Second-gen CLA ups the comfort and style, but is it still fun to drive?

Mercedes has really improved the CLA sedan in its second generation. It looks better, it’s considerably more comfortable and it packs even more tech than before too. It’s not quite perfect, but given how sleek and fancy it looks, you won’t have troubles forgiving the few flaws that it does have.

You’ll definitely notice the all-new interior, which is basically the same as in all current compact Mercedes models. It’s such a big improvement over the so-so interior of its predecessor and higher-spec examples now feel properly posh inside - this was never the case with the first generation CLA, whose interior was lackluster by Mercedes standards, whichever way you specced it.

However, while the exterior and interior pack quite a visual punch, what’s happened under the CLA’s skin is equally significant - whereas the previous model had a jarring ride and may have felt overly-sharp to some drivers, this new CLA has a softer, slightly more relaxed edge to it. It still feels sporty, but it doesn’t punish you for it like the old car did.

My tester was a 2019 Mercedes-Benz CLA 220 with the AMG Line pack and it felt really special to be in. Sure, maybe the €15,000 worth of extras it had on it helped seal the deal, but I was able to channel them out and focus on the core experience - and it was still good, still compelling and overall a solid car, even while ignoring the bells and whistles.

Photography by Andrei Nedelea

  • 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 220 AMG Line - Driven
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  • It’s the A-Class sedan’s sleeker brother
  • 15 centimeters longer A-Class sedan
  • Same wheelbase as A-Class Sedan
  • As long as a C-Class
  • Unique exterior design
  • Unique front and rear bumpers
  • Looks like a mini-CLS
  • Fake exhaust tips
2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 220 AMG Line - Driven
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The only visual link between the 2019 CLA sedan and the car it replaces is the vague shape of the roof and the tapering rear. It looks totally different in person - it appears to be much wider, more squat and planted. Its flanks are wide and voluptuous and from some angles it really looks like a sports car. I don’t think there’s another three-box car that looks quite like it, aside from the larger CLS it was inspired by, obviously.

It’s the front that really draws your eye. Mercedes has widened the car’s track over the mechanically similar A-Class sedan and it has also designed the CLA to appear flatter and lower to the ground. Compared to the car it replaces, the new CLA is around 50 millimeters (1.9 inches) wider.

This has to be one of the single most aggressive Mercedes front ends on any of their current production cars.

My tester was undoubtedly helped by the AMG Line front bumper, but even the base car has the huge protruding grille (and a fairly aggressive standard bumper), as well as the creases running up its hood.

2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 220 AMG Line - Driven
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The shape of the headlights is also an aggressive one, and if you get it with the optional Multibeam LED lights, then it really looks like it means business. Be warned, though, that base models do still come with old fashioned halogen headlights, so you might want to spec up to the first set of optional headlights, the LED units without the Multibeam function, in order for the car to gain the mean look I was talking about.

Mercedes wanted clear differentiation between the A-Class sedan and the CLA, so even though the two cars share a platform, the latter is some 150 millimeters (5.9 inches) longer.

That means the CLA is roughly the same length as a C-Class, but keep in mind the CLA has exactly the same wheelbase of 2,729 millimeters (107.5 inches) as the A-Class sedan, so it’s all overhang.

You don’t really notice it too much, though, and the new CLA’s extended front and rear overhangs wouldn’t be the first thing you noticed when looking at the car from the side. Usually, cars with long overhangs have some funkiness to their proportions, yet the CLA’s design flows together rather nicely. The extra length is also disguised by the fact that its fascias are quite rounded, so from the side you don’t really see the car in its entirety, because it is longest along its middle line.

2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 220 AMG Line - Driven
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The rear three-quarter view to my eyes isn’t especially flattering for the new CLA.

It just looks like it’s sitting too high on its suspension, and this makes the rear wheels look a tad too small. The rear track could also have been a few millimeters wider to push the wheels further out. This, in combination with a slight shortening of the rear springs would transform the look of the CLA.

This is nitpicking, though, because the car makes a powerful visual impact from all angles. The front is more successful than the rear, but overall it’s a great job by Mercedes’ design team. They’ve managed to make one heck of a head-turner out of the new CLA - that’s probably the thing it’s best at: making people look at it as you drive by.

