2015 Mercedes-Benz CLA Class Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
May 28, 2015

The 2015 CLA is a small Mercedes done right, with enough of the brand's style and refinement mixed with a dash of youthfulness.

When Mercedes added the CLA to its lineup last year, it brought two distinctions: It was (and still is) the smallest car in the Mercedes lineup, and it was the first front-wheel-drive model the brand has sold in the U.S. The CLA is priced, styled, and engineered to grab eyeballs and younger buyers.

It's also up against stiff competition, most of it new. Audi just dropped a new A3, now shaped like a sedan in the U.S. BMW recast the 1-Series as the 2-Series, updating the interior and giving it more conventional coupe styling. Acura has the well-meaning but unimpressive ILX, and there's the handsome, supple, and quiet Buick Verano. In its hotter CLA45 AMG version, the little Mercedes also competes with the new BMW M235i.

The CLA is a scaled-down version of the prettiest Mercedes design on sale today, the CLS, and that's its biggest ace. It may be as short as a Civic, but its elegant profile and frameless door glass counter the compact-car blahs, and chip away visually at the front end's height. The sporty cockpit lifts its inspiration from the SLK, not the C-Class, and the mix-and-match aesthetic works extremely well. That is, until you scan the LCD screen planted awkwardly on the dash, instead of integrated into the center stack. The tacked-on look does afford a lower surrounding dash, but it still looks just like that, tacked-on.

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Two engines are offered in the CLA, a pair of related 2.0-liter turbocharged fours. Both use seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmissions.

The CLA 250's makes 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, which help end it to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds and on to a 149-mph top speed. Though small, the engine manages to sound good. The transmission wants to be in sport or manual mode, for quicker shift responses, though: even with paddle controls, it gets caught off-guard; a stomp on the gas in high gear can require a few seconds of waiting for the transmission to choose the right gear and then for the turbo to spool and make power. Fuel economy of 30 mpg combined is easily reachable, though the available all-wheel-drive system shaves a few miles per gallon.

The CLA 45 AMG differs from the 250's engine in almost every way, from block to pistons to turbocharger, to its 26.1 psi of boost. Output shoots to 355 horsepower and 332 lb-ft, 0-60 mph times fall to 4.5 seconds, and the top speed rises to 155 mph. All-wheel drive is standard, and a reprogrammed dual-clutch with three driving modes handles the power much more effectively than in the CLA 250, although it too can require some waiting when dropping down from high gear. The main difference is, with all of that torque, the AMG is less likely to have to downshift as much.

The CLA's tightly tuned steering and ride break from Mercedes tradition. The variable-effort, variable-ratio electric steering is full of weight and quick to respond, but largely without feedback. Two out of three is good, by electric-steering standards. The CLA's independent suspension gets a standard "sport" setting in the U.S. and 17-inch run-flat tires that are likely to be rare, since 18-inch wheels are just $500 extra. Given our experience with a CLA 250 on 18-inch wheels, we'd suggest seeking out that standard wheel setup for a test drive.

The CLA45 AMG is another proposition entirely, and we're not sure its ride isn't a touch more refined, even with optional 19-inch wheels and tires and an available AMG sport suspension. It corners ruthlessly flat, dials out most of the CLA's native understeer, and if it suffers in comparison with the wild-hair, rear-drive, V-8 AMGs of recent vintage...well, what doesn't?

The CLA is 182.3 inches long, with a wheelbase of 106.3 inches. As with most of its competitors, back-seat room is tight, with minimal headroom for medium-sized adults and somewhat difficult entry and exit through the rear doors. Trunk space is good, with a flat load floor, and the CLA has a few useful storage bins in the cabin for small items.

Among its standard safety features, the 2015 CLA carries a Collision Prevention Assist function; using radar, the CLA can alert the driver of upcoming obstacles when it's traveling at more than 4 mph, and can calculate the amount of brake force needed to avoid an impact. Also standard are Attention Assist and its coffee-cup reminder to pull over and avoid drowsy driving, as well as a driver knee airbag. Safety options include adaptive cruise control; blind-spot monitors; lane-keeping assistance; and parking sensors with parking assist. Visibility isn't great to the rear--we hope the rearview camera gets liberated into an inexpensive, stand-alone option in the near future.

