Mercedes CLA review
The Mercedes CLA rivals Audi’s A3 Saloon, and offers sharp looks, an engaging driving experience and a varied engine range
With its swooping, sporty looks, the CLA is part of the recent strategy Mercedes has been following to attract younger buyers. It’s certainly an attractive alternative to premium compact rivals such as the BMW 1 Series or Audi A3, as beneath its head-turning looks, buyers have a range of powerful engines to choose from. The three-pointed star badge on the nose is a big draw, too.
Despite being attractive to look at, generously equipped and good to drive, the CLA suffers from a rather uncomfortable ride – its suspension is too simply firm for poorly maintained British roads. The car is much better suited to smooth tarmac, and overall it lacks the cruising ability of larger models in the Mercedes line-up.
The Mercedes CLA is a four-door coupe version of the A-Class hatchback. But rather than looking like an A-Class with a boot, it’s more like a shrunken replica of the stylish Mercedes CLS. And just like that model, it’s also offered as a five-door Shooting Brake estate.
The CLA is a front-wheel-drive sports saloon, which bucks the long-standing Mercedes tradition of creating cars with a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout. It was first revealed as a concept at the Detroit Motor Show early in 2013, before becoming a production reality around a year later. The CLA Shooting Brake debuted on the show stand 12 months after that, with deliveries starting in 2015. All versions of the car are built at the Mercedes factory in Kecskemet, Hungary.
So far, the CLA recipe has proven a success – indeed, Mercedes sold 100,000 examples in its first year in showrooms, making it one of the company’s more notable recent hits. The car has brought a new generation of younger customers to the brand, which accounts for much of its success.
The CLA comes with a selection of three four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engines – including a monstrously powerful 355bhp 2.0-litre in the flagship AMG-engineered CLA 45 – as well as a single diesel with a choice of two power outputs. There’s a six-speed manual gearbox and a seven-speed auto, while top-spec cars can be specified with Mercedes’ 4MATIC four-wheel-drive system.
Trim levels comprise Sport and AMG Sport, while the Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 tops the range. Go for an AMG Sport model, and the aggressive-looking bodykit is virtually identical to the flagship version’s.
Either way, the CLA comes well equipped. There’s a long list of standard safety kit, as well as the latest connectivity features, such as Apple CarPlay – this allows owners to link apps and their music library direct from their iPhone on to the large central infotainment screen.
Engines, performance and drive
Out on the road, the CLA delivers good grip in corners and the steering is progressive and well weighted. Factor in positive turn-in and taut body control, and the Mercedes feels sportier and sharper than its main rival, the Audi A3 Saloon, although it lacks the nimble, rear-wheel-drive feel of a BMW.
Image 2 of 7
There is a downside to this sharp handling, though, and that’s pretty poor ride quality. Thanks to its stiff suspension settings, the way the car thumps over broken surfaces becomes tiring. This is a shame, given that the cabin is well insulated from wind and road noise.
Other gripes concern the seven-speed automatic transmission, which can sometimes take a frustratingly long time to respond and change ratios.
If you opt for a 4MATIC drivetrain with the CLA 250 or CLA 45 AMG, expect to find eye-opening grip but little in the way of added driver engagement. AMG Sport models also come with firmer suspension, which passengers might find uncomfortable.
The Mercedes CLA is available with three petrol engines: a 1.6-litre turbo in the CLA 180, a 2.0-litre turbo hooked up to an auto gearbox and four-wheel drive in the CLA 250 4MATIC, or a 355bhp 2.0-litre turbo in the flagship Mercedes-AMG CLA 45.
The entry-level version has 121bhp and delivers lively performance, reaching 62mph from a standing start in 9.3 seconds. The 2.0-litre petrol makes 208bhp in the CLA 250 and feels a lot faster, completing the benchmark sprint in a very respectable 6.6 seconds. Meanwhile, the AMG flagship version will beat some serious sports cars with its 4.6-second 0-62mph time.
