- CLS profile in miniature
- Turbo engines eager
- Good and better front seats
- Rear seat only marginal
- Freestanding LCD screen disliked by some
- Good handling, stiff ride
The 2016 Mercedes-Benz CLA is tight on rear-seat space, and on value—but long on style and in AMG trim, explosive performance.
The 2016 Mercedes-Benz CLA is the German luxury make’s smallest sedan, and it’s been a big hit in expanding the company’s buyer base. It enters its third year with just a handful of trim, feature, and option updates, accompanied by the similarly-sized GLA crossover utility vehicle—which can be also viewed simply as a hatchback version of the CLA sedan.
But it’s hardly alone in the field, with a host of new competition in showrooms or on the way. The redesigned Audi A3 may not look like a stylistic departure, but it’s now a sedan, making it a direct competitor to the CLA. BMW’s 2-Series is still only offered as a coupe, but it has a new interior and updated styling. The Acura ILX sedan has been retooled to compete more effectively, and there’s also the quiet and handsome Buick Versano. The Lexus CT 200h hybrid hatchback is a surprisingly capable competitor—and it’ll be joined next year by the Infiniti QX30 hatchback as well.
The shape of the CLA is a scaled-down version of the large, handsome CLS “four-door coupe” (actually a sedan), and it’s an audacious entry into the segment that makes Audi’s A3 look almost prosaic in comparison. The arc-shaped profile gives it steeply raked front and rear screens, a low nose and tail, and it even uses frameless door glass—a first for Mercedes in recent years.
Inside the CLA, you’ll recognize the interior as a similarly scaled-down version of a big Mercedes cockpit, though this one’s more SLK two-seater than C-Class sedan. Opinions are split on the LCD screen that stands proud of the dash; some like it as a crisp, modern, consumer electronics-inspired look that lowers the dash height, while others think it seems tacked on at the last minute.
The base CLA250 has only a single powertrain, but there’s also a low-volume (and much pricier) hot-rod version—the CLA45 AMG—that uses a significantly more powerful version of the same basic setup. The CLA250 uses a 208-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 mounted transversely producing 254 pound-feet of torque, and powering the front wheels through a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. All-wheel drive is available as an option, though it remains weighted toward the front wheels under most circumstances.
Under most driving conditions, the engine sounds good; Mercedes says it’ll accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds. If you’re an active driver, you’ll want to keep the transmission in either sport or manual mode, since it can get caught off-guard by a request for sudden acceleration. Blame it on fuel-economy rules, which keep the car in high gears at low engine speeds as much as possible. Flooring it requires the engine to spool up the turbo while downshifting once, twice, even three times—which takes a few seconds. But a 30-mpg combined rating is easily reachable; and all-wheel drive has a surprisingly small fuel-economy penalty.
The CLA45 AMG uses a similar powertrain layout, but every component’s been uprated, strengthened, or improved. The result is a remarkable 375 hp and 350 lb-ft from the same 2.0 liters, and a 0-to-60-mph sprint in just 4.1 seconds. It also comes with standard all-wheel drive, and most noticeably, the transmission has been reprogrammed to provide much faster responses and fewer downshifts.
While Mercedes tradition gives a firm, heavy, planted feel to its bigger sedans, they can feel heavy on the road. The CLA has more tightly-tuned steering, with a nicely weighted feel and quick responses—even if its feedback is minimal. The suspension has been made more compliant, with the previously standard “Sport” mode now an option, and 18-inch wheels are just a $500 upgrade over the standard 17-inch run-flat tires. But our test drives suggest the ride is better with the smaller, taller tires.
The AMG’s handling is altogether different, and it may even have a slightly more refined ride. It corners flat, delivers far less understeer, and feels no rougher on most surfaces than the cheaper model—even with the optional low-profile 19-inch wheels and tires. An available AMG sport suspension flattens the roadholding even further without noticeable ride degradation.
While it’s enjoyable to drive, the CLA is not the car to pick if you customarily carry four adults. Its back-seat room is tight, the rear doors are small and challenging to enter and exit from, and headroom is minimal. This applies to many of its competitors, but perhaps most of all to the CLA. It’s the price you pay for that sleek silhouette. (Over-the-shoulder visibility is lousy too, courtesy of the drooping roof, thick pillars, and high rear shelf.) Trunk volume is good, though, and the cabin has various bins and trays that prove useful for storage.
The Mercedes CLA has a number of standard safety features not found or even offered in mainstream compacts. They include a forward-collision alert that alerts the drive to obstacles ahead, as well as an Attention Assist system that monitors driver behavior and uses a coffee-cup icon to pull over if it senses a driver is getting drowsy. Optional safety systems include adaptive cruise control; lane-keeping assistance; blind-spot monitoring; and parking sensors with a parking-assist feature. Given the limited rear visibility, we’d prefer to see the rearview camera become a stand-alone option rather than one element of a pricier package.
Every CLA 250 sedan comes equipped with standard Bluetooth, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, MB-Tex vinyl upholstery, and cruise control. You can connect smartphones via a 5.8-inch screen and the Mercedes mBrace2 system, and there’s a choice of no fewer than three different navigation options. The most expensive of them includes real-time traffic data, voice commands, and that rearview camera.
The Premium package is a popular option; it groups surround-sound, an iPod interface, satellite radio, dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, and a garage-door opener. Stand-alone options include leather seats, a panoramic sunroof, parking assist, blind-spot monitors, heated front seats, and summer tires. A well-equipped CLA 250 can get to $45,000 or higher, although most buyers are likely to pay in the mid- to high $30,000s.
The CLA 45 AMG houses its high-performance drivetrain in a package that’s similarly configured to the pedestrian CLA 250. Its price is roughly $17,000 pricier than the just-above-$30,000 tab for the base car, but it adds options like superb Recaro performance seats, uprated tires, carbon-fiber exterior and cabin, and black-out trim. A well-trimmed AMG version will likely roll out of the showroom for $55,000 or more.
Changes to the CLA since its 2014 launch have been minor. Last year it got a new steering wheel design and changes to the components in three option packages. For 2016, there’s a new Night Package option and the addition of a Dynamic Select drive mode. Black and grey MB-Tex upholstery can be ordered with contrast stitching and the ambient lighting now offers a “welcome light show.” Finally, 750 units of a special limited edition called “Orange” will be offered nationwide.
On top of achieving the 30-mpg mark, the CLA earns impressive fuel economy ratings. Base CLA 250 models manage up to 38 mpg highway—a figure we could easily duplicate. All-wheel-drive versions are only slightly penalized: CLA 250 4Matic models manage 24 mpg city, 33 highway, 27 combined.