The 2015 CLA 250 comes equipped comparably to the more luxurious versions of its competitors. It comes with standard Bluetooth, cruise control, a power driver seat, and MB-Tex (vinyl) upholstery. Smartphone connectivity comes via Mercedes-Benz's mbrace2 and a 5.8-inch screen, while three navigation options will be offered--the most expensive with voice commands, the rearview camera, and real-time traffic. With the Premium package--it bundles an iPod interface with satellite radio, surround sound, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, and a garage door opener--the CLA 250 retails for about $34,500.

The CLA45 AMG is configured much the same, save for its drivetrain. The base price of $48,375 leaves room for option packages that include grippy Recaro performance seats, carbon-fiber trim for the exterior and cabin, a black-out trim package, and uprated tires, before it hits an expected average out-the-door price of about $55,000.

A panoramic sunroof is a stand-alone option on any CLA, as are leather seats, summer tires, parking assist, blind-spot monitors, and heated front seats.

Changes for 2015 include a new steering wheel design and three package additions: The Multimedia Package now includes the seven-inch display, Keyless-Go is now part of the Premium Package, and the Interior Package now includes ambient lighting.

9

2015 Mercedes-Benz CLA Class

Styling

The new CLA-Class owes its look to the larger CLS sedan, but the interior's more sporting.

As safety standards get more strict, it's harder to make cars look great, especially small ones--but somehow the CLA's high nose and side view preserve the best of the CLS, while giving up the long-nose proportions that define every other Mercedes-Benz. Remember, it's a front-drive chassis.

That front end may be the best expression yet of the newest Mercedes identity. The car's frameless door glass and intricate grille detailing were previewed on the Concept Style Coupe and surprisingly kept intact through to production. The curves stamped into the rear fenders are the clearest connection to the CLS and draw back through the sideview like a slingshot. There's softness in the way the CLA's rear glass rounds off quickly, but it's relieved by crisp LED taillamp ribs on the truncated rear end.

The CLA45 AMG toughens up the look, although the CLA 250's sporty appearance already goes a long way toward the AMG look. The grille pares down to a couple of blades, over an AMG fascia opened up with wider air intakes. Discreet "turbo" badges adorn the sides, and at the rear, the CLA45 AMG has a pair of ducts that bracket the rear end like parentheses.

The CLA cuts through the air with a coefficient of drag of just 0.23, helped by careful shaping and underbody aerodynamic panels. Mercedes claims it's the most slippery shape in the production-car world. You can see the aerodynamic tricks in the lower reaches of the front end, where big air intakes shape the airflow, or the thin parentheses that let it escape at the tail.

The CLA cockpit borrows liberally from the sporty cars in the Mercedes lineup, and a little the bigger sedans. It sports cut-tube gauges and five round vents, which are now being adopted on almost all of Mercedes's offerings. The interior is finished with dark-grey trim, with walnut, ash, or aluminum optional on the CLA 250, standard on the CLA45 AMG (which also gets red seatbelts and red-stitched seats). MB-Tex synthetic upholstery is standard, with leather available.

The dash is clean and sleek save for one detail: the dash-mounted LCD screen looks like a plug-in navigation unit, and less like a piece of technology planned in from the beginning of a model cycle, just like the one on BMW's current 3-Series. While Mercedes avoided a taller overall dash with this odd high placement, we think there must have been another way to accomplish the goal without making it look like an iPad mini was stuck on as it rolled off the line.

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2015 Mercedes-Benz CLA Class

Performance

The base CLA wants to be a sport sedan, but could use better shifting; the CLA 45 AMG is a back-road gem.

The CLA does a great job of masking its front-drive roots, with a very neutral feel and not even a hint of torque steer on the front-drive model. Its main dynamic flaw is some reticence to downshift and provide power when your right foot requests it.

With 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque burbling up from its 2.0-liter, direct-injected, turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the CLA 250 doesn't lack for power. It's a modified and enlarged version of the four found in the C-Class, with different engine mounts and some modification for transverse installation. It has an agreeable amount of intake noise and turbo snap, and spins out enough low-end torque to beat the four-cylinder C-Class to 60 mph--in about 6.7 seconds, Mercedes says. Top speed is limited to 149 mph. All-wheel drive is optional on the non-AMG CLA.

