Designed to make an immediate impression, the Mercedes-Benz CLA certainly does that. Now into its second generation, there’s a more comfortable appearance – it has grown into its skin and its role as style-leading attention-grabber for the brand.
The CLA range works as a halo for the Mercedes-Benz ‘compact’ range in the same way as the larger CLS sits as one of many, many flagships in the full-size model range. Compact is a relative term, however – the CLA is actually 2mm longer than a C-Class sedan.
Wheelbase isn’t as generous. In fact, with 111mm less distance between the wheels, the CLA is significantly less commodious inside than a regular C-Class sedan – plus longer overhangs mean its proportional purity is disrupted slightly.
Be that as it may, a dramatically swept roof and tapered front and rear lead into wider front and rear sheet metal, again 20mm wider than a C-Class, that make the CLA 200 unmissable and much more classically elegant than the A-Class on which it is actually based.
Compared to the model it replaces, the new 2019 Mercedes-Benz CLA 200 boasts 17mm more head room up front and 3mm more in the rear, and the wheelbase is 30mm longer than before. It's also 48mm longer and 53mm wider on the outside, giving it more presence in the metal.
Positioning sees it occupy a space commensurate with its ‘four-door coupe’ branding. A starting price from $59,500 sees the CLA positioned $10,000 north of an equivalent A-Class sedan, yet $5K under a C200 sedan.
There’s more standard equipment for your buy-in, which features standard-equipment packs including Keyless Go proximity entry, AMG Executive multi-link rear suspension with adaptive damping, AMG-line styling, interior ambient lighting, Energising Comfort and more.
Power for the CLA 200 comes from a 1.3-litre turbocharged petrol engine producing 120kW at 5500rpm and 250Nm from 1620 to 4000rpm. In comparison, the slightly more expensive C200 has just arrived with 150kW and 300Nm from a 2.0-litre turbo engine.
Confused? You’re not alone.
The CLA 200 is a front-wheel-drive-only model (like the A200), and in Australia comes equipped solely with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
It’s not a performance machine, nor was it ever intended as one. As such, you get a package that feels right at home darting around leafy green suburbs and running up and down busy high streets.
The CLA 200 won’t take the lead in a traffic light race, but has more than enough punch in reserve to give it a keen sense of nimbleness in bustling urban settings. Mercedes-Benz offers a claimed 5.7 litres per 100km fuel consumption, but on our brief intro figures varied between 5.9L/100km on the freeway and stopped just short of 10.0L/100km in urban traffic.
The automatic, perhaps a little oddly, doesn’t thrive on slow, grinding traffic. Letting off the brake and creeping forward, or changing from coasting to accelerating, cause it a moment of discombobulation. It isn’t jerky or abrupt, just slow to react.
There are moments where revs build but forward momentum isn’t forthcoming, before bursting into a surge of acceleration. Treat the accelerator pedal with more assertion and things improve. Fortune favours the bold, and all that, I suppose.
With the optional upsized 19-inch wheels (more forgiving 18s are standard) and AMG suspension, there’s every possibility the ride could be balanced anywhere from brittle to punishing, but surprisingly it’s the absolute opposite.
Adaptive dampers no doubt play a leading role here, with the ability to blot out cobbled surfaces and cushion away the worst of tattered street surfaces. Pick the pace up slightly and as comfy as it can be around town, there’s still good control and roll resistance at speed.
At each end of the spectrum, the ride almost feels as if it's from two different cars. Very low speeds see it porpoise over driveway entries and traffic-control devices, and threatening to scrape the long nose into the tarmac. At highway speeds the opposite is true: control is much tighter and ride firms up to a more traditionally Euro-firm attitude.
If the CLA 200 doesn’t quite cut it, a peppier CLA 250 4Matic from $68,800 will be arriving in the first quarter of 2020, along with the properly performance-skewed Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 4Matic from $83,400 and no-holds-barred CLA 45 S 4Matic+ with pricing to be confirmed closer to launch.
In its previous generation, the CLA has worked as a conquest model for Mercedes, with somewhat unique positioning opening the door to first-time Benz buyers who weren’t lured by the dowdy B-Class or mainstream A-Class. The company expects similar for the new generation, along with current owners looking to upgrade.
Interior impressions are a mixed bag. The door trims and upper dash are made of, quite possibly, the squishiest of soft-touch materials. A plethora of glossy black and brushed-metal surfaces give the CLA an appropriately upmarket and tech-savvy appearance.
Swing the doors open and you’ll reveal visible mounting screws behind the door pulls. Grab them to yank the doors closed and the horseshoe-shaped handles flex and creak in protest.
