2020 Mercedes CLA

PHOENIX — Mercedes first introduced the CLA for 2014 as the brand’s entry-level vehicle, with a starting price of $30,825. It was targeted at younger buyers, thinking they would rather drive the three-pointed star rather than a Toyota Camry or Honda Accord for a similar price. Get them into the Mercedes family and eventually they’ll upgrade to a C, E or S-Class down the road as their career meets with promotional success.

That thinking of course, would necessitate more than just the price tag and needed to deliver behind the wheel as well. Some thought the CLA would cheapen the brand, especially since cost cutting would be necessary and the fact that it was Mercedes’ first front-wheel drive vehicle to be sold in the U.S.

Over the years the CLA, has sold fairly well, but not without noted criticism, most of it directed at its economy-look and feel interior, cramped back seat, slouchy looking exterior design and less-than-stellar mechanicals like fussy shifting dual-clutch transmission and stiff ride.

For 2020, Mercedes has introduced its vastly improved, second generation CLA, fixing many of the things that bothered us with the first generation. The new CLA now slots just above the all-new A-Class sedan, introduced last year, and below the C-Class in Mercedes’ sedan lineup. Essentially it’s a bit more upgraded version of the A-Class riding on the exact same platform but with slightly more luxury upgrades. They share many of the same “bones,” including basically the same interior and a bit more powerful 2.0-liter engine.

The new CLA includes numerous improvements and added features, most notably a nicely upgraded interior over the previous “economy-look” of the previous generation. The new interior is nicely styled, which thoroughly helps dress it up. Our test CLA came equipped with new MBUX infotainment system with the optional widescreen 10.25-inch center display digital instrument cluster that looks attractive and is loaded with features.

The new system integrates dual-touchpad equipped steering wheel and a center console-mounted control pad. Unfortunately, the system proved to be complex, with most operating controls difficult to find and fussy to use once we did. Especially annoying is the system’s voice recognition feature that begs an audible command – much like Apple’s Siri – whenever the name “Mercedes” is spoken, even in normal conversation. Thankfully the system can be turned off.

Upholstery is finished in black MB-Tex, Mercedes speak for faux leather vinyl seating. Front seat room was ample with plenty of seat and steering wheel adjustments. Seats are supportive but our test CLA came with sport seats with non-adjustable fixed head restraints that we found less comfortable than traditional, adjustable head restraints.

The rear seat is especially tight and most adults will find it difficult to get in and out. Headroom is compromised, given the sloping roof that sharply angles into the trunk. Our CLA did not come equipped with keyless entry which allows the driver to lock or unlock the car’s doors by simply touching the door handle while keeping the key fob in your pocket or purse. The driver must press the lock or unlock button on the key fob to gain entry or lock the vehicle.

Mercedes calls the four-door only CLA a coupe and it’s longer, wider and overall a bit larger. Exterior styling is a huge improvement from last year and now more closely mimics the larger sedans in the Mercedes lineup. The trunk is roomy but when opened via the button on the key fob it near violently springs open. Closing the trunk is negotiated by an indentation inside the trunk lid that’s difficult to get a grip on. It’s just easier to pull down on the exterior top of the trunk lid.

Our CLA was powered by the standard 221-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder — 13 more horsepower than last year — and is teamed with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and front-wheel drive. All-wheel drive is available for an extra $2,000.

On the road, we found engine performance adequate for most driving whether around-town in stop-and-go traffic, or on the highway with adequate power to get up to speed or when passing. Mercedes says it will clock a zero-to-60 mph time of 6.3 seconds, which is appreciably quick. However, we were disappointed with the noticeable momentary hesitation turbo-lag when accelerating. We also found the transmission can be hesitant to downshift, resulting in jerky feeling.

The CLA’s ride and handling is much improved over the first generation but is still on the firm side and lacks the handling, quietness and refinement one would expect from a Mercedes-Benz.

As expected, with a six-year span between the first and second generation, CLA the base price has increased and is now up to $36,650 and we think it a very good deal. However, as is the case for any Mercedes, checking the option boxes is expensive and the CLA can quickly top $55,000. But is it worth the thousands more than the old outgoing CLA or that much better than a stylish sedan from Honda, Toyota or Kia for a similarly equipped for about $10,000 less? That’s a decision you’ll need to wrestle with.

Vital Stats
Base Price: $36,650
Price as Tested: $42,195
Engine – Transmission: 2.0-liter, 221-hp turbocharged 4-cylinder teamed with a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
Fuel Economy: 25/35/28 mpg City/Highway/Combined
Seating: 5

Where Built: Kecskemet, Hungary

Crash Test Results: Not yet rated by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Competes With:
Audi A3
BMW 2-Series
Genesis G70
Kia Stinger
Lexus IS
Volkswagen Arteon
Volvo S60

Fab Features:
Stylish new interior
Advanced (optional) high-tech features
The cachet of driving a Benz

— Jim Prueter