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Road tests

New Mercedes CLA 2023 review: an upmarket and stylish coupe

The updated Mercedes CLA four-door coupe mixes style and tech to good effect

Overall Auto Express Rating

3.5 out of 5

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Verdict

Updates to the Mercedes CLA have boosted it in some places, but spoiled it in others. Ditching the central control panel is the biggest frustration, because not everybody can get along with touchscreens or voice controls, while the touch-sensitive steering wheel buttons are variable in their response. In other respects the CLA still holds appeal – it looks smart, comes with plenty of kit and on the whole is a pleasant and relaxing car to drive.

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If you’re in the market for a small Mercedes, you’re spoiled for choice. There’s the A-Class hatch and saloon, the B-Class small MPV, the GLA and GLB SUVs and the CLA driven here, which comes as a four-door coupe (in Mercedes parlance) or the five-door Shooting Brake estate. All of these models have platforms and powertrains in common, so you just have to pick the one that’s most appropriate for your needs and budget.

However, big changes are coming to the Mercedes small-car line-up. The axe is scheduled to fall on the A and B-Class, leaving the CLA to take the mantle as the non-SUV entry point to a Mercedes range that’s heading further upmarket.

Before that happens, the small models have been given a makeover to see them through to the end of production, and here we’re trying the CLA 200 four-door, which comes with the latest infotainment tech and 48-volt mild-hybrid tech for the first time.

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We call the CLA a four-door because branding it a coupe as Mercedes does seems a bit of a stretch to us. Yes the roof swoops low and the frameless door glass is a sporty addition, but you also get those with a Tesla Model 3, and you wouldn’t call that a coupe.

From the outside, the updates are subtle, with a new ‘star’-design grille being the biggest revision. It’s inside where the main changes take place, with the addition of Mercedes’ latest touch-sensitive steering wheel controls and an updated MBUX 10.25-inch infotainment system. This is now exclusively touchscreen-based, and the pre-facelift car’s Comand central control pad and shortcut buttons have been removed.

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Unfortunately, this is something of a backwards step, because while we’re sure it cuts down on wiring and reduces costs, from a user’s perspective it means that you have to either reach for the touchscreen – which can be a bit far away if your driving position is set back – or use the ‘Hey Mercedes’ voice control system or the touch-sensitive buttons on the steering wheel.

These are logical in their layout, with the controls on the left spoke operating the central screen, and the right spoke buttons used for the driver’s display, but the touch sensitivity can be patchy. Deliberate inputs can fail to be recognised by the system, while at other times settings can change as you’re turning the wheel and accidentally brush against the buttons.

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These are criticisms that we’ve levelled at the A-Class with the same set-up, and it’s made doubly frustrating by the fact there’s a large shallow trinket tray on the centre console where the Comand controller used to be. At least there’s good storage ahead and behind this tray, with a deep cubby featuring a wireless charging pad, cup- holders and USB-C sockets ahead of it, plus another deep storage bin under the central armrest with yet more USB connections.

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Cabin quality can’t be faulted, either. There are plenty of premium materials, including the metal-effect air vents that operate with a satisfying click, while the multi-coloured LED ambient lighting gives the cabin an upmarket feel.

Compromises do have to be made with the CLA, though, and these largely centre around space in the rear. The sloping roofline means access to the back seats is tricky, while headroom is compromised once you’re in. So is legroom, courtesy of the bulky sports seats up front. The CLA is more of a 4+1 layout, too, because the middle seat in the back is narrow.

The CLA 200 driven here comes with a 161bhp 1.3-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine that’s connected to a seven-speed twin-clutch automatic gearbox. The set-up is boosted by a 48-volt mild-hybrid system, but the transition from petrol to electric power at low speeds resulted in some very jerky responses from the system.

The brakes in particular felt inconsistent, with a mix of physical braking, electrical assistance and energy recovery making it difficult to come to a smooth stop.

Moving out of town and on to country roads, and the CLA felt better, with the fast steering delivering quick responses, but not a lot of feedback, while the neutral balance of the chassis and generous grip helped it be mildly entertaining on twisty roads. The engine delivers just enough performance, but isn’t exactly searing, and is quite vocal when it’s pushed, too.

At motorway speeds, our car’s 19-inch wheels added a firm edge to the ride, although not enough for it to be unbearable, and the CLA proved to be a refined high-speed cruiser, where the mild-hybrid system helped it to return impressive fuel economy.

Model:Mercedes CLA 200 AMG Line Premium Plus
Price:£44,975
Powertrain:1.3-litre 4cyl petrol mild hybrid
Power/torque:161bhp/270Nm
Transmission:Seven-speed dual-clutch auto, front wheel drive
0-62/top speed:8.4 seconds/142mph
Economy/CO2:47.9mpg/142g/km
Size (L/W/H):4,692/1,834/1,430mm
On sale:Now
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Web producer

Pete has over 20 years journalistic experience. Having previously worked for Ladbrokes and the Racing Post, he switched from sports writing to automotive journalism when joining Auto Express in 2015.

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