its global sales volume and lowered the average age of its customer, the CLA four-door coupé might not spring to your mind as the most transformative of the bunch.

Were you a North American car buyer, though, it might well spring absolutely front and centre as such. Because while the first-generation Mercedes CLA (2013-2019) wasn’t the most common sight on UK roads compared with the A-Class or even the Mercedes-Benz GLA crossover SUV, it was the very first compact front-wheel-drive Mercedes to hit the American market when it landed there in 2013. Not so long after it had, it was described by Mercedes’ regional bosses as the firm’s most successful product launch in 20 years. Over a six-year life cycle, the CLA racked up an impressive production run of some 750,000 global units.

Mercedes calls the forward-leaning grille of its current crop of coupés its ‘shark nose’. Although it is not the only car maker currently employing this design trick, it certainly helps to inject extra drama into the car’s profile

Mercedes will quite reasonably be expecting equally big things of this second-generation CLA, then: with ‘big’ becoming a word you can apply to the car in more ways than one. Having grown between the axles and in overall terms, this car is now longer than a current Mercedes-Benz C-Class saloon and also has a bigger boot than its better-established saloon relation.

Like the original CLA, it seeks to reproduce the design appeal of the bigger Mercedes CLS four-door coupé at a more affordable price and, using Mercedes’ latest MFA2 platform as a basis, shares engines, cabin architecture, suspension hardware and more with the current Mercedes-Benz A-Class and Mercedes-Benz B-Class.

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Unlike the last CLA, the car gets off to the right kind of start by more clearly differentiating itself visually from its hatchback relations and drawing more effective design parallels with the current CLS. But what is there, if anything, beneath the skin to lift the car above the level of an A-Class to drive? Let’s find out.

The Mercedes CLA range at a glance

The CLA range is extensive even after Mercedes UK chose not to include the entry-level 180d diesel and the four-wheel-drive 250 4Matic available elsewhere.

There are three AMG performance versions – counting both tunes of the forthcoming 45 versions, prices for which have yet to be confirmed. A shooting brake bodystyle will cost you £1000 more than a coupé.

Price £36,630 Power 221bhp Torque 258lb ft 0-60mph 6.8sec 30-70mph in fourth 8.2sec Fuel economy 33.6mpg CO2 139g/km 70-0mph 49.2m (damp)


Mercedes-Benz CLA 2019 road test review - hero side

The CLA’s wheelbase is identical to that of the current Mercedes-Benz A-Class but, this time around, there’s little chance that you’d guess as much.

With a lower, more elongated roofline than the last CLA had and a rear overhang stretching beyond a metre in length, the car has adopted a much more elegant and clearly distinguished silhouette than that of its hatchback sibling compared with its predecessor – which, by comparison, looked more like an A-Class hatchback that’d had a Bunsen burner held torturously to its hindquarters. As several testers agreed, it succeeds where the last car failed by looking like the downsized Mercedes-Benz CLS ‘coupoon’ you’d hope it might be.

CLA’s surfacing is generally ‘purer’ (read sleeker) than that of the A-Class, although the inner bonnet ridges – which you won’t find on the hatchback relative – are the exception.

The car uses most of the same suspension hardware as higher-end versions of the A-Class, specifically MacPherson struts at the front axle and a multi-link set-up at the rear, but the tuning and some of the more minor hardware specification are different. Axle tracks of significantly greater width than those of the A-Class would have obliged Mercedes to retune the springs, dampers and anti-roll bars in any case, but the opportunity has been taken to do exactly that, to fit a stiffer front antiroll bar than the A-Class uses, as well as noise- and vibration-countering hydraulic suspension bushes to the front axle. With a lower roofline and lower centre of gravity in play as well as that wider chassis footprint, the CLA, Mercedes claims, is a notably more dynamic-handling prospect than the A-Class.

The engine specification of our test car should certainly put it in a position to impress a keen driver. With four four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engines offered in the line-up as of now and one four-cylinder diesel joining the range later this year, the meekest model is the 134bhp, 148lb ft 1.3-litre CLA 180 and the stoutest is the 221bhp, 258lb ft 2.0-litre CLA 250, which is the variant we’ve elected to test here.

A CLA 35 lower-rung AMG performance version with 302bhp will also be available this year, with an even beefier, 416bhp CLA 45 S coming soon afterwards. Those two AMG versions both come with four-wheel drive, as does the midrange CLA 220 petrol. Otherwise, all CLAs are front drive only.

Mercedes-Benz CLA 2019 road test review - front seats

The CLA’s cabin has all the material and technical razzmatazz of its compact Mercedes contemporaries, so it makes a strong first impression as you settle in to its neon-lit, luxurious-feeling ambience.

Sporty-looking seats with integrated head restraints feature in both rows, and although most testers would have preferred separate, adjustable headrests in principle, none complained about the positioning of those afforded, or the general comfort and support of the seats. The driving position is ergonomically fine and its control layout – while slightly different from the wider saloon norm thanks to a column-mounted gear selector stalk and a fascia-mounted electronic handbrake switch – doesn’t take long to become intuitive.

You’d really need to buy into the form-over-function idea to buy a CLA in preference to an A-Class. I don’t think I’ve sat in a four door car with rear head room as poor as this.

All UK-market CLAs get Mercedes’ 10.3in touchscreen MBUX infotainment and most trim derivatives have a digital instrument screen of the same size joined to it, as part of an apparently seamless sweep of the very latest and most sophisticated display technology you could hope for in a £30,000 car.

The navigation system includes augmented reality video overlays, which help you to pick the right exit at roundabouts, and setting a destination is made particularly easy by the Hey Mercedes voice recognition system, which, based on our testing, accepts the correct destination at the first time of asking and is also particularly good at suggesting destinations from its online points of interest database.

In some global markets, the voice recognition functionality even extends to answering questions about sport, business, news and general knowledge using online search feeds – so you can ask whether your football team won or your shares appreciated. Sadly, as far as we could tell at least, the UK isn’t one of those markets.

Despite the car’s swooping profile, it’s cleverly packaged enough up front that – even with a panoramic sunroof fitted – our test car made more than sufficient head room for a 6ft 3in driver. However, in the narrowness of its interior and with a driving position that seats you ever so slightly perched and bent-legged at the controls, the CLA doesn’t feel quite as roomy or recumbently configured as is typical of executive saloons in general. Here more than perhaps anywhere else, the car does allow its hatchback-derived roots to show through.

Wider practicality is good in some respects and quite disappointing in others. The second row is one you’d only really consider squeezing two occupants into – and they wouldn’t be likely to be fully grown adults. Space for six-footers is tighter than the class average for heads and legs and the oversized interior door handles are so big that taller occupants can quite easily – and painfully – trap an outboard knee between them and the front seatback while swinging the door closed.

A large boot is the sweetener you get in return for being prepared to suffer that second row. At 460 litres, it’s roomier even than the one you’ll find in the much larger Lexus ES.


Mercedes’ 221bhp, 258lb ft 2.0-litre turbo engine and its seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox combine to business-like effect when you want to get the CLA 250 moving in a hurry.

In needing less than seven seconds to hit 60mph from rest, and little more than six to get from 30mph to 70mph through the gears, it is very nearly as quick as the last Skoda Octavia vRS we performance tested (a 242bhp estate in 2017). If anything, it could use more front-driven traction than the 18in wheels and 225-section Hankook Ventus tyres make – and if it had some, it might even have got down near the 6.5sec 0-60mph mark.

CLA lives up to its sports-flavoured billing only so far, so it’s competent enough at middling speeds but fails to reward an enthusiastic driver, especially over typical B-roads

Quite disappointingly, though, given the sporting billing that Mercedes has applied to the CLA, there are a few reasons why you might not feel inclined to extract an enthusiastic pace from this car or particularly enjoy it when you do.

The first and most obvious one is a telling shortage of both high-range mechanical refinement and audible richness from that four-cylinder engine, the former coming as a bit of a surprise since we haven’t encountered it in other applications of this engine in compact models on the same platform. The motor is quiet and smooth enough a lot of the time, when cruising and operating at lowish revs, but it sounds quite coarse on start-up and takes on a distinctly strained harshness when pulling hard above 4000rpm.

The hastiness of the CLA’s dual-clutch gearbox to actuate those clutches during upshifts, blended with the motor’s responsiveness and its very healthy provision of accessible torque, means you needn’t work the engine to high revs to whisk the car along briskly, which is good news. Unfortunately, we can’t report that the transmission is otherwise entirely blameless in its operation.

When driving our test car in ‘D’, testers reported a hesitancy to disengage its clutches when slowing to a crawl in heavy traffic, and when coming to a stop, making the car seem to struggle and shunt against the influence of the brakes slightly in the former respect, and also to allow some of the energy from the stopping crankshaft to fight its way through to the drive wheels during engine start/ stop phases.

Drivability gremlins of that sort haven’t been unknown in two-pedal examples of the current Mercedes-Benz A-Class and Mercedes-Benz B-Class we’ve tested but certainly haven’t been as pronounced or intrusive as this; and they’re the opposite of what you expect in what ought to feel like a carefully finished, premium-branded driving experience.

Mercedes-Benz CLA 2019 road test review - ADAS settings

The CLA 250’s handling delivers on Mercedes’ dynamic selling pitch up to a point – more convincingly, just, than its performance does, at least. The car isn’t blessed with a particularly adhesive outright grip level but uses what it’s got fairly well.

The suspension resists pitch and lateral body roll effectively, the chassis changes direction with a keenness that’s just above the ordinary, and it grips with decent balance on a middling throttle, although you can easily disrupt that grip by trying to deploy too much torque too soon through the driven front axle.

Having been much more impressed with the dynamic polish of the A-Class last year, I’m a bit taken aback that Mercedes allowed such a rough-edged car as this CLA out of the factory gates. ‘Sportiness’ isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for any refinement bugbear you fancy

Mercedes offers only one wheel size and one passive damper specification on the car, with bigger rims and adaptive shocks being reserved for AMG versions and with Mercedes’ UK distributor choosing to offer only ‘cooking’ versions of the car in AMG Line trim. This means that although the car’s driving mode selector allows you to adjust power steering weight and powertrain calibration to suit your preference, there’s no potential to tailor the way the CLA handles, or to rebalance ride comfort and body control either on the move or in the showroom.

Unfortunately for Mercedes, this is a car that could really do with a set of good, well-tuned adaptive dampers in order to work well at pace on more challenging surfaces of the sort that British B-roads so often supply. Stuttgart’s decision to switch to firmed-up settings costs the CLA some basic composure here, making its vertical body control seem reactive and excitable. Body control can seem brittle and lacking in fluency, too, at motorway speeds.

The car is at its most natural-feeling in its default Comfort mode of operation. Sport mode adds a little too much steering weight for our tastes without quite bringing enough feel in to make the trade worthwhile.


At a basic level – in respect of what’s afforded by its seats and the orientation of its controls – the CLA is a pretty comfortable car and its wind insulation is competitive, too. However, its ride comfort and isolation are notably short even of that of the better examples of the current Mercedes-Benz A-Class that we’ve tested, which means that it trails its better direct rivals in those respects by some distance.

Much as the car’s engine is more noisy and strained than you would like when it’s working at high revs, so does its suspension seem oddly conductive over rough bitumen. It’s also restive and given to rebound over uneven roads, and more clunky over bigger, sharper edges than is becoming for a premium saloon – even if it does happen to be one with a pseudo-sporting brief.

There’s a fairly insistent amount of background noise to the car’s ride on certain surfaces, which makes Mercedes’ decision to adopt those hydraulic front suspension bushes look like a bit of a half-measure. Add one or two sharper edges, expansion joints or bits of broken roadway into the mix and the sense of brittleness that the CLA’s suspension suffers with becomes plain enough for anyone in the car to notice it.

On well-surfaced sweeping A-roads, you are kept retained and are well supported by the car’s seats and by its resistance to body roll, and the CLA makes fairly fast progress seem slick and unwearing. But as the road topography deteriorates, so does that sense of slick composure – and quite sharply and starkly, too.

Over a testing B-road, the suspension seems to have insufficient compliance and dexterity to absorb even medium-sized intrusions taken at a moderately keen pace, instead running short of travel and tending to bound from one bump to the next, while inputs working one side of its axles and not the other often elicit a surprising amount of head toss from what is a fairly low-slung car.


The CLA offers more ‘semiautonomous’ driving tech than most cars of its size, type and price, and more effective assisted driving tech.

Spend £1495 on the Driving Assistance pack and you’ll get a car that can change lanes by itself on the motorway, but only when it’s safe to do so; can intervene with braking to prevent you wandering into the path of a car coming either head-on or at a T-junction; and can adopt temporary gantry speed limits by itself.

The speed limit detection system doesn’t quite catch every posted limit and usually waits until passing a sign before starting to adjust speed but it can be relied on by and large. Some will find the car’s default reactivation of its lane-keeping and autonomous braking systems with every restart annoying. But generally, the CLA’s assisted driving systems work well when they’re on, are cleverly and progressively tuned, and are switchable and tunable to your tastes.

EMERGENCY BRAKING Is the system more than averagely prone to ‘false positive’ activation? ✓ Can its sensitivity be adjusted? ✓ Can it be deactivated entirely? ✓

LANE KEEPING Does the system keep the driver engaged when activated? ✓ Can you easily avoid a pothole without deactivating it? ✓ Does it progressively warn, then intervene, to prevent you changing lanes into the path of an overtaking vehicle? ✓ Does it work equally well on single-track roads as motorways? ✗ Once deactivated, does it stay off even after restart? ✗

INTELLIGENT CRUISE CONTROL Can the system recognise and automatically adopt speed limits on posts and gantries? ✓ How consistently does it work? 80% Does it prevent you undertaking? ✓

Mercedes-Benz CLA 2019 road test review - hero front

Your view on the value offered by the CLA will depend on whether you see it as a car that belongs among the style-conscious alternative compact saloons of the moment – the Volvo S60, Peugeot 508 and Alfa Romeo Giulia, perhaps – or as a dressy, stretched family hatchback with a separate boot.

If you’re in the latter camp, the decision of Mercedes UK to offer the car with only AMG Line trim and above may not endear it to you, although that does ensure a quite generous roster of standard equipment. There is still more than £3000 between equivalent trim levels of the A250 and CLA 250 in the UK, though, which, given what you’re getting here, may seem like a lot.

Strong forecast residuals for the CLA 250, which you might expect compared with the aged Audi A3 but maybe not the Volvo S60

Mercedes’ competitive finance deals on the CLA make it more affordable on a monthly basis than the list price of our test car might suggest, though. Meanwhile, running costs should be impressively low. The CLA 250 beats an outgoing Volkswagen Golf GTI with a DSG gearbox on lab-test CO2 emissions, although it’s narrowly beaten by a petrol-powered 508 GT.

For daily fuel economy, Mercedes’ attentive focus on the CLA’s aerodynamic efficiency pays dividends by delivering real-world fuel consumption that’s rarely below 40mpg on a longish run and it rose to nearly 50mpg on our touring economy test. This being a turbo petrol car capable of sub-7.0sec 0-60mph running, that’s a very creditable result indeed.


Mercedes-Benz CLA 2019 road test review - static

The second-generation CLA got off to a much more promising start on these pages than its predecessor managed. It looks the part, has an impressively upmarket and high-tech interior and sprang from a willingness to give keener drivers the appealingly energetic and engaging compact Mercedes sport saloon they’ve been denied for decades – a willingness we would applaud wholeheartedly.

Regrettably, having done enough to impress us with a differently engined version on foreign soil some months ago, the CLA that ought to typify the car’s sporting credentials – the punchy 250 petrol version – doesn’t quite cut the mustard on UK roads. Its performance is strong and its real-world efficiency likewise; but its engine, gearbox and ride are all surprisingly raucous in too many of the wrong ways and its handling, although good at times, is hardly the dynamic calling card it might have been.

Nearer the mark to look at, but still way wide of it as a driver’s car

A pricing strategy that will look ambitious to some and practicality with as many weaknesses as strengths round off a picture that’s convincing in parts but equally disappointing in others.


Mercedes-Benz CLA First drives