The CLA 45 AMG takes a chainsaw to those numbers, cranking up boost and lowering compression on the four-cylinder's twin-scroll turbo to scream-machine peaks. We reported its 0-60 mph time of 4.6 seconds first, and since then it's been adjusted to 4.5 seconds. A perfect example of when it's good to be wrong. Redline is up 200 rpm compared to the 250's engine, to 6,700 rpm. The torque peak arrives later and stays longer, and a specially designed, optional, active-exhaust system fiddles with a butterfly flap to play punk sax with the exhaust note. It's quiet in normal driving, crazy hot at full boil.

Both engines are hooked to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, with the AMG model getting a beefier setup to handle the extra torque. Drive modes are selected with a column shifter on the CLA 250 and a console-mounted shift lever on the CLA45 AMG. On either, a flip of the steering-wheel paddles engages a manual-shift mode for 30 seconds, after which the transmission clicks back into a comfortable program.

On the CLA 250, the low-end torque can put lumps in the shifts, and the gearbox upshifts rapidly to obtain the best possible gas mileage; it can be cycled out of Eco mode into Sport or Manual shift modes, which clean up the responses to the point where some turbo lag becomes evident. Shifts are cleaner over 30 mph or so, where the action melts into the momentum, but big downshift requests on the highway take time.

The CLA45 AMG's shift pattern is completely different; it's equipped with a trio of driver-selectable modes (comfort, sport, and manual) and rev-matching, making shifts much quicker and neater. In manual mode, the only intervention is in your hands, as AMG wants it.

Stop/start is standard on all CLAs, and it sends a shiver through the drivetrain when it shuts off the car and restarts at pauses longer than a couple of seconds. The all-wheel-drive system adjusts torque from almost 100 percent front to up to 50 percent rear through a multi-disc clutch, and it's responsible for a smoother launch and shifts, we think, than the front-drive car.

Whether it's front-drive or all-wheel drive, the CLA 250 is set up nearly in mono-spec form. All versions have electric power steering and all U.S. cars will come with the lower, shorter-sprung "sport" version of the CLA's front-strut, four-link-rear suspension. The standard 17-inch run-flat tires can be upgraded to 18-inch wheels (with or without summer tires and perforated disc brakes). We'd suggest trying to find the 17-inchers, because the 18s seem to amplify the already stiff sport ride.

The end product is a car that's brash and a little bratty in the way it refuses to lean in corners, almost in defiance of the traditional Mercedes reputation of comfort and compliance. The so-called "Direct Steer" system's V-shaped steering rack increases ratio and effort off-center; it's pretty hefty, and gives the CLA a quick call to change. Jazz hands are kept to a minimum, though the typical electric-steering numbness hasn't been erased. We'd give the dynamic nod to the all-wheel-drive version, which is better equipped to put down the engine's power.

There's no sport mode to change the steering feel or quickness, but that may be beside the point in a sedan aimed by and large at new Mercedes buyers.

For the CLA45 AMG, the suspension, steering, and braking hardware get their own tuning, with even flatter cornering and more flattering steering the result.

The changes are vetted for maximum return on the performance/price curve. The electric power rack has a fixed ratio, though weight still varies with vehicle speed. The suspension's retuned with three links for each front wheel and with stiffer bearings, since the torque and traction loads are much higher. At the rear, there are four links, coil springs, and a body-mounted subframe. Thicker anti-roll bars are used front and back, and the CLA45 AMG rides nearly an inch lower, on a rear track nearly a half-inch wider, than the CLA 250.

For additional grip, the 18-inch wheels ride on performance tires as standard equipment, with 19-inchers an option. Uprated AMG brakes are fed commands from the ESP's Sport mode to imitate torque vectoring.

The result is amazing grip and explosive acceleration, all with the neutral handling that makes you forget there's a front-drive car underneath. The CLA 45 erupts from a stop with AMG's Racestart launch control, which works the dual-clutch transmission to its limits. Understeer is dialed out through the all-wheel drive, while any torque steer that might be present is kept from your hands by the electric steering. Unlike in the CLA 250, you still feel the road surface, though. It's a well-sorted little rocket.

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2015 Mercedes-Benz CLA Class

Comfort & Quality

Patient, small, young: be any one of those things before you try to go long-distance in the CLA's back seat.

The CLA fits into a vast class of cars that contains everything from the Ford Focus and Honda Civic to the BMW 2-Series and Audi A3. It's 182.3 inches long, with a wheelbase of 106.3 inches.