Diesel buyers get the choice of Mercedes’ tried and trusted 2.1-litre engine with 134bhp in the CLA 200d or 174bhp in the CLA 220d. Unfortunately, while both diesels are efficient, they sound pretty gruff compared to rivals from Audi or BMW. Still, performance is decent, especially from the 174bhp version, which claims a time of 7.7 seconds for the sprint from 0-62mph. The 134bhp diesel takes 9.5 seconds.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
It’s not surprising that the most efficient version of the Mercedes CLA is diesel-powered, and our pick of the range for running costs overall is the CLA 220d. When specified in Sport trim, this model claims 67.8mpg fuel economy from its 2.1-litre engine; the higher-spec AMG Sport version promises a marginally poorer 67.3mpg, thanks to its larger alloy wheels. Both cars emit 109g/km of CO2.
Image 3 of 7
The lower-powered CLA 200d emits 105g/km of CO2 and claims 64.2mpg in both Sport and AMG Sport guises when hooked up to the six-speed manual gearbox, while the automatic versions achieve 62.8mpg and 109g/km of CO2.
The 121bhp 1.6-litre petrol engine in the CLA 180 emits 130g/km of CO2 and promises official 50.4mpg economy when fitted with the six-speed manual gearbox. Buyers are looking at improved figures of 125g/km and 52.3mpg with the automatic box.
It’s not surprising that the 2.0-litre petrol engine in the performance-focused CLA 250 AMG Sport and hot Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 is the least efficient in the range. Both models feature Mercedes' 4MATIC four-wheel-drive system, and the 205bhp CLA 250 AMG Sport claims fuel economy of 42.8mpg and emissions of 154g/km. The sizzling straight-line pace of the 355bhp CLA 45 goes hand-in-hand with 165g/km CO2 emissions and claimed economy of only 39.8mpg.
The Mercedes CLA range starts at around £24,000, but you don’t get a lot of kit for the money, and the price will quickly start to rise as you add options.
Depending on spec, the line-up kicks off in insurance groups 20 to 24 for the entry-level Mercedes CLA 180 petrol models. The CLA 200d diesel sits in around group 24, with the CLA 220 CDI in group 27.
If you have to ask how much it costs to insure a Mercedes-AMG CLA 45, you probably can’t afford the premiums for this high-performance group 45 rocketship.
Image 4 of 7
The appeal of Mercedes’ three-pointed star badge should ensure the CLA resists depreciation reasonably well. Our experts predict that diesel models are likely to hold on to their value best, while those with an automatic transmission will retain more of their price than manual versions.
Interior, design and technology
There's no doubt that the striking looks are one of the key selling points of the Mercedes CLA. Take into account the sweeping side creases, tapered rear and the nose of the A-Class, and it wouldn't be unreasonable to suggest it looks like a scaled-down CLS – especially since the larger car recently underwent a facelift that introduced some of the latest Mercedes styling cues.
Whether the styling works as well on the shrunken proportions of the CLA is open to debate, but the car certainly turns more heads than the four-door Audi A3 Saloon. Frameless windows are a nice coupe touch, too. And if imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then the CLS is clearly doing something right, as it’s inspired the lifestyle estate version of the CLA, badged the CLA Shooting Brake.
Inside, the dashboard is identical to that found in the Mercedes A-Class, so you get a smart design dominated by SLS supercar-inspired air vents, a tablet-style screen and a smart, textured leather multifunction steering wheel.
Mercedes also offers an Exclusive Package worth around £2,000, which adds upmarket features such as heated seats, leather upholstery with contrast stitching and aluminium trim.
Look closely around the cabin, though, and there are a few hard plastics here and there so the overall quality of the finish isn't quite up to Audi levels. Still, this isn’t enough to detract from the premium feel of the Mercedes CLA.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
All versions of the Mercedes CLA come with a seven-inch tablet-style central screen. The trouble is, it sits on top of the dash, where it looks like something of an afterthought. It’s not touch-sensitive, either; instead, it’s controlled via Mercedes’ COMAND wheel on the centre console.
Image 6 of 7
Standard kit includes a radio and single CD player, USB and Bluetooth connectivity and wiring for the optional Garmin sat-nav system.
