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The CLS sold on its exclusivity. Can the Mercedes CLA pull the same trick - or do its A-Class underpinnings hold it back?

The Mercedes-Benz CLS showed the world that four doors could offer supercar levels of driveway appeal, and the Mercedes-Benz CLA has been developed to replicate that success. 

Mercedes-Benz has been extending its range for well over a decade, but the CLA represents another shift-step again. This time, it is to a range that has logically grown to include 4x4s and sports cars, and then downsized into front-wheel-drive hatchbacks.

CLA's closest rivals include the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series, but neither have the coupe-like styling of the Merc

The CLA is a curious thing: a front-wheel-drive saloon based on the platform used by the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, itself a newly conventional hatchback rather than the mini-MPV that originally used the name.

If you’re looking for yet another reason why the Mercedes-Benz A-Class became a straightforward small premium hatch rather than a revolutionary twin-floor packaging marvel, look no further than here.

The point, here, is to give a small, affordable (to a point) Mercedes-Benz the same kind of panache that you’d see higher up the Mercedes range, where conventional points in the line-up diverge with the addition of new model lines such as this. In spring 2016, Mercedes gave the CLA coupé and shooting brake a facelift, which was dominated by a diamond effect grille, revised interiors and tweaked powerplants. It was finally replaced by a new generation model in 2019.

Petrol engine options consist of the 1.6-litre CLA 180 and a 2.0-litre unit used in the CLA 250 and CLA 45. Diesel options include two tunes of the same 2.1-litre turbodiesel - powering the CLA 200d and the CLA 220d.

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The question is, though, can the CLA do for the A-Class what the CLS achieved for the Mercedes-Benz E-Class? Or will this new model merely manage what the Vauxhall Belmont did for the Vauxhall Astra? Let's find out.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Mercedes-Benz CLA rear

The CLA is the kind of car that can send you to unfathomable depths of confusion if you think too hard about what it is and where it fits into the market.

It’s a 4.6m-long saloon that shares its platform with a duo of smaller, cheaper hatchbacks (the A and Mercedes-Benz B-Class) but which is priced like a BMW 3 Series and looks more than anything like a shrunken homage to a £50,000 four-door coupé.

The rear-end styling is supposed to be muscular, but we're not so sure

But forget all that for now. The most important question to address is simply “Do I like it?”, because this is Mercedes’ attempt to drop a super-desirable fashion car into the heart of the notoriously straight-laced business market.

As such, the CLA has the same relationship to an Audi A4 that a Fiat 500 has to a Ford Fiesta, or that a Range Rover Evoque has to a BMW X3. Here, Stuttgart is banking on what the industry calls ‘emotional’ appeal, rather than rational appeal, and enough of it to compensate for one or two evident shortcomings, which we’ll come to.

So, if you’re not considerably more taken with the way this car looks than you are with your average £30k executive four-door, the firm has missed the mark.

Wait to see one in the raw before you make up your mind, though, because you might be impressed. The CLA is, without a doubt, distinctively curvy and different – but it produced a mixed reaction from our test jury.

Everyone praised Mercedes’ intention to produce something beautiful in a class of fairly slavish uniformity; not everyone credited the finished execution with particular elegance. In the metal, the CLA’s slightly droopy rear end and oversized features came in for particular criticism. The 2016 facelift saw the inclusion of a diamond-cut grille, a reshaped front bumper, while the rear end was restyled to give the car a more purposeful stance and svelte-look.

All versions, excluding the headline CLA 250 petrol and CLA 45 AMG, are front-wheel drive only, sending power through six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearboxes.

INTERIOR

Mercedes-Benz CLA dashboard

The first price to be paid for the CLA’s style-centred design is evident as soon as you open the door.

Even if you’re not used to stretching out in one of the more spacious saloons available at this price point, you’ll be aware of a certain tightness of package, along with a need to lever yourself into the Mercedes' driver’s seat more carefully than you would into a typical compact exec. 

The boot is a reasonable size, but not that accessible

Once you’re in, the rooflining is quite close to your scalp even with the driver’s seat cranked down as low as it will go, and both shoulder and kneeroom are relatively scant. There’s enough space up front for a 6ft 4in driver, but with little left over. 

In the back, entry is made tricky by the plunging roofline, while headroom is insufficient for anyone even remotely tall and legroom is limited – especially so with tall passengers occupying the front seats. In truth, it’s a back row for teenagers, not fully grown adults.

Factor in the boot of only an average-size notchback and you’d say an Mercedes-Benz A-Class is probably a more practical car. A Mercedes-Benz B-Class definitely is, as is a typical compact executive saloon.