My tester rode on two-tone 18-inch five-twin-spoke AMG-branded wheels that looked really good in combination with its Mountain Grey paint finish. The latter costs €750 but it’s well worth it - it gives the car a somewhat stealthy look, but it doesn’t make it anonymous like white has a tendency to do on some cars. This particular finish accentuates the car’s curves and the light metallic effect adds some unexpected sparkle when hit by direct sunlight.

2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 220 AMG Line - Driven
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Before I move on to tell you about the new CLA’s interior, there is another part of its exterior design that needs to be discussed. All non-AMG CLAs come with the exact same rear bumper regardless of if you opt for the AMG Line pack or not (although the pack does add a faux diffuser).

This bumper has what you’d say are two nicely integrated exhaust tips, but if you look closer, you will see they are actually both blanks.

This is a bad design decision in my book, especially since we live in an age when hiding exhausts under the car is no longer a trick that manufacturers need to pull because modern cars don’t spew out all that many nasty gases and particulates. I had to look underneath the car to see where the exhaust actually comes out, and it’s over a foot behind the fake exhaust-like ornaments. Why is Mercedes doing this? It’s really hard to explain, but what I know for a fact is that this practice should stop because it’s deceitful.


  • Shares A-Class interior
  • Optional 10.25-inch screens
  • Decent rear legroom
  • Rear headroom could be better
  • Trunk space almost matches C-Class
  • Optional ambient lighting setup is really bright
  • The Sporty seats aren’t that comfortable
  • Sporty seats are suportive
  • Some plastic trim
2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 220 AMG Line - Driven
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You can’t not be impressed by the CLA’s interior. The design is daring and futuristic, materials are for the most part very good and there’s a genuine sense of occasion when you’re aboard the car. Sure, not all surfaces you touch are especially pleasant, something that just doesn’t happen in larger Mercedes models, but the design and layout more than make up for it.

My tester had the ‘widescreen’ option that pairs two 10.25-inch screens - one is the digital gauge cluster, while the other handles infotainment duty, and having both large screens helps transform the cabin into a very posh place to sit. It is certainly much better than the interior of the older CLA and A-Class models both in terms of quality and design.

The new steering wheel also deserves attention. It is the same basic helm that Mercedes offers in its lager models, and my AMG Line tester had the upgraded version of it with perforated leather, a flat bottom, and contrasting stitching.

It looks really nice and premium and it feels good in the hand, even though for my taste the rim is just a bit too big.

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The new controls on the steering wheel are simple and easy to intuit. It features two small touch pads which you operate with your thumbs - the one on the left moves through menus in the digital gauge cluster, while the one on the right is used to navigate through the infotainment menus.

Speaking of infotainment, I must mention Mercedes’ new MBUX system, complete with its new control method.

Gone is the rotary swivel wheel with the curved touchpad located above it and in its place is a flat touchpad that provides haptic feedback. It works exactly like a laptop touchpad, the only difference being you don’t have a cursor on screen, but simply move from selecting one element to selecting another.

It’s not a bad solution and while at first it may seem strange, if you are used to the previous control method, after a few days of use, you will get the hang of it. It may remind you of the infotainment controls you see in Lexus models, but in this Mercedes, it is considerably more fuss-free to use. You can even use it to write not only letters, but full actual words, and it will do a very good job of processing your input.

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MBUX is a big improvement over Mercedes’ previous infotainment system.

Its graphics are top notch, menu structure is easy and intuitive and, most importantly (from a safety standpoint) is that there is no lag or delay between your input and the system reacting. Some cars’ infotainment systems feel like they don’t have enough processing power and even simple actions freeze the screen sometimes for more than a second - this is thankfully not the case with the MBUX system fitted to the CLA and A-Class models.

Best of all, if you don’t like the new control method (that Mercedes is rolling out across all its models), you can just prod the screen and swipe around - the lack of lag and the easy menus (complete with handy shortcut icons) make it a doddle to operate the infotainment via the touchscreen only. Plus there is the third way to operate the infotainment, via the right touchpad on the steering wheel.