I’m not suggesting that this has any bearing on overall quality, but for a company that claims over 130 years' experience building cars, you’d think it would have mastered little bits like this by now.
On the other hand, the newest Benz interior design – dual 10.25-inch screens, ‘Hey Mercedes’ voice commands, 64-colour ambient lighting with colour shifting ‘animations’, turbine-style air vents, et al – is a comfortable interpretation of what modern luxury looks and feels like.
Traditionalists may baulk, but in some areas the CLA surpasses the presentation of the, admittedly older, C-Class range. The upright dash doesn’t have quite the same integrated flowing design as a C, but imparts elegance nonetheless.
The four-door coupe thing is a bit perplexing. Yes, in terms of spaciousness there’s not much more interior space than you'd expect from a traditional two-door coupe, particularly in the rear seats, yet accessing them is easier than clambering over the front seats. Still, a tapered C-pillar, small aperture and narrow opening angle present minor challenges of their own.
For some perspective, at a shade under 170cm I can happily fit in the rear behind my own driving position, surprising no-one really. In fact, CarAdvice’s resident tall gent, Scott Collie, at 201cm can also fit his legs and torso in behind me, with his head tilted to clear the roof.
Switch that around and put Scott up front, and suddenly any available rear leg room vanishes. Literally. With just a couple of centimetres between the front seatback and leading edge of the rear seat, rendering it useless for adult occupants.
Families (or at least taller ones) are advised to look towards a C-Class, or perhaps a GLC, or the yet to arrive GLB as one of many possible alternatives within the Mercedes-Benz range. Similarly, past CLA Shooting Brake customers will be steered towards the next GLA when it arrives, with the five-door CLA ruled out for Australia.
On the utility front, form dictates function, with the boot shrinking by 10 litres compared to the old CLA, at 460L. It's also 30L up on the A-Class sedan.
A monstrous list of safety features covers off major items like nine airbags, active lane keep and crosswind assist, driver-attention monitoring, autonomous emergency braking, pre-safe collision preparation and pre-safe sound (to lessen the impact of changing cabin pressure on your ear drums in an accident, for real), auto high beam, cruise control with speed limiter, traffic sign recognition, blind-spot monitoring, pedestrian-protecting pop-up bonnet and more.
If you’re more swayed by tech and convenience items, you’ll love the native MBUX infotainment system. Dual 10.25-inch screens offer a massive viewable area, customisable instruments, a range of input options from touchscreens to capacitive steering wheel controls, a console touchpad (with none of the issues Lexus's similar system presents) and the ability to conjure any number of vehicle functions with conversational commands.
The depth and integration of the infotainment system is one of the areas Mercedes-Benz distances itself from mainstream brands. There’s prestige in the seamlessness of holistic vehicle integration and having all vehicle controls broken into digestible submenus, operable in a number of ways to allow you to decide what works best.
There are also fine details, like the available Kinetic Seats that can shuffle themselves by a few degrees at short intervals to keep the front-seat occupants alert. Or Energising Comfort that matches climate, lighting, music, seating and offers mindfulness training (nope, not even kidding) on the go to soothe or energise travellers.
Odd maybe, and perhaps a little ostentatious, yet if you’re buying into the prestige pastiche of a car like the CLA 200, it’s precisely the kind of surprise-and-delight functionality that puts Mercedes on a pedestal. You don’t see brands like Toyota and Hyundai rushing fine detail like this into their mass-market models, after all.
Other standard features include dual-zone climate control, a Nappa leather-wrapped sports steering wheel with shift paddles, imitation leather and suede seating surfaces, sports pedals, auto lights and wipers, front/rear park sensors, electric park brake, illuminated front door sills, puddle lamps, push-button start, front-seat length adjustment, along with wireless charging, sat-nav, and DAB+ radio.
There’s also a range of included online functionality available. Mercedes Me Connect adds the ability to search for parking spaces at your destination, search reviews on Yelp and Trip Advisor, take navigation from your phone to your car, or remotely check vehicle status, lock and unlock the doors, or report an accident and arrange a tow.
More than any of its equipment, which has been uprated over a regular A-Class sedan to help offset the price rise, the CLA 200 makes its greatest impact in the style stakes. The way it looks may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s plenty to hold your attention.
Even with a degree of penned-in athleticism, the CLA 200 makes no claim to be the fastest or sharpest of Mercedes’s compact models. It handles well, rides comfortably, and comports itself perfectly in a world where tech sells and image is everything.
By that context, amidst the fashion-week set, the new CLA range should align itself perfectly with avant-garde aspirations in the same way its predecessor did. The new-season styling cements its premium positioning, with the high-tech interior adding savvy substance to overarching style.