Mercedes-Benz CLA 2019 250 sport 4matic, Mercedes-Benz CLA 2020 250 sport 4matic s/brake

2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA review

International first drive

Bigger, much better looking, sportier and jam-packed full of tech.
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The second-generation Mercedes-Benz CLA is arriving in Australia later this year, and is set to continue on what has been a very successful model for the German brand.

Australians seem to love the outgoing CLA. Since 2013, Mercedes-Benz has sold almost 15,000 of them. In fact, it’s so popular that in 2018 it outsold both the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4. Ironically, the new CLA is now actually almost the size of a C-Class and will be sold alongside an A-Class sedan… Just to make things even more confusing.

So what exactly is a CLA, anyway? It’s basically the most affordable four-door coupe from Mercedes. A smaller Mercedes-Benz CLS, a compact coupe, if you will.

The previous-generation CLA had been incredibly successful at bringing new buyers to the Mercedes family, but while that car may have been revolutionary six years ago in terms of what it offered, the new 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 200 and 250 4Matic (which arrive from October onwards) are yet another whole step ahead.

From the outside, the new CLA is very much carrying the new Mercedes ‘sensual purity’ design language – from the headlights to the tail-lights, it’s a very modern interpretation of what we’ve come to see from the Germans.

It’s fair to say the car looks better in the flesh than in photos. The company’s head of design, Gorden Wagener, reckons it has the potential to become a ‘modern design icon’. That’s a bit of a stretch if you ask us, but it’s a good-looking thing nonetheless. It’s wider, longer and shorter than the previous car, and as such it looks more substantial.

The tail-lights are higher while the headlights are lower, which in addition to its wider hips gives it a sportier look. Mercedes’s use of the pronounced 'Coke-bottle shoulder' also pays homage to its long line of GT cars.

On the inside, the CLA is now larger and more spacious. We had no trouble occupying the front or rear seats (179cm height) for long drives. There is sufficient knee and head room for most adults, but you wouldn’t want three passengers in the back for long.

Our cars had the brushed-aluminium interior fit and finishes on the doors with piano-black air-con vents that fit in beautifully. It’s a strange thing to point out, but the vents are super nice to touch and move around. There is so much weight in them that it feels like you’re playing with one out of a Bentley.

The real party piece, though, is the technical gadgetry that is at the heart of all modern Mercs. The CLA incorporates all the latest technologies from the German brand’s MBUX infotainment system. There is so much about MBUX that is amazing and best-in-class, and all of that is in this car. This is where a company like Mercedes-Benz really shows what a whole lot of investment and R&D can do.

The dual screens are a delight to look at, and if you option the head-up display it gets even better. We especially love the augmented reality system that displays the name of the streets on a live image of what is ahead as you navigate. It’s rather remarkable and surprisingly helpful.

It’s one of the very few systems whereby the fitment of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto (which are both standard) is actually unnecessary. The infotainment system itself is excellent for basic functionality, and comes with gesture controls and the ability to detect your hand around the cabin or near the screen, even from the passenger's perspective, so options can differ depending on who is using the system from which angle. For example, simply moving your hand towards the navigation icon on the screen brings up the option of 'Where to?' just to save you that extra click. Simple stuff, but all worth it.

It’s not without its flaws, though. The 'Hey Mercedes' voice-activation system in our car consistently activated without cause, thinking we had asked for its help, which led to countless unintended conversations and some retrospectively humorous agitation trying to turn it off. Think of it like a dumber version of Siri. In saying that, it can do interesting things like opening your sunroof for you if you ask nicely.

The CLA even has what on the surface appears to be a somewhat gimmicky system that links some Garmin smartwatches (unfortunately no support for Apple Watch yet), and will program the cabin ambience or seat massage or heating based on your heart rate, your stress level or how much you’ve slept the night before.

To give you an example of why this isn’t a gimmick, there are three training sessions – muscle relaxation, muscle activation and balance – (each broken down further with several exercises) that last for 10 minutes each. It’s an option, yes, but hell, if you commute to work all day and want to be treated to a massage on the way, it’s worth ticking the box.

