Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class

MUNICH – With this second-generation 2020 CLA-Class, Mercedes is moving its compact four-door coupe up a few notches in the Benz pecking order. Introduced in North America as a 2013 model, the first-gen CLA provided a stylish entry point to brand, but now that the A-Class sedan has taken up its post as Benz’s entry-level vehicle, the CLA heads uptown to slot in between the A-Class and C-Class.

And while the outgoing CLA did indeed feel entry-level – almost a wannabe Merc with its plasticky interior and flinty ride – this all new 2020 iteration is completely worthy of the giant three-pointed-star that is parked on its grille. It goes down the road with refinement and sophistication that the old CLA could only dream of, and its interior, like the new A-Class on which it is based, is a high-quality effort sporting Merc’s latest voice-responsive MBUX interface.

Canadian CLAs, which start arriving the third quarter of 2019, will be equipped with 4Matic all-wheel drive and a seven-speed 7G-DTC dual-clutch transmission. Power comes from a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder making 221 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Standard is the AMG styling package that adds some racier body bits, lowered non-adaptive suspension, 18-inch wheels, and bigger brakes.

This 2020 version, riding on the new A-Class platform, shares that car’s wheelbase (a 28 mm stretch) and sees track increases of 63 mm front/55 mm rear over the outgoing CLA. It’s 50 mm longer overall too, but height remains the same. Visually, the new CLA keeps the old CLA’s dramatic profile, yet it is rendered with more elegance and maturity – fewer creases and more pronounced rear haunches. The AMG “diamond” grille now cants forward, and at the back we see new two-piece taillights. The licence plate frame moves from the trunk to the bumper, and the trunk, now hands-free and foot-operated, has a wider opening.

It’s on the inside where this gen-two CLA takes its quantum leap. Yes, Mercedes moved plenty of the old CLAs – its price point and sexy styling were big draws – yet even when it was launched the cabin felt a class behind of what you’d expect from Benz. No more of that here. The 2020 CLA’s interior impresses with bold design, high-quality materials, obsessive tolerances and, oh yes, the acreage of digital real estate we’ve come to expect from Benz of late.

Stretching across the dash is a new free-standing glass panel that replaces the old analogue gauge cluster and smallish iPad-like screen. It houses the digital instrument cluster and infotainment display, with the number of pixels illuminated hinging on your budget. By way of explanation, the CLA comes standard with a pair of 7-inch displays within this screen, which leave some blank spaces as a constant reminder of your… er, frugality. Opt for the Premium Package and those displays stretch to 10.25 inches, essentially filling out the entire panel. The screen’s graphics are impressively pin-sharp, and a row of real buttons below the trio of round vents give analogue access to HVAC function.

And on to Mercedes’ new MBUX interface that replaces the long-serving COMAND – a system that dates back to 1999. MBUX is modelled on the new digital servants that aid (invade?) our lives (Siri, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa), and is awakened by blurting “Hey Mercedes” at any point during your drive. MBUX responds with “What can I help you with?” and then gamely caters to such commands as “I’m cold”, “Tell me a joke”, “Play Coldplay”, “Find the nearest Ethiopian restaurant”, or “How much does an elephant weigh?” with all the digital intelligence it can muster. Some seemingly simple requests can flummox it, so it’s no Siri or Alexa just yet, but it’s a start. As a Benz engineer explained, computational power in a car is expensive, but much cheaper in the cloud. Additionally, cloud-based systems are updatable and expandable. Of course, this requires a data link, which Mercedes provides for three years with MBUX – the average length of a lease term.

MBUX is always learning your preferences and adapting to them, and only reacts to the voice that last addressed it with “Hey Mercedes”. The problem is, if you utter “Mercedes” at any time in a conversation, the voice within the dash jumps to attention.

The COMAND system’s rotary controller is ditched for a touchpad with haptic feedback, and you can also access most functions via a couple of thumb swipe pads on the steering wheel spokes. Sure, it all takes some practice, but it’s eons ahead of the creaky old COMAND. The thumb pads let you keep your hands on the steering wheel where they belong, or you can also poke away at the screen if you must. Interestingly, MBUX is Mercedes’ first application of a touchscreen.

The CLA can be had with most of the luxury gizmos found in the flagship S-Class such as fragrance dispenser, top-end Burmester audio, headup display, a full suite of driver aids and “comfort programs” that tailor music, fragrance, temp, and seat functions to the desired mood. Another new feature is the Energizing Coach that gives you exercises to do in your seat while driving, and can be paired with wearable fitness devices, thus using “your vital signs to suggest the appropriate comfort program.” We kid you not.

And while on the subject of party tricks, semi-autonomous driving capability is on the menu. Also available is Merc’s nifty new “Augmented Reality” navigation that functions at lowers speeds and when coming to an intersection. It shoots a real-time wide-angle camera view of the road ahead on the centre screen, overlaid with navigation info like directional arrows, street names, and house numbers.

The cars we drove here in Germany were equipped with air suspension – something we won’t get in Canada. That, combined with the smooth roads, did not give us a definitive take on the CLA’s ride quality, but it’s fair to assume even with Canada’s more sporty AMG set up, the road manners of the 2020 CLA with be considerably more Benz-like than that of the outgoing model. Some might miss the old car’s eager, scrappy handling, but certainly not the road noise and brittle ride.

The twin-scroll turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder pulls in a smooth, linear fashion, and the seven-speed twin-clutch will slur the gears or play along with quick responses to paddle inputs when in Sport mode. Handling is predictable and secure, and in true Benz tradition, the 2020 CLA hummed along the Autobahn at over double our Canadian speed limit with nary a wisp of drama.

With its swooping roofline, back seat room has never been the CLA’s strong suite. Such is the price we pay for high style. With the 2020 we get more rear shoulder room (44 mm) but legroom and headroom remain essentially the same.

There is no Canadian pricing as yet for the 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 4Matic, but with a decently optioned A 220 sedan coming in around $40,000, we can expect this newly “aspirational” four-door coupe that bristles with Mercedes’s latest technology to run well north of that once the requisite Premium Package, and a few more “necessities” has been ticked off. The difference is, this new CLA will feel worth it.