You can also upgrade to the COMAND Online system, which brings an eight-inch display and provides Internet access, 3D navigation, live traffic and MP3 compatibility.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
Get behind the wheel of the Mercedes CLA, and it's clear that the low-slung driving position has been created to help with the sporty feel inside the car. Happily, though, anyone should be able to get comfortable as there's a wide range of seat and steering wheel adjustment.
Up front, there's plenty of storage space dotted around; the electric parking brake frees up room on the centre console for some decent-sized cubbyholes.
Plus, buyers can pick from a long list of options to make the CLA more practical. For around £170, the storage package adds parcel nets in the cabin, a 12V socket in the passenger footwell, storage boxes under the front seats and a sunglasses holder in the overhead panel. For a similar price, an optional rear armrest and ski hatch can be ordered. Privacy glass costs around £230, while run-flat tyres will set you back about £140.
If you want more space without sacrificing style, the CLA Shooting Brake should appeal. It carries a price premium of around £1,000 over the saloon, and increases boot capacity from 470 to 495 litres. Clearly, it’s not a full-on load lugger, but the extra space and arguably more handsome looks mean it’s worth considering.
Image 7 of 7
With so many models and an increasingly complex naming strategy, it’s worth taking a moment to consider where the CLA sits in the Mercedes range. At 4,630mm, it’s under 6cm shorter than a rear-wheel-drive C-Class saloon, but nearly 34cm longer than the front-wheel-drive A-Class five-door with which it shares its platform. An Audi A3 Saloon measures 2,460mm end to end.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
For occupants in the rear, however, things aren't so good. The coupe roofline makes space quite tight, and it's easy for taller passengers to bang their head on the low door frame when getting in and out. On paper, the Mercedes CLA is a five-seater, but the seat in the middle of the rear bench is narrow and the wide transmission tunnel means there's not a great deal of foot space.
Despite the slightly claustrophobic rear, the Mercedes CLA provides plenty of luggage space. There is a 470-litre boot with load securing rings, as well as a foam puncture repair kit which hides under the boot floor. Plus, Mercedes provides split-fold rear seats as standard.
Reliability and Safety
The CLA shares its underpinnings with the Mercedes A-Class, and as the premium compact hatch has been on sale in the UK since the end of 2011, any teething troubles with common components should have been ironed out by now.
Readers ranked Mercedes ninth in the manufacturers’ chart of the Auto Express Driver Power 2014 satisfaction survey. This was four places down on 2013, and the unhappy trend continued in 2015 as the brand slipped to 11th place – although it still finished ahead of fierce rivals Audi and BMW.
Not enough owners responded to our 2015 survey for the CLA to feature, although the A-Class achieved an individual rating of 87.4 per cent, and ranked 100th. However, it scored better for reliability, finishing 62nd out of the top 200 cars in this category. We think it’s safe to assume the CLA is likely to be just as dependable given the technology the cars share.
Image 5 of 7
Standard safety kit on the CLA includes seven airbags and Isofix child seat mountings. Plus, when the car senses an impact, the active bonnet rises 65mm to protect pedestrians from the hard components underneath. All versions also feature Attention Assist, which detects signs of the driver becoming drowsy at the wheel and wakes you up with an alarm and a dashboard message.
Optional extras include lane-keeping assistance with blind spot warnings, and you can also add extra rear side airbags for £400.
All of this safety tech helped the CLA achieve a five-star rating when it underwent its Euro NCAP crash test back in 2013. The car was awarded scores of 91 per cent for adult occupant safety and 75 per cent for child safety. It scored 74 per cent for pedestrian protection, and 81 per cent for its safety assistance systems.
While the three-year warranty Mercedes provides with the CLA is pretty much the bare minimum these days, the good news is that there’s no mileage cap on the package. BMW offers a similar deal, but Audi and Lexus limit their three-year warranties to 60,000 miles. Extended cover options are available on the CLA.
You can get fixed-price servicing deals across the Mercedes range, and they start from £24 per month for two years’ cover. Three and five-year maintenance packages are also available, at higher monthly rates.