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Next to the steering wheel you’ll notice the stalks for the indicator and wipers on the left, and for the automatic gearbox on the right.

Both stalks are unique to the CLA and the A-Class, and while they do have a cool shape that really works with the rest of interior design, the plastic they’re made from just feels cheap and rather nasty.

This is at odds with the rest of the experience of being in the CLA, since all the other surfaces you touch frequently are very pleasant.

The single row of switches on the center console looks and feels very nice, the armrest is pleasantly soft (although the surround for the button to open up the storage space underneath is the single cheapest feeling bit of the interior), the palm rest is also pleasant to the touch, as is the upper part of the door panels. It feels like a very nice place to sit, so the cheap feeling stalks were quite a surprise.

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The CLA also has a very bright set of (optional) mood lights inside.

It has strips of LEDs running along the top part of the door panels, around the lower edge of the transmission tunnel, around the passenger side of the dashboard, in the door handle recesses, in the turbine-style climate control vents and, in cars equipped with the sports seats that come with a one-piece backrest, under the headrest as well.

And you can crank up the brightness to almost ridiculous levels - it looks cool, certainly, but to some drivers it might prove a bit distracting. You can also change colors yourself, or you can let the car choose the color scheme for you, which you can even do via the advanced voice command feature that Mercedes says you can just talk to instead of having to issue standard commands.

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From either of the two front seats, you’ll notice just how steeply raked the windscreen pillars are. This in turn makes the windscreen seem quite small and low, but it doesn’t impair visibility - all you’re missing out on is a bit of sky.

The low roofline translates into not much interior headroom, even up front. I had the seat in its lowest position, but this didn’t give me a whole lot of room above my head, although the optional panoramic sunroof may have eaten into head space a bit.

The level of front seat headroom would seem very generous for adults sitting in the back, though. The roof tapers quite aggressively towards the rear (as does the rest of the car, for that matter) and this not only pushes rear occupants’ heads down, but it also pushes them together. Two shorter adults could bare a long journey in the back of the CLA, but add a third and they’ll all start feeling like sardines and will really struggle for shoulder room. Legroom in the back is fine, though, much better than in the previous-gen CLA.

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Poor rear headroom problem aside, the CLA is actually really practical. Its trunk, for instance, can swallow up to 460 liters of cargo - the A-Class sedan, for instance, only musters 420 liters, but the larger C-Class beats it with 480 liters.

All four doors have decent door bins, the center armrest cubby and glove box are also quite roomy and the car has a total of four cupholders (hinting at the maximum number of people Mercedes wants the car to transport at once).

The rear backrest can be folded down flat 60/40, and this frees up a lot more space to carry longer items. Do keep in mind that in cars equipped with the one-piece headrest seats, you will need to move the front seats forward in order to drop the rear seats.

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One of my favorite parts about this car is climbing aboard (or getting out) and having to open the frameless doors, preferably with the window down. Such doors really give you a special feeling and make any car they’re on just that little bit cooler overall.

The CLA is one of the few sedans to have frameless doors, so it’s in quite a select group of vehicles, most of which are bigger than it (BMW 2-Series Gran Coupe, Peugeot 508, Volkswagen Arteon, BMW 4-Series, or the CLA’s larger brother, the CLS).


  • Not as quick as expected
  • Seven-speed DCT is swift and sporty
  • Seven-speed DCT can be jerky
  • Fake engine noise through speakers
  • Mercedes CLA 250 is better
2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 220 AMG Line - Driven
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You can have the CLA in Europe with quite a variety of different engines. The least powerful engine available on it is the Renault-sourced 1.5-liter four-cylinder diesel in the CLA 180d that in this application makes 116 horsepower and a peak torque rating of 260 Nm (192 pound-feet) of torque. With the standard six-speed manual gearbox, it sprints to 100 km/h (62 mph) in a leisurely 10.7 seconds and on to 205 km/h (127 mph).

The weakest gasoline power plant is another Renault-sourced mill, this time a 1.33-liter four-cylinder turbo with 136 horsepower and 200 Nm (147.5 pound-feet) of torque.

