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Compact premium four-door coupe gets revised styling, engines and tech in mid-life update

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The second-generation Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class – the German brand’s style-centred four-door coupé alternative to the compact premium mainstream has followed the related Mercedes A-Class for the latest model year, receiving some mid-life design updates and specification tweaks.

The car’s central positioning remains unchanged, however. If an upmarket hatchback is simply too ordinary for you, a compact executive saloon perhaps a shade too traditional, and a compact premium SUV simply a bigger car than you need, the CLA might have the extra desirability you crave. 

And it remains a more globally important Mercedes than many realise. 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 GLA crossover, it was the 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.

For the second-generation version, the car grew between the axles and in overall terms, becoming a shade longer than the last Mercedes C-Class saloon. 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 A-Class and B-Class.

The Mercedes CLA-Class range at a glance

Models Power From
CLA 180 Sport Executive 134bhp £34,535
CLA 200 Sport Executive 161bhp £36,035
CLA 220d Sport Executive 187bhp £39,265
CLA 250e AMG Line Executive 215bhp £45,360

Mercedes’ pre-facelift derivative range for the current CLA, back when it was introduced in 2019, was broader than it remains now, even after Mercedes UK chose not to include the entry-level 180d diesel or the four-wheel-drive 250 4Matic available elsewhere. There used to be 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol models towards the upper end of the spectrum, though, in addition to the even pokier Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 and 45.

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Now, however, only two mild-hybrid petrol engines remain towards the affordable end of the car’s range (CLA 180 and 200) and one diesel, the old CLA 220 and 250 having been removed from the price list. 

Both AMG derivatives continue, however, as do both four-door coupé and shooting brake bodystyles, while Mercedes’ 250e plug-in hybrid will remain the benefit-in-kind-friendly option for fleet drivers.

DESIGN & STYLING

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mercedes cla 250e 2023 badge

The Mercedes-Benz 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 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, the car succeeds where the last car failed by looking like the downsized Mercedes-Benz CLS you’d hope it might be, and that it has frameless doors adds a hint of the exotic to a fairly affordable car. For this latest facelift, the car gets redesigned bumpers, a new star-patterned radiator grille, new LED headlights, three new alloy wheel designs and an updated paint colour palette on which Hyper Blue and Spectral Blue appear for the first time.

The 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 – do add a little variety and attitude.

Most versions of the car are now powered by the turbocharged 1.3–litre four-cylinder petrol engine that Mercedes developed in tandem with Renault in the last decade. In the CLA 180, that engine produces 134bhp, and for the CLA 200 and 250e it produces up to 161bhp – which the latter augments with up to 107bhp from an electric drive motor sited upstream of the transverse-mounted gearbox. The facelifed CLA 250e has a peak system output of 215bhp, then, just as it did before – although Mercedes claims incremental gains in battery voltage and motor power for it. Electric range is up to 44 miles, depending on bodystyle, trim level and fitted options.

On the diesel side of the range, meanwhile, Mercedes’ CLA 220d remains (in a compact executive market where diesel options continue to thin out), and continues to be powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel motor making 187bhp and 295lb ft of torque. Without resorting to an AMG derivative, then, it’s this diesel that becomes the fastest-accelerating CLA, according to Mercedes’ 0-62mph claims.

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 although it’s differently tuned in this case. However, to make space for the hybrid powertrain componentry of the CLA 250e, that version of the car switches from an independent rear axle to a torsion beam set-up. Upper-trim-level, AMG Line-badged models get lowered suspension as standard as well as a brake upgrade but the CLA 250e is the exception here, staying on the standard longer coil springs however you order it. All UK-market Mercedes-Benz CLAs below the full-fat Mercedes-AMG models are now driven by their front axles exclusively.

Axle tracks of significantly greater width than those of the A-Class would have obliged Mercedes to retune the CLA’s springs, dampers and anti-roll bars in any case. Here, Mercedes fits a stiffer front anti-roll bar than the hatchback 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 claims Mercedes is a notably more dynamic-handling prospect than the A-Class. We’ll see how much truth there is in that shortly.

INTERIOR

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mercedes cla 250e 2023 straight dash

It’s more than five years since we first laid eyes on the material and technical razzmatazz that Mercedes has since wound into all of its current-generation compact cars the CLA running alongside the A-, B-, GLA- and GLB-Classes, all of which got the same twin-screen digital instrumentation and infotainment consoles, glitzy chrome and gloss black trims, and multi-colour ambient lighting features.

It’s been a concerted effort to put big-Merc tech into its smaller and more affordable models, and with the benefit of perspective it’s interesting that none of Mercedes rivals has followed its lead in quite the same way. The facelifted CLA doesn’t move the standard on much. It has a new steering wheel design (in higher trim levels, at least), a new-generation MBUX infotainment system, a tidied-up transmission tunnel console (without the old fingertip input pad and menu shortcut buttons) and some new digital instrumentation display modes. Otherwise, though, it has the same mix of glossy black and matt chrome trim decoration, and generally the same material look and feel. 

This isn’t an adult-appropriate, four-seat executive car, really. Children under the age of about 12 ought to be fine in the back – but I wouldn’t buy one with older second-row passengers in mind.

It’s an undeniably glitzy, chintzy take on how to put premium material appeal into a compact car, with plenty to take the eye but perhaps less to appeal to the touch – but it does work. The CLA’s heater controls do feel as expensive as they look, for instance. Some of its background cabin mouldings are a little hard and scratchy, but there is tactile quality to most of what you interact with and rest on, and once you’ve picked a colour you like and adjusted the brightness so it doesn’t impact on your night vision, the car’s ambient cabin lighting can be quite attractive too.

Sporty-looking seats with integrated head restraints feature in both rows of AMG Line cars (you have to buy bottom-end engine and trim to avoid them) 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 sound, with good adjustability in the seat cushion height, length and angle, and decent lumbar support. The car’s 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.

Despite the car’s swooping profile, it’s cleverly packaged enough up front that – even with a panoramic sunroof fitted – our test car made just enough room for a comfortable 6ft 3in driver. However, in the narrowness of its interior and its shortage of head room (more so in the second row, but noticeable in both), it is undeniably small even by ‘compact premium’ class standards.

The second row is one you would only really consider squeezing two occupants into – and they certainly wouldn’t be fully grown adults. Space is tighter than the class average for both 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.

If that isn’t enough, the CLA Shooting Brake expands on that up to 485 litres below the window line, or a little less in the case of the 250e - with a lot of extra loading space available when loading higher. The wagon version doesn’t offer much below-floor space, though, and it has a fairly narrow boot opening and a deep loading lip to lift heavy items over – so don’t confuse it for a natural load-lugger your money might buy.

Multimedia - 4 stars

All UK-market CLAs get Mercedes’ 10.3in touchscreen MBUX infotainment and digital instrument screen 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 £40,000 car.

The navigation system includes augmented reality video overlays, which, while distracting, can help you to pick the right exit at roundabouts. 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.

The updated MBUX infotainment system for the CLA has now lost the separate, centre console-mounted input console with which the car was launched. The touch-sensitive fingertip input pad shouldn’t really be mourned by anyone, but the menu shortcut keys around it did make the infotainment system more navigable, and we regret their departure a little.

Mercedes does deserve credit for compensating so well for their loss, however. The latest MBUX system presents its primary menus very clearly, and you can generally get to the function that you need to adjust, or the information you need, within a couple of prods or swipes. The car’s menu cursor controller on the left-hand spoke of the steering wheel, meanwhile, allows you to take longer getting to where you need, while mostly keeping your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel, and only glancing across at the screen, which is sensible thinking.

There are several display modes for the digital instruments, and a trip computer that’s easy to configure to your liking. Mercedes has also added wireless smartphone mirroring for the car for both Apple and Android handsets as standard, and wireless device charging on AMG Line Executive trim and above.

The car’s Burmester premium audio system also now gets Dolby Atmos surround sound processing, although our test car didn’t have it fitted.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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mercedes cla 250e 2023 engine

Mercedes’ 2.0-litre petrol engines may be gone from the CLA, but they are no great loss to it. When we tested the pre-facelift CLA 250 in 2019, we found it noisy and a little unsatisfying to drive. Both the updated CLA 250e, meanwhile, and the CLA 220d are now fairly rounded, with good cruising manners, decent performance, reasonable drivability and quite impressive efficiency.

The plug-in hybrid is a car you can expect around 35 miles of electric range from in mixed daily use, or about 25% less at exclusively out-of-town speeds. Electric-only performance is sufficient for urban driving, and whisks you up to about 50mph with enough authority to keep pace with the traffic. You do become aware that the motor’s driving through a dual-clutch automatic gearbox, though, when it takes a second or two to respond to initial accelerator pedal inputs, and when it shifts gears on the run. Even in electric mode, the CLA 250e doesn’t quite feel like driving an EV.

It’s interesting to note that Mercedes claims slightly slower 0-62mph acceleration for the facelifted CLA 250e than it did the pre-facelift car, despite also claiming power improvements (which must therefore be very marginal). That it has switched from a standard ‘homologated’ 18in to a 19in wheel (on some trim levels) might help explain that.

When the car blends in combustion engine power, it can be a little coarse; the 1.3-litre piston engine is a bit noisy when cold and when revving hard; and you can tell it’s part of quite a tight under-bonnet package of components because overall mechanical refinement is only average for the class. But, when it’s warm and just doing the necessary for everyday cruising, it settles to a quiet background noise level. 

If you use lots of power, the CLA 250e’s driven front axle can struggle for traction, especially when conditions are slippery. The car’s electronics quell the consequences, though not especially neatly or quickly. Likewise, if you want to shift gears for the car yourself in manual mode during keener driving, you’ll find the gearbox a little slow to act, though it does a reasonable job. So, in slippery conditions, our CLA 250e test car needed a little over eight seconds to hit 60mph from rest, where Mercedes advertises it in less than 7.5sec.