There’s reason to assume that a CLA buyer could live with that kind of cabin, though, attracted as they may be by the way the car looks over what it might offer in terms of practicality. Otherwise, they'd buy a Mercedes-Benz C-Class or even the C-Class Coupé. They'd be more likely to be disappointed by run-of-the-mill cabin design and average material richness. They’ll find neither here, but nor will he find a cabin of outstanding style or imagination. 

It’s a cabin well up to Mercedes’ high standards and is littered liberally with expensive touches. But it’s also an entirely conventional interior, and one that’s heavy on the switchgear. A world away, then, from the high-design minimalism of the Audi A3’s cockpit.

Equipment levels across the three trims, Sport, AMG Line and, confusingly, 250 AMG, live up to the CLA's premium billing. That comprehensive roll-call of kit extends to safety equipment. As with the A-Class, Collision Prevention Assist radar-based braking system is standard.

The entry-level Sport trim comes equipped with 18in alloy wheels, comfort suspension, auto wipers, parking sensors and cruise control, while inside includes an infotainment system complete with a 7.0in screen, Bluetooth, USB port and smartphone integration, sports seats covered in Artico leather upholstery and dual-zone climate console. AMG Line models get 18in alloys, LED headlights, lowered suspension, and part leather/part-microfibre upholstery, while the 250 AMG models receive speed-sensitive steering, sports suspension, a modified stability system, Garmin sat nav and heated front seats.

Those lucky enough to opt for the CLA 45 will find that the AMG comes with an aggressive bodykit, interior styling and decals, a sports exhaust, a seven-speed auto sports transmission complete with paddle shifters, and AMG performance seats.

Functional, substantial and materially pleasing it may be, but it’s just a little too ordinary to communicate much in the way of star quality.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Mercedes-Benz CLA side profile

The CLA 220d will be the big seller. Its 2.1-litre engine is flexible and punchy until the rev needle passes the 4000rpm mark. It records an adequate 8.2sec 0-62mph time and a 143mph top speed.

Its punchy nature makes short work of overtaking, aided by its standard smooth-shifting 7G-DGT seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox with software derived from the SLS AMG supercar. The engine's gratifyingly economical too; Mercedes claims 62.8mpg on the combined cycle with emissions rated at 117g/km.

Performance fans should look to the CLA 45 AMG

The 2.1-litre, four-cylinder turbodiesel seems a little better isolated than it is in the equivalent Mercedes-Benz A-Class, but it’s also considerably more clattery than that which powers, say, a four-cylinder diesel Jaguar XF or even a Volkswagen Golf GTD – both available at a similar price point and with similar specific outputs.

The CLA 180 is powered by a 120bhp engine developed in partnership with Renault, and offers a slightly less than impressive 9.2sec 0-62mph time. Official figures rate the CLA 180 at 50.4mpg combined with 126g/km of CO2.

The hotter CLA 250 is the fastest model in the standard range. It records a 6.7sec 0-62mph time, but never really feels as quick. The engine lacks the rorty soundtrack expected of the hotter models in Mercedes' more attractive model line-ups.

In the 250, the same seven-speed automatic feels markedly more ponderous than the diesel. This engine records a claimed 46.3mpg and emits 142g/km, with a small penalty for 4Matic models.

As we’ve written several times before, Mercedes’ seven-speed dual-clutch automatic isn’t the most obedient transmission of its kind. Leave it to its own devices and it’ll shift away quickly and smoothly on part-throttle, while even at full noise it is quick-witted enough to get the CLA 220d to 60mph in a pretty competitive 8.3sec. 

Put your foot down and the first three ratios pass by in the kind of blur that might kid you into believing you’re going faster than you really are. But it’s also a blur that’s slightly alienating to a keen driver. The early intermediate ratios are so short that, in manual mode, and allowing for the slight delay between pulling a paddle and the actual gearchange, it’s a struggle to time your shifts with much accuracy.

The gearbox won’t let you career into the rev limiter, either, as it happens – even in Sport mode. Regardless, the driver is left feeling a bit disenfranchised and disconnected from the driving experience as a whole – and for anything with the words ‘AMG Line’ in its name, that can’t be considered a good thing.

RIDE & HANDLING

Mercedes-Benz CLA cornering

The Mercedes CLA is available with the choice of two chassis set-ups: Comfort and Sport. Sport sees the car sit lower to the tune of 20mm at the front and 15mm at the rear. On the road there is a pronounced difference in ride quality.

Don’t be fooled by the Comfort tag applied to the softer set-up: it is just on the sporting side of firm, and crashes and rocks over bumps and crevices, dashing any lingering hope that Mercedes-Benz might have used the CLA’s longer body as an excuse to broaden the dynamic appeal of the tetchy Mercedes-Benz A-Class.

