I’ll be totally honest. I was fully expecting to hate everything about this car. For better or worse, the CLA has generated more controversy and opinions than any other Mercedes-Benz in recent history. Admirers have praised it for its customizability, sharp, “baby CLS”, coupe-like styling and lower price tag, making it easier than ever to own a Benz. Critics have slammed it for its interior, powertrain, and (blasphemy!) front-wheel drive, labeling it as a disgrace to the prestigious Mercedes-Benz name. After a year on the market, reading numerous reviews with varying opinions, and seeing quite a few on the road, I thought it was about time to head over to Mercedes-Benz of Hanover to experience the CLA for myself and hopefully form a decisive opinion.
Entering its cockpit, I was well-prepared for an engulfment of cheap, grainy plastics, hard-bottomed seats, and an overall sense of sterility. The silver CLA I test drove (in the first picture), was actually a leftover 2014 model that MB of Hanover was using for demos and test drives. It featured an all-black interior, which was a bit monotonous for my own tastes. Thankfully, a large swath of burl walnut, white door stitching, and plenty of brushed aluminum accents added some warmth and contrast. This red showroom model I photographed features black ash wood in the place of my tester’s burl walnut.
For those not favoring all-black interiors, Mercedes does offer beige, brown, gray, and red/black interiors, as well as several other wood, metal, and carbon fiber trim choices for the CLA. Multi-color ambient lighting can also be added as a standalone option for only $155.
The body-hugging seats were soft and supportive, with the driver’s 12-way power adjustments conveniently in Mercedes’ usual upper door panel location. Even as someone familiar with Mercedes’ MB-Tex leatherette, I was forced to ask the salesman whether the upholstery was synthetic or the real deal. Turns out it wasn’t “real leather”, but even I could’ve been fooled.
Concerning the quality of plastics, I couldn’t find much difference between the CLA’s interior and those of other modern Benzes short of the S-Class. Sure, there isn’t quite the liberal amount of wood and leather-covered surfaces found in its pricier siblings, but this is no different than any of the CLA’s competitors from other luxury brands. Additionally, all of the CLA’s switchgear is lifted straight out of other, more expensive cars in Mercedes’ lineup.
Shifting Mercedes’ somewhat confusing (but familiar to me) shift-lever into drive and slowly pulling out of the parking lot, I was once again ready to be underwhelmed. With its a curb weight of 3,395 pounds (in 4MATIC form) and its 2.0L turbo I4 generating 208 horsepower, this equates to 16.32 pounds per horsepower – not quite a spectacular figure on paper.
Yet as I rounded the onramp onto Route 3, the CLA effortlessly accelerated up to 70mph, with no noticeable lag from its 7-speed dual-clutch transmission. Even in ECO-mode, passing was a breeze, as the CLA delivered plenty of charge on demand. In all sorts of driving conditions, the CLA250 4MATIC feels extremely light on its feet, delivering a pleasantly “zippy” feel from behind the wheel.
The CLA’s handling was also a pleasant surprise. Steering is decidedly “sporty”, providing excellent feedback with less of the “steer by finger” feel of several other recent Mercedes models I’ve driven. Its ride quality was also nicely composed on its standard 17-inch wheels. The CLA additionally benefits from the same suspension of other Mercedes. This equates to a well-balanced ride that soaks up the bumps while still providing plenty of feel for the road.
Additionally, its front-wheel drive doesn’t pose a significant compromise, as 4MATIC all-wheel drive is not only offered, but is found on virtually every new Mercedes sold in northern states. In fact, when it comes to the CLA’s faults, there was little that glaringly stood out. I only really found two things displeasing about the CLA. First and more minor, were its Recaro-like buckets’ fixed headrests. While they do add to the car’s sporty aura, they’re just not to my personal preference, reminding me of the front buckets in old Chrysler minivans.
My main grip with this car is its poor outward visibility. The coupe-like styling, with its high belt lines and thick C-pillars make for a slightly claustrophobic feeling. Additionally, its rear headrests (also fixed) severely impede visibility through the already small rear windshield. I wouldn’t want to attempt backing into a space without this car’s available back-up camera.
Having driven a previous-generation 2014 C300 Sport on several occasions, I can confidently say I prefer this Mercedes in every way. Despite riding on a front-wheel drive platform and having 25 percent less horsepower, the CLA250 was much more entertaining to drive. Both interiors were equally comfortable and luxurious, but I actually found the CLA’s materials to be better, with greater excitement in its design.
Comparing the CLA to the 2015 C-Class is another story, but in elevating the C-Class in size, price, and luxury, Mercedes has left a significant gap at the bottom of its lineup, which the CLA-Class confidently fills. Despite this, the CLA has gotten somewhat of a bad rap. While it’s true that it “lowers” the Mercedes-Benz brand’s exclusivity, allowing for more of us “commoners” to have a chance of ownership, adding the CLA to its lineup isn’t much different from what other high-volume luxury brands are currently doing or what M-B has done with entry-level models in the past.
My final verdict: The CLA250 proved an unexpected delight in the class of entry-level luxury cars. It offers an engaging driving experience, well-crafted interior, and long list of class-competitive luxury, technology, and performance features. By all means is this a “real Mercedes-Benz”.