When Mercedes added the CLA to its lineup last year, it brought two distinctions: It was (and still is) the smallest car in the Mercedes lineup, and it was the first front-wheel-drive model the brand has sold in the U.S. The CLA is priced, styled, and engineered to grab eyeballs and younger buyers.
It's also up against stiff competition, most of it new. Audi just dropped a new A3, now shaped like a sedan in the U.S. BMW recast the 1-Series as the 2-Series, updating the interior and giving it more conventional coupe styling. Acura has the well-meaning but unimpressive ILX, and there's the handsome, supple, and quiet Buick Verano. In its hotter CLA45 AMG version, the little Mercedes also competes with the new BMW M235i.
The CLA is a scaled-down version of the prettiest Mercedes design on sale today, the CLS, and that's its biggest ace. It may be as short as a Civic, but its elegant profile and frameless door glass counter the compact-car blahs, and chip away visually at the front end's height. The sporty cockpit lifts its inspiration from the SLK, not the C-Class, and the mix-and-match aesthetic works extremely well. That is, until you scan the LCD screen planted awkwardly on the dash, instead of integrated into the center stack. The tacked-on look does afford a lower surrounding dash, but it still looks just like that, tacked-on.
Two engines are offered in the CLA, a pair of related 2.0-liter turbocharged fours. Both use seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmissions.
The CLA 250's makes 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, which help end it to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds and on to a 149-mph top speed. Though small, the engine manages to sound good. The transmission wants to be in sport or manual mode, for quicker shift responses, though: even with paddle controls, it gets caught off-guard; a stomp on the gas in high gear can require a few seconds of waiting for the transmission to choose the right gear and then for the turbo to spool and make power. Fuel economy of 30 mpg combined is easily reachable, though the available all-wheel-drive system shaves a few miles per gallon.
The CLA 45 AMG differs from the 250's engine in almost every way, from block to pistons to turbocharger, to its 26.1 psi of boost. Output shoots to 355 horsepower and 332 lb-ft, 0-60 mph times fall to 4.5 seconds, and the top speed rises to 155 mph. All-wheel drive is standard, and a reprogrammed dual-clutch with three driving modes handles the power much more effectively than in the CLA 250, although it too can require some waiting when dropping down from high gear. The main difference is, with all of that torque, the AMG is less likely to have to downshift as much.
The CLA's tightly tuned steering and ride break from Mercedes tradition. The variable-effort, variable-ratio electric steering is full of weight and quick to respond, but largely without feedback. Two out of three is good, by electric-steering standards. The CLA's independent suspension gets a standard "sport" setting in the U.S. and 17-inch run-flat tires that are likely to be rare, since 18-inch wheels are just $500 extra. Given our experience with a CLA 250 on 18-inch wheels, we'd suggest seeking out that standard wheel setup for a test drive.
The CLA45 AMG is another proposition entirely, and we're not sure its ride isn't a touch more refined, even with optional 19-inch wheels and tires and an available AMG sport suspension. It corners ruthlessly flat, dials out most of the CLA's native understeer, and if it suffers in comparison with the wild-hair, rear-drive, V-8 AMGs of recent vintage...well, what doesn't?
The CLA is 182.3 inches long, with a wheelbase of 106.3 inches. As with most of its competitors, back-seat room is tight, with minimal headroom for medium-sized adults and somewhat difficult entry and exit through the rear doors. Trunk space is good, with a flat load floor, and the CLA has a few useful storage bins in the cabin for small items.
Among its standard safety features, the 2015 CLA carries a Collision Prevention Assist function; using radar, the CLA can alert the driver of upcoming obstacles when it's traveling at more than 4 mph, and can calculate the amount of brake force needed to avoid an impact. Also standard are Attention Assist and its coffee-cup reminder to pull over and avoid drowsy driving, as well as a driver knee airbag. Safety options include adaptive cruise control; blind-spot monitors; lane-keeping assistance; and parking sensors with parking assist. Visibility isn't great to the rear-we hope the rearview camera gets liberated into an inexpensive, stand-alone option in the near future.
The 2015 CLA 250 comes equipped comparably to the more luxurious versions of its competitors. It comes with standard Bluetooth, cruise control, a power driver seat, and MB-Tex (vinyl) upholstery. Smartphone connectivity comes via Mercedes-Benz's mbrace2 and a 5.8-inch screen, while three navigation options will be offered-the most expensive with voice commands, the rearview camera, and real-time traffic. With the Premium package-it bundles an iPod interface with satellite radio, surround sound, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, and a garage door opener-the CLA 250 retails for about $34, 500.
The CLA45 AMG is configured much the same, save for its drivetrain. The base price of $48, 375 leaves room for option packages that include grippy Recaro performance seats, carbon-fiber trim for the exterior and cabin, a black-out trim package, and uprated tires, before it hits an expected average out-the-door price of about $55, 000.
A panoramic sunroof is a stand-alone option on any CLA, as are leather seats, summer tires, parking assist, blind-spot monitors, and heated front seats.
Changes for 2015 include a new steering wheel design and three package additions: The Multimedia Package now includes the seven-inch display, Keyless-Go is now part of the Premium Package, and the Interior Package now includes ambient lighting.