There's not much in the way of genuine excitement here

Mercedes' fettled AMG Line chassis set-up is even more inflexible in its refusal to compromise for the state of British roads, all too often disregarding basic civility for a stern, never-ending grasp on proceedings.

Arguably, this being the more thrusting end of the range, buyers might be more partial to the stock AMG character. At least the letters offer a warning of what is to come. The non-traditional customer – of the kind expected to be captured in the CLA’s visual tractor beam – may indeed prove to be more inclined to the flip side of the coin, where the model’s fumbling low-speed ride fast-forwards into a heightened sense of reflex.

As such, the car is capable of the same scurrying changes of direction that made the Mercedes-Benz A-Class seem a punchier steer than its rivals from BMW and Audi

Either way, chassis control is generally good even if the natural progression to understeer occurs rather more quickly than expected – particularly in the CLA 250 4Matic. But most drivers are unlikely to get that far because this isn’t a drivers’ car. The steering lacks the sporting intent illustrated by those coupé looks and it simply doesn’t offer enough communication.

On the plus side, thanks to the grip of those wheels and tyres, the CLA stops well. From 70mph, in dry conditions, it pulled up within half a metre of our class-leading BMW 320d and more than two metres sooner than the BMW in the wet. 

For many potential buyers, the lack of dynamic polish won’t matter much. The promise of the first car in this segment with Hollywood A-list looks will appeal far more. But four doors and a much bigger price sticker put the CLA far closer to the larger, scarier fish in the tank above.

The shark-nosed 3 Series – our merciless performance and dynamic benchmark – savages the newcomer, not just in circuit-derived lap times but also in a subjective everyday experience. Its own superior brand of athleticism is fused with an ability to react not only to driver input but also to whatever conditions it encounters underfoot.

But mimicking only one dimension of what a modern saloon car should be capable of is unlikely to be sufficient to snare more than stragglers – even among undecideds.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Mercedes-Benz CLA road test review - hero front

Depreciation for the CLA rather depends on where you decide its positioning lies. Against high-spec variants of saloons from mainstream manufacturers, the CLA should perform rather well.

Against premium compact executive alternatives, however, we don’t expect it to perform quite so admirably – although more limited used supply than, say, a C-Class Mercedes, should assist it to some extent along the way.

The diesel Mercedes CLA in particular offers competitive running costs

Boosting fuel economy is a low drag coefficient. Mercedes says the CLA is the most aerodynamic car in its class, with a drag coefficient as low as 0.22Cd. To put that in perspective, a decrease of 0.04Cd offers the same fuel economy benefits as reducing the kerb weight by 100kg.

Aiding that figure is a front grille with shutters that close at speed, aerodynamically optimised door mirrors, fins in the rear lights and vents in the wheel arch linings. An elegantly contoured coupé shape presumably helps, too.

Consequently the economy on offer is impressive, but the initial purchase price and equipment levels are not. We mentioned the C-Class just a second ago, and we’d be more inclined to look towards that than towards the limited-range and not-inexpensive CLA. 

If you're dead-set on a CLA though, there are a few options worth considering. The car looks a bit more graceful in Sport trim than it does in AMG Line, and should ride better without the firmer, shorter sports springs. Drive Kit Plus is a great halfway-house multimedia option, with better iPhone functionality than the standard system.

Many Mercedes buyers will look out for desirable options like these, so bear it in mind if you're not set on owning your CLA for a long time. The right spec, with the right engine, will make your CLA much easier to sell when the time comes.

The car's low starting price and decent efficiency will most likely make it a hit with company car drivers, too.

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VERDICT

Mercedes-Benz CLA rear quarter

So, the road test of the unusual concept ends with an unusual verdict: a Mercedes that fails to satisfy its judges on many of the levels on which we’d usually expect a Benz to compete.

In terms of cabin ambience and space, its interior lags behind the best you’d expect at this level. Likewise in performance, ride, handling and, dare we say it, appearance.

The CLA will no doubt attract new buyers to the brand

There are bits to like about the CLA. It’s an honest car to drive, for example, and it steers consistently. In fact, there’s a slightly old-fashioned feel to the way the CLA goes down the road that really isn’t unpleasant. 

Despite its faults, the Mercedes-Benz CLA is a car that offers visual appeal in spades, but is far more attainable than the Mercedes-Benz CLS which inspired it. Love the looks, and you’ll love the car.

The thing is, sitting as it does on the far side of £30,000 – or vastly more once you’d popped some decent options aboard – there are classy, sophisticated alternatives from inside and outside Stuttgart that don’t leave you with an old-fashioned product.

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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 2013-2019 First drives