It sprints to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 9.4 seconds and its top speed is 216 km/h (134 mph). This engine comes exclusively mated to a six-speed manual gearbox and the model designation is CLA 180.

The CLA 200 and 200d are powered by peppier power plants. The CLA 200 runs a more powerful version of the 1.33-liter engine than in the CLA 180, which in this application makes 163 horsepower and 250 Nm (184 pound-feet) of torque. Equipped with the standard six-speed stick, it achieves the benchmark sprint in 8.5 seconds and its top speed is 229 km/h (142 mph).

2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 220 AMG Line - Driven
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The diesel burning CLA 200d runs a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 150 horsepower and 320 Nm (236 pound-feet) of torque. It can only be had with a new eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox that is both smooth and responsive. A more powerful version of this engine is found under the hood of the CLA 220d, whose output is increased to 190 horsepower and 400 Nm (295 pound-feet) of torque. It requires just 7 seconds to sprint from naught to 100 km/h (62 mph) and it tops out at 235 km/h (146 mph).

My tester was the CLA 220, powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo that pumps out 190 horsepower and 300 Nm (221 pound-feet) of torque.

Its sprint time is exactly the same as that of the CLA 220d, but its top speed is slightly higher - 241 km/h (149 mph). My main impression is that the engine felt very willing and strong, even picking up from lower down in the rev range, with the car’s seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox in manual mode.

2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 220 specifications
Engine 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo
Horsepower 190 HP
Torque 221 lb-ft
0 to 100 km/h 7 seconds
Top Speed 241 km/h (149 mph)

Rev it out and the force-fed four-banger sounds sporty and eager, and it makes all sorts of turbo hissing noises (there’s even an audible wastegate sound when you lift off after building boost at lower revs). It is somewhat muted, though, and it just sounds like Mercedes could have done more with the exhaust note, in order to make it sound as sporty as you feel it deserves to when driving it.

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What the automaker has opted to do instead is pump fake engine noise into the cabin through the speakers (not a standard feature, but a very cheap option to add); it is enabled when you put the car in its sport mode

. Sport mode really wakes up the engine and transmission, but the fake drone that’s being generated is not especially pleasant - maybe because it doesn’t sound like a specific engine, but more so a “generic sporty noise” that some committee made a compromise to create.

But since this is a car with blatant fake exhausts and plenty of fake vents all around the body, it’s pretty clear that Mercedes is content to go down this road. I just wish it hadn’t and that would have made the CLA a more credible car than it is today in my book.

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When I initially got the car from Mercedes, I reset the average fuel consumption and I drove the car both in and out of town and by the end of my time with the car, the meter was reading 13.9 l/100km (16.92 U.S. mpg / 20.32 British mpg). That’s very far off Mercedes’ claim that the car returns 6.3 l/100km (38.56 U.S. mpg / 46.31 British mpg), but I didn’t drive the car in an economical manner, and for the strong performance that it offers, the figure is bearable.

If I would have tried to refrain from driving it quickly, the average would have dropped to under 10 l/100km - I don’t think you can even come close to Mercedes’ average efficiency claim, though.

Overall, the engine felt good, but all it made me wonder, really, is how much better and quicker the CLA 250 is. It runs the same basic engine, but in a higher state of tune - 224 horsepower and 350 Nm (258 pound-feet) of torque. Its sprint time to 100 km/h (62 mph) is 6.3 seconds and top speed is 250 km/h (155 mph).

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The seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox fitted to my tester isn’t necessarily a highlight of the powertrain package.

It shifts nicely and swiftly when you’re driving the car aggressively, but when you just want it to settle down and provide relaxed gear shifts and calm everything down, it becomes hesitant and confused. Sometimes it just holds on to gears for too long, even when the car is not in Sport mode. You wait for it to change, but it doesn’t and it can get frustrating, especially around town.

And remember: this transmission is a carryover from the previous-gen CLA and the newer eight-speed dual-clutch eliminates the problems highlighted above.

After my time with the car, I think this top of the range non-AMG engine is the one to go for, but I would advise against the optional 4Matic all-wheel drive system because it adds 60 kilograms (132 pounds) and it isn’t really needed. The car has a very planted and surefooted-feeling front-wheel drive chassis and the all-wheel drive system fitted to the CLA only sends power to the rear wheels when needed (which is when the fronts lose grip, and that doesn’t really happen).