But while there will undoubtedly be a long list of options for the new CLA, there is a fair bit of standard kit as well. All CLA models heading to Australia will have the Sports Seats (Black/Red or Neva Grey/Black upholsteries), comfort package, ambient lighting package with 64-colour selection, and AMG Line kit as standard – that means a more distinct front and rear bumper, sportier-looking and bigger 19-inch wheels with AMG suspension, as well as the sports seats inside.

The AMG wheels wrapped in 225/40R19 tyres do tend to look a little small from behind now that the car appears wider, but the driving dynamics of the new CLA are leaps and bounds ahead.

We flew to Munich and spent the majority of our time testing the new CLA 250 4Matic, which is powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine with 165kW of power and 350Nm of torque. We expect that it will start in the mid-$60,000s in terms of price, and it will sit above the front-wheel-drive CLA 200 that we believe will be priced in the low-$50,000s. Above those two will come both the CLA 35 and CLA 45 AMG models, likely before the end of 2020.

Although Mercedes-Benz offers a significantly higher number of variants in Europe, Australian buyers will miss out on the locally unpopular diesel and shooting-brake variants.

So, what of the CLA 250 on the road? It wouldn’t have been too long ago that the CLA would’ve certainly been regarded as a proper sports car. Yes, there are dedicated AMG models coming and they will blow this out of the water in terms of performance and handling, but the 250 can go from 0–100km/h in 6.3 seconds, and that is by no means slow in this day and age.

Behind the wheel, we found the 250’s driving dynamics to be rather solid without crossing into AMG territory. It’s not what we would call confidence-inspiring around the twisty stuff, but for its intended purpose it’s perfectly well suited. With its 350Nm of torque, overtaking is a breeze, and the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission works well with the engine in both low- and high-speed situations.

Our car was fitted with the optional adaptive damper suspension system, so we can’t tell you how it will ride with the standard set-up. Furthermore, German roads are so smooth and better built than what we have back home, we may have to leave the verdict on the ride until we can test the car locally.

Nonetheless, from what we experienced with the optional and more variable suspension, there is a very noticeable gap between Sport and Comfort modes in how the car behaves and rides. You really are far more comfortable in terms of the ride when that mode is selected, without it really affecting its sporty handling characteristics in Sport.

Mercedes has also followed numerous other manufacturers by introducing artificial sounds through the speaker system, which is very evident in Sport mode, as what is otherwise a very quiet car all of a sudden turns into a sports car as you go through the rev range. The manufactured noise is not over the top, but we are categorically not a fan of fake exhaust or engine sounds, and this is no exception.

Another issue we constantly ran into concerned the super-sensitive active safety systems, which will come standard. These include the autonomous emergency braking and lane-keep assist. Due to changing safety standards in Europe, the tolerance for these systems has become far lower than ever before, and the CLA is the first car from Mercedes to adapt to the latest standard.

What does that mean? A slightly overzealous and intrusive lane-departure system that would apply the brakes and pull you back into your lane if you even thought about touching a solid white line without indicating. Yes, it’s a great safety feature, but call us old fashioned because it was bloody annoying, especially when you come to turn in a busy main street.

Think of a situation whereby the traffic or car in front has slightly obstructed the turning lane ahead and you have to cross a solid line to get to it. It won’t like that very much. Thankfully, the system is designed to catch you drifting rather than deliberately turning, but we found it confusing the difference, and as such, a little annoying regardless. Thankfully, you can turn it off. We were also caught out a few times by the AEB thinking we were about to have a frontal collision, applying momentary braking and tightening the seatbelts, when all we were doing was speeding up to overtake a slow car.

All in all, though, safety systems are better early than late, and with the new changes in European safety requirements, plenty of other cars are likely to follow down the same super-sensitive path. It will require a slight change in your driving behaviour, but likely for the better.

On the plus side, the new CLA is expected to achieve the highest crash rating in Europe. It can also be optioned with some decent semi-autonomous driving technologies from the S-Class, which are best used on the highway. For example, it can change lanes by itself when you simply indicate. It will also happily stay in its own lane on long commutes and adjust its speed to not only what is in front, but also to the set speed limit.

Our overall thoughts on the new 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 are very positive. From the outside and inside, the new car is a huge step above its predecessor. It's jam-packed with the absolute pinnacle of infotainment technology and comes with a host of active safety systems. It’ll likely remain a very popular choice for many new-car buyers. We can’t wait to drive the AMG variants.

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