The compact dimensions don't affect the front passengers nearly as much as they do those in the back. The CLA 250's front seats are Recaro-like in their shape--and they're good ones, with great firm bolsters around the back and on the sides of the bottom cushion. They're covered in MB-Tex or leather, depending on your wallet. The seats are adjustable for rake and position, with power adjustment for the driver and manual for the passenger seat, which moves via levers and wheels, so it's a reach to get at the pivot-mounted wheel that adjusts seatback angle. Between the front seats, the CLA 250's console houses two storage bins. One is squared off and sized for 64-ounce drinks--or for the shift lever that is included on the CLA 45 AMG--and the other holds a power point and a smaller tray.

The CLA 45 AMG can be upgraded to actual Recaro performance seats, heavily bolstered affairs that pair well with the AMG car's red seat belts. They're aimed at the most enthusiastic owners and drivers.

Wedge into the back seats, and you'll experience the CLA's chief giveback to its size and style. Back-seat room is tight, with head and toe room especially lean. Because the car sits low and its rear doors are relatively small, older shoppers will want to try entering and exiting the CLA before deciding it's a nice alternative to the bigger Benz sedans.

On the upside, the CLA's trunk is larger than the one in the Cadillac ATS. The rear seats fold down to expand that space when you need it.

Only in a few places will drivers notice the way Mercedes has kept costs down with the CLA. Soft-touch painted plastic rules the center console. The trim rings on the vents are glossy plastic with notches to cut their brightness, but the standard dash trim is a satiny metallic plastic that looks quite good. The CLA45 AMG's standard aluminum trim? Even better. The panoramic sunroof has a thin fabric shade that looks and feels pretty flimsy. But road noise is mostly muted, and wind noise is pretty well-controlled, and there's no active noise control nonsense muffling the powertrain.

And then there's the column-mounted gear shifter, located exactly where Mercedes used to stick its wiper controls. You too might put the car into neutral when you just want to clear the rain.

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2015 Mercedes-Benz CLA Class

Safety

No crash-test data exists for the CLA yet.

The Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class still hasn't been crash-tested by either of the nationally recognize safety agencies. We'll update this report if and when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) offer up some data.

We're assigning a score here given Mercedes' strong performance in crash safety and based on its standard safety equipment, which includes a driver knee airbag.

Among its other standard safety features, the 2015 CLA carries a Collision Prevention Assist function; using radar, the CLA can alert the driver of upcoming obstacles when it's traveling at more than 4 mph, and can calculate the amount of brake force needed to avoid an impact. The integrated collision-warning system has Volvo-like output, with visible and audible alerts when you're about to pile into someone, or something. Also standard is Attention Assist and its coffee-cup reminder to pull over and avoid drowsy driving.

Safety options include adaptive cruise control; blind-spot monitors; lane-keeping assistance; and parking sensors with parking assist.

The CLA45 AMG has a few special talents woven into its standard stability control. A tap on the ESP button sends it into Sport mode, and allows more wheelslip and slide; another tap and stability control goes off. Either mode persists, but applying the brakes will re-engage stability control as long as the brakes are applied. There's also a measure of torque vectoring simulated by the CLA45's anti-lock braking; it applies the brakes on the inside wheels to tighten cornering lines when the car's in ESP Sport mode.

With the push to keep CLA prices relatively low, we'd hope Mercedes will soon break out its rearview camera as an inexpensive stand-alone option. Rearward visibility isn't good, thanks to the sloping roofline, and a surround-view camera like the one in the E-Class would be even more appreciated, given the CLA's probable home in plenty of urban parking spaces.

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2015 Mercedes-Benz CLA Class

Features

All the premium touches you'd expect are available, but a well-equipped CLA is easily more than $35,000.

The 2015 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 is priced pretty aggressively from $30,825, especially considering the standard equipment.

That base version comes with Bluetooth, cruise control, a power driver's seat, 17-inch wheels with run-flat tires, a sport-tuned suspension, and MB-Tex upholstery--a fair assortment of gear without any major lapses for the class.

CLA 45 prices begin at $48,375, which is within a few thousand dollars of the next AMG model up, the C63. Unique powertrain, standard all-wheel drive, and AMG hardware aside, standard features are similar to those on the CLA 250. 

To keep those prices as reasonable as possible, the CLA offers more stand-alone options than other Mercedes products. For example, while U.S versions of the CLA 250 come standard with a sporty grille, a sport-appearance package adds AMG-style 18-inch wheels and its own lower front-end treatment. The wheels are offered by themselves for just $500.