Most of the time, 4Matic will just be ballast to carry around in the CLA. It obviously affects fuel efficiency too - an all-wheel drive-equipped CLA 220 will use around 0.5 l/100km more fuel on average and I don’t think it’s worth the money.

Driving Impressions

  • Handling is safe, surefooted
  • Steering is a bit slow and feels like you have to apply too much lock
  • Comfort levels are far superior to what you may have experienced in the old CLA
  • The cabin is very quiet at high speeds
  • Overall, it doesn’t feel especially sporty, but geared more towards comfort instead
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Having driven a very similar version of the old CLA (most of that was outside the city, on lots of twisty country and mountain roads where I really got to experience its handling), I thought I knew what to expect from the second-generation CLA. However, nothing prepared me for just how much more comfortable it has become, compared to the old car.

My tester did have adaptive dampers whose comfort setting really made a difference, but even in Sport mode, the car felt considerably less jittery over rougher roads than the old one.

This is a big improvement, even though it does come at the cost of some lost agility - the previous car had hot hatch-like handling characteristics (thanks to its harder setup), and you felt like you could lean on it more in the corners.

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This new CLA, with its 63-millimeter wider front track and 55-millimeter wider rear track over the normal A-Class, does feel planted and surefooted, but from an enthusiast’s standpoint, it feels less entertaining to drive. It’s as if Mercedes has given it too much of a soft edge now and some of the joy of driving the old model has been lost.

Another point that surprised me was the steering. Newer premium cars require you to input less and less steering lock, and I’m not just talking about variable ratio setups. Whenever I drive a more modern Mercedes or BMW, after I take it back and I get back in my own (10 year-old) car, I have to readjust to adding more lock when turning the wheel. I did not experience this after parting ways with the CLA 220 - its steering feels old school and, if I’m honest, it’s not quite as sharp or as tactile as you’d like it to be; the old CLA did this better, I think and now it feels a bit too relaxed for my taste.

2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 220 AMG Line - Driven
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On the other hand, the chassis feels very planted and surefooted. The closest other driving experience I’ve had recently was driving a MINI Cooper five-door, but without that car’s pin-sharp (almost twitchy) steering response.

And in this respect, it seems as if the platform Mercedes has built the CLA around has more to give, but in its current state of tune, it’s geared more towards comfort.

But the rest of the package feels sporty and if only the steering was sharper, it would completely transform the driving experience. I mean the car hardly leans in corners, it has great aero and the engine, even the 190 horsepower version I tested, pulls very strongly and sounds satisfyingly angry when you rev it out. They did nine tenths of the job, but the steering lets the side down for me; the car’s bias towards comfort is plainly clear.


2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 220 AMG Line - Driven
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In Europe, you can have the new CLA from just under €32,000 - that gets you a CLA 180, with 136 horsepower, a six-speed manual gearbox and not much in the way of options. You, for instance, only get the smaller digital gauge cluster and infotainment screens. The base price for the CLA 220 that I drove is around €37,000, but with options, my tester costs €55,000.

Its price was pushed up by the AMG Line pack (€2,950), the parking pack that includes the 360-degree around view system (€1,340), the panoramic glass sunroof (€930), the Burmester premium audio (€665), the adaptive dampers (€700) and the large digital gauge cluster (€450), among others.

In the U.S., the 2020 CLA is on average around $3,500 more expensive than the first-gen model. Only the top of the range CLA 250 is available stateside, with a starting price of $37,645, and while it does come well equipped, extras will push its price closer to $50,000 if you want a top spec example.


BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe

2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe
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BMW is readying the only real direct competitor for the Mercedes-Benz CLA - its first ever 2-Series Gran Coupe, a sleek premium four-door with front-wheel drive and frameless doors. Its design is nowhere near as sleek and teardrop-like as the CLA’s - it looks more butch and aggressive - but it is clearly BMW’s response to Mercedes’ small streamlined head-turner.

