• The 2020 CLA is the second generation of the entry-level model launched in 2013
  • CLA is now positioned above the new A-Class, which shares the same platform
  • Launch model gets 221-horsepower 4-cylinder; 302-horsepower AMG model to follow
  • Goes on sale late 2019

 

The CLA was a colossal risk for Mercedes-Benz when it first debuted in 2013. Positioned as an affordable way to get younger buyers into the German luxury brand, the CLA launched with expressive styling, a ballyhooed Super Bowl ad campaign, and most importantly, a sub-$30,000 price of entry.

The rest was history. The first generation Mercedes-Benz CLA sold three-quarters of a million cars worldwide, and teed up the sequel, which has spun off two separate models: the A-Class sedan (which starts at $32,500), and the sleeker CLA, which has a swept back roofline and smaller, lower interior proportions. Price has yet to be announced for the 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA, but expect it to slot above the A-Class, which gets more conventional styling and a milder powerplant.

Tons of Tech

The world has changed since the Mercedes-Benz CLA first saw the light of day some six years ago, and the second generation model gets up to speed on the latest automotive tech -- and a few new innovations, too. First and foremost is MBUX, short for Mercedes-Benz User Experience. MBUX debuted on the A-Class and links the CLA’s multimedia system with a voice-activated personal assistant. Call out “Hey Mercedes,” and the system listens up for everything from driving directions to sports news. If you’re not feeling particularly verbal, the system also recognizes hand and arm gestures and can be programmed to respond to shortcuts like a hand making a sideways “V” shape.

The CLA’s next-gen technology extends into virtually every aspect of the vehicle, but particularly in the area of driver safety. For instance, the adaptive cruise control system not only maintains a safe distance from traffic ahead, but also adapts vehicle speed based on upcoming turns and intersections. Adaptive cruise also works with Active Lane Change assist to glide over to the next lane at the driver’s request. Active Brake Assist anticipates slowing traffic ahead, and Active Steering Assist keeps the vehicle within its lane through gentle curves without driver input (though the system will time out if no hands are detected on the steering wheel after approximately 15 seconds).

Future-Friendly Cabin

All that tech is presented on a widescreen display consisting of a 7-inch digital instrument panel paired with a 7-inch touch screen. Opt for the optional pair of 10.25-inch screens, and the driver and front passenger get a clear, panoramic display that easily manages most of the vehicle’s functions. Hard buttons have largely been eradicated, save key items like the narrow row of HVAC controls which sit just below the widescreen.

Virtually everything can be managed via the touch screen, which sometimes requires digging into vehicle menus. Additionally, a small touchpad ahead of the central armrest can be used for most functions. When all else fails, you can also summon the MBUX personal assistant by saying, “Hey Mercedes.” The system is smart enough to discern voices and maintain a line of communication with the person who initiated the contact, in spite of other voices in the car. Between the touch screen, which responds quickly and intuitively, the touchpad, and the voice prompts, the Mercedes-Benz CLA’s vast array of electronic abilities are relatively easy to access. Our only gripes pertain to the small stuff, like the fact that advancing a music track requires tapping the top of the touchpad and swiping right or left. Though the largely de-cluttered dashboard looks great, it’s minor tasks like tapping and swiping for track selection that sometimes make us wish for few more hard buttons.

The technological interface is surrounded by a cabin that’s been stepped up considerably over the original CLA’s. Optional trims range from open-pore wood to brushed aluminum, and they have a premium look and feel that complements the surrounding space nicely. Though the trim materials feel properly sophisticated, there’s also a prevailing sense of functionality to the interior, with large, turbine-inspired air conditioning vents front and center and an otherwise sparse layout. The front seats on our tester felt more supportive and sporty than plush or soft, but proved comfortable enough for our day-and-a-half-long driving sessions. However, the real differentiator between the A-Class and CLA is the rear seating, with less headroom in the latter making the space a bit snug for taller occupants. I’m 5’11” and had about an inch of space above my head; if you frequently find yourself driving bigger folks around in the back seat, the A-Class’s added space would make more sense than the slope-roofed CLA.

Swept-Back Styling

Though larger in virtually every dimension than the original CLA, the new model has elegant lines that make it look like a miniature version of Mercedes-Benz’s midsize CLS. Mercedes calls both four-doors a “coupe” for their low sloping roofline, which compromises some rear headroom in the interest of sleek style.

Despite the CLA’s decidedly form-over-function approach, it manages to be remarkably aerodynamically efficient: its drag coefficient of .23 is just behind the A-Class’s .22 figure, which is the lowest figure of any production sedan in the world.

Class of 2020: The New and Redesigned Cars, Trucks and SUVs

Agility, Not Outright Athleticism

While the 221-horsepower CLA250 is gruntier than the 188-horsepower A-Class, it might not produce enough power to satisfy speed hungry drivers. Both front-drive and 4Matic all-wheel-drive 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 models launch to 60 mph in a respectable 6.3 seconds. However, those seeking a quicker sled might want to wait for the forthcoming AMG model, which will do the deed in under five clicks.

The CLA250’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine pairs well with the 7-speed dual-clutch automatic engine, which works smoothly in automatic mode or can be shifted manually via the steering wheel-mounted paddles. While the CLA250’s powertrain won’t set the world on fire, its chassis and optional adaptive suspension system offers a bit of redemption for those who might feel otherwise let down by the mild power output. Find a small, technical road and the CLA comes to life: its compact size and agile suspension make it feel maneuverable and lithe, with just enough feedback to let the driver know how the car is communicating with the road.

Our time behind the wheel of the 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA also revealed that it’s well-suited for long distance drives, with a comfortable, quiet cabin offering a pleasant respite from the outside world. Though hushed, the interior didn’t feel too insulated either, thanks to its large panoramic roof that comes as standard equipment. In all, the CLA is a well-executed compact sedan that plays a stylish counterpoint to Mercedes-Benz’s entry-level four-door A-Class.

If you can't wait for the redesigned 2020 CLA, consider the outgoing 2019 CLA. See what's for sale right now at a dealership near you. 

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