The most popular features will be bundled into the $2300 Premium package, which includes an iPod interface with satellite radio, surround sound, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, and a garage door opener.

Leather is available, but a power passenger front seat is not on the options list; leather is part of the $1,500 Interior package, and requires the Premium package be selected first. A panoramic sunroof with a thin fabric sunshade is a stand-alone option ($1480), as are all-wheel drive ($2,000), parking assist ($970), blind-spot monitors ($550), and heated front seats ($580). One of the more interesting, if questionable, dealer-installed options is a $480 illuminated three-pointed star for the grille. 

Other trim and styling choices go beyond the usual shades of gray paint. Black ash and burl walnut trim can be chosen to replace the grey plastic dash trim. The wood trim adds just $325 to the price.

The CLA45 has its own range of features, themed around performance. Red-painted brake calipers are offered for $300. There's a Night package for $750 that blacks out big swaths of exterior trim, and a flat-bottomed steering wheel. And on the highly recommended list are Recaro sport seats that offer up even more support than the stock chairs and 19-inch performance tires with black-finish wheels. An exterior carbon-fiber package adds $3,700 to the sticker and includes a front air dam, mirror caps, side-sill inserts, and a rear diffuser all made from the flashy material; they look neat, although adding lightweight elements doesn't actually save weight. An interior carbon is a steal by comparison, at $950, and might actually save weight since it replaces trim that's already there.

On the infotainment side, the 2015 CLA comes with standard Bluetooth and the latest smartphone connectivity functions via Mercedes-Benz's mbrace2, all displayed on a 5.8-inch screen. It also bundles smartphone-based navigation. The AMG car shows its Racestart performance data on the center screen.

The first navigation option is an inexpensive Becker system with better functionality than the base setup, we're toldIt requires a $200 pre-wiring package and is available as a $600 accessory. 

The more elaborate, and optional, infotainment system offers a 7.0-inch screen and COMAND, which controls the $2,370 Multimedia package's navigation system, DVD changer, 10GB music drive, or SD card (as well as phone services) with voice commands. The Multimedia package also includes a rearview camera and real-time traffic. Choosing the Multimedia package requires the $2,300 Premium package be selected as well.

The infotainment system also can be fitted with DriveStyle, which makes some apps like Facebook and Twitter available through the knob controller and voice commands for on-the-go readback and response from a set of stock answers. It's essentially an edited-down version of the apps, with icons upsized for safety, not true screen-to-screen mirroring--and without a touchscreen capability, since as a company, Mercedes has decided touchscreens are too distracting. DriveStyle is an accessory, offered for $599.

COMAND continues to be a frustrating system to use on the go, less so when it's used to set up the car prior to driving. It requires a lot of scrolling and toggling to get to basic menus, or even to switch some modes--something accomplished much more easily by the redundant buttons on the center console.

Changes for 2015 include a new steering wheel design and three package additions: The Multimedia Package now includes the seven-inch display, Keyless-Go is now part of the Premium Package, and the Interior Package now includes ambient lighting.

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7

2015 Mercedes-Benz CLA Class

Fuel Economy

The EPA gives the CLA good gas mileage ratings, and we've found they're easy to reach in real-world driving.

Mercedes took great pains to ensure that the CLA would be efficient.

The shape has a very low coefficient of drag thanks to underbody panels that create a flat surface for air flow, as well as intakes and vents that help route the flow. It also has standard stop/start, which shuts down and reawakens the CLA when it pauses at stoplights. It's smooth enough, but the stop/start effect sends a quiver through the driveline.

The result is an EPA rating of 26 miles per gallon city, 38 miles per gallon highway for the CLA 250. We've driven the CLA 250 extensively now in the U.S., and have earned more than 37.3 mpg on long interstate runs, without much modulation of our driving habits. The EPA says the all-wheel-drive version of the CLA 250, dubbed 4Matic, is rated at 24/32 mpg.

The rip-roaring CLA45 AMG returns remarkably good numbers; they're just one shy of the CLA 250 4Matic, at 23/31 mpg.

While diesel versions of the CLA are offered in other markets, there's no plan to introduce them in the U.S. market. Given the car's style-forward marketing message, that will probably remain true for a while, at least until the CLA starts selling in really huge numbers.

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October 24, 2015
2015 Mercedes-Benz CLA Class 4-Door Sedan CLA 250 FWD

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