And just like Mercedes, BMW has based its 2 Series GC on the same front-wheel drive-biased platform that underpins the all-new 1 Series (as well as a series of MINI models). We can’t speak for how good the result is, but if it drives anything like the 1 Series hatch or a MINI, then it will surely be more fun to drive than the CLA. Theoretically, BMW will improve the handling even more compared to the 1-Series, so the 2 Series GC could turn out to be a really sweet driving front-wheel drive package.

Read our full speculative review on the 2020 BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe

Audi A3 Sedan

2017 - 2018 Audi A3 Sedan High Resolution Exterior
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The Audi A3 wasn’t conceived as a direct CLA rival, because it’s not a special sporty or sleek model - it’s just the three-box A3 that just happens to look quite pleasant. It has to be said that Audi really nailed the A3 sedan’s proportions - it is a pretty car to behold from any angle, particularly the rear three-quarter view. And it drives well too, at least as well if not better than the CLA and it offers more room inside too.

However, realistically the A3 sedan is more of an A-Class sedan rival, and that car has the matching interior room and practicality that the CLA lacks. Its interior does feel premium (with better materials than either the CLA or the A-Class), there is a wide array of available powertrains and because of its subdued styling, it’s less obvious and you don’t stick out driving it, like you do when you’re at the wheel of a CLA - then you really can’t escape people’s stares - the CLA is a gaze-magnet, so for the people who wouldn’t want that in their lives, the A3 Sedan is a great choice.

Read our full review on the 2019 Audi A3 Sedan


2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 220 AMG Line - Driven
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Mercedes has shifted focus for the CLA with the model’s second generation. Whereas the previous version felt like a bit of a hot hatch in its peppier versions, the new car just seems more relaxed and comfortable whichever version you happen to experience. I was honestly expecting my CLA 220 AMG Line to be sharper, stiffer and more direct feeling, but what I experienced instead was a swift cruiser with character and confidence.

The my CLA tester handled great, tackling corners with minimal (almost nonexistent) body roll, a surefooted feel and enough power from its 2.0-liter engine to power out the other side. It was an interesting feeling driving the new CLA, a different feeling compared to what the previous generation model offered - with its extra focus on comfort, it will be a better daily car, but having lost its predecessor’s sharp edge, when you do eventually take it up to a mountain road, it won’t be as satisfying to throw around.

Nothing can beat the way the second-gen CLA looks, though. Well, nothing aside from the larger and equally striking CLS, but that’s so much more expensive that it’s not even worth mentioning in the same company. Essentially, what you’re getting is a car that looks like the CLS, but for a lot less money. The CLA is a dramatic looking car, both inside and out, and it drives well enough for most people - its handling won’t set your heart alight, but it is certainly more than alright.

And besides, if you want sharper handling and faster CLA models, Mercedes sells the CLA 35 and CLA 45 models, both of which have sharpened up handling, more power, standard all-wheel drive and a more dramatic visual makeover both inside and out. Non-AMG CLAs are really more cars to be seen in, cars designed for swift, comfortable cruising and cars whose sexy frameless doors you can swing open whenever you want and feel like a million bucks climbing out as onlookers secretly envy you.

After my first day with the car, I really thought I didn’t get what it was about. I compared it to the C-Class and I couldn’t understand why anybody would choose the CLA over the rear-wheel drive C-Class (which in my mind was a “real” Mercedes). But after spending more time with it and getting to know the CLA, I do understand it and think there is a place for it in Mercedes’ range. Buy it if you like the looks, but don’t expect it to be as good to drive or comfortable as the larger C-Class. Be aware you are compromising on space and handling (to a degree, because the C-Class is nicer to drive) and make sure you know you’re buying it mostly for the way it looks, as well as how it makes you feel, and you will not regret your purchase.

  • Leave it
    • Steering is too slow and it diminishes the car’s sporty credentials
    • Opt for the CLA 250 if you want real performance
    • Headroom for rear passengers makes it a hard sell
    • There’s something not quite right with its design, when viewed from a rear three-quarter perspective

Further reading

2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA Exterior
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Read our in-depth review of the 2019 Mercedes-Benz CLA

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 Unveiled with 300 HP and Four-Door Coupe Luxury Exterior
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Read everything we know about the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35

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