Enter the 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA, the second generation of the vehicle that moved a considerable 750,000 units worldwide and, at least commercially, all but proved the naysayers wrong. The new car no longer hits the first gen's sub-$30,000 price tag — now it slots above the $32,500 A-Class, which is powered by a 188-horsepower engine versus this CLA's 221-hp mill. The CLA is also sleeker but less voluminous than the A-Class, with a swept back roofline that cuts rear headroom, a form-over-function tradeoff that inspired Mercedes to optimistically call the four-door a "coupe." But there are small-but-special signifiers all around: details like the pillarless doors and more expansive exterior proportions hint at its focus on style over strict functionality, at least compared to the A-Class. The CLA has also grown in footprint and interior volume compared to the original car, with nearly 2 more inches of length and a 2.48-inch increase in front track for a hunkered-down look and improved handling.
While the CLA's sheetmetal has cleaned up nicely with the redux, the interior arguably benefits even more from the update. It's still relatively blocky and not particularly flowing or sensual, but the cabin now feels more modern and sophisticated — if slightly tight in the rear seats for 6-footers. Two widescreen 7-inch displays dominate the dashboard (available 10.25-inch screens are even more impactful), while a narrow row of hard buttons for HVAC controls help de-clutter the otherwise sparse cockpit.
Mercedes-Benz's new MBUX interface, which first debuted on the A-Class, uses voice commands to control a host of variables. Say "Hey Mercedes," and the system listens up with a Siri-like graphic depiction of soundwaves appearing on the screen. MBUX works fairly intuitively, especially for a system that has such broad command over everything from navigation and climate control to queries about local restaurants and general knowledge. The system even recognizes the voice that initiated the request so it doesn't mistake passenger chatter for follow-up questions. Just don't expect to mention the Daimler brand without the system jumping in and expecting a command.
The only available verbal command to launch MBUX is "Hey Mercedes," though voice activation can be deactivated entirely in the so-called Linguatronic menu. MBUX also uses gesture recognition for simple tasks; for instance, reach toward the rear-view mirror and the reading light illuminates. More specific vehicle functions can be personalized by holding your hand in a "sideways V."
The interior's techy features are complemented by some authentically finished trim like open-pore wood and brushed aluminum. The overall feel is reassuringly substantial in a way the original CLA wasn't. Seats are comfortable enough for all-day drives, though they don't feel quite as premium as pricier Mercedes models.
The mild-mannered 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder means you won't confuse the CLA 250 with a land rocket any time soon, but it at least becomes livelier when switched to Sport mode via a small toggle switch on the center console. Power delivery is predictable, with a modest but consistent 258 lb-ft torque peak that runs from 1,800 rpm to 4,000 rpm. Lay into the throttle, and you're generally able to perform most of what you'd want to do within the realm of everyday driving, like launching off the line or passing slow-moving traffic. A seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is an unexpected choice for the CLA, especially considering that many manufacturers have been switching to more conventional but increasingly versatile torque converter gearboxes. Regardless, the transmission shifts smoothly and unobtrusively, while paddle shift intervention offers a reasonably brief interval between finger tap and cog swap.
While the recently revealed 302-horsepower AMG version will undoubtedly run circles around the modest CLA 250, the standard model can claim one particularly strong attribute: an impressively solid and playful chassis. The portion of my drive through the hilly suburbs of southern Germany included some tight, single-track paths that might have been better suited for a go-kart than a passenger vehicle. Aided by optional adaptive dampers, my tester felt adept at tussling with the tight corners, feeling responsive and sharp as I escalated speed. The