The CLA’s 2.0-litre diesel engine actually makes for slightly quicker claimed acceleration and, on the road, the CLA 220d does feel assured in its performance level, and a little simpler to drive. It has plenty of accessible torque, the piston engine’s slightly sluggish engine start-stop system being the only barrier to responsiveness in a generally impressive, and creditably refined, diesel driving experience.

Assisted driving - 4 stars

The CLA offers more semi-autonomous driving tech than most cars of its size, type and price, and more effective assisted driving tech.

Spend £1495 on the Driving Assistance pack (only offered on range-topping AMG Line Premium Plus cars) 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 this is an EU legal homologation requirement. When left on, the lane keeping system only ‘wakes up’ when you pass 40mph out of town, and while it can be mildly irksome on winding roads, it isn’t so bothersome most of the time.

Generally, the CLA’s assisted driving systems work well when they’re on, are cleverly and progressively tuned, and are easy enough to switch off if you so choose. And there is no annoying driver monitoring system here to contend with – yet.

RIDE & HANDLING

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mercedes cla 250e 2023 front corner 2

The Mercedes CLA-Class handling delivers on Mercedes’ added-dynamism selling pitch fairly well – up to a point. Even on Mercedes’ biggest wheels, the car isn’t blessed with an especially adhesive outright grip level, but it uses what it’s got fairly well, keeps close tabs on body control and chassis balance, and feels decently neat and tidy on the road – even in the case of the heavier, beam-axle-equipped CLA 250e PHEV.

The suspension resists pitch and lateral body roll effectively; the chassis changes direction with a keenness that’s just a shade better than the ordinary compact saloon or hatchback; and the car grips with decent balance on a middling throttle, although you can disrupt that grip by trying to deploy too much torque too soon through the driven front axle.

There is a certain brittle noisiness about the ride that is typical of modern Mercedes cars, which for some time have come almost exclusively in AMG Line trims in the UK, and therefore on lowered sport suspension and with larger alloy wheels. We could only test the car on 19in alloys, and the CLA 250e we tested, on its standard-length coil spring suspension, didn’t really feel significantly softer, or any more supple, than the CLA 220d Shooting Brake we drove (which had Mercedes’ ‘lowered comfort’ springs).

Both cars had a ride about 10% noisier and more brittle than we’d ideally choose for them, as if they were rolling on slightly over-inflated tyres. But neither was so noisy that it really became intrusive – and, since both had agreeable wider dynamic compromises, most owners may well consider it a small price to pay.

There is no particular dynamic penalty to worry about in the case of the CLA 250e, nor any particular reason to seek out a CLA with independent rear suspension and the sportiest brief. Both versions of the car we tested handled moderately well and rode respectably with similar matching shortcomings.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

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mercedes cla 250e 2023 front corner

Your view on the value offered by the Mercedes CLA is likely to depend on whether you see it as a car that belongs among the style-conscious alternative compact saloons of the moment, or instead as a dressy, stretched family hatchback with a separate boot.

Having initially decided to offer the car with only AMG Line trim and above, Mercedes UK does now offer the car in cheaper Sport Executive trim, which has brought inflation-adjusted prices down a bit, to start a little under £35,000. There is still more than £3000 between equivalent trim levels of the A-Class and CLA four-door, though, and more still up to a Shooting Brake. Given what you’re getting here, that may seem like a lot.

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. Meanwhile, running costs should be fairly low – especially for those who can charge a PHEV cost-effectively and who do plenty of short-range motoring.

For daily fuel economy, Mercedes’ attentive focus on the CLA’s aerodynamic efficiency pays reasonable dividends. The CLA 220d Shooting Brake we tested was an easy car to produce 60mpg from on a typical 70mph cruise. The CLA 250e narrowly missed 50mpg in the same circumstances, once its battery was depleted (though that’s still creditable for a PHEV).

VERDICT

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mercedes cla 250e 2023 rear static

While the first-generation model was never rated highly by our testers, the second-generation Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class is undoubtedly a stronger effort – and it has got better as it has aged. 

It looks the part, has an impressively upmarket and high-tech interior, and sprang from a willingness to give keener drivers the desirable, appealingly energetic, engaging compact Mercedes sports saloon they have been denied for decades – a willingness we would applaud wholeheartedly. 

The car still only really succeeds in some of those latter respects – unless you step up into a full-fat AMG model, at least. But it does at least have assured performance, neat and accurate handling, and a fairly well-resolved ride – and does seem to have improved in some of those respects since it first came along in 2019.

Practicality remains quite poor, even by compact premium class standards, and pricing is high in the case of upper-trim-level cars. But, in both cases, those who like the look of this car probably won’t object to paying for something that continues to stand out from the SUV-centred modern passenger car norm in spite of its hatchback-derived roots.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Mercedes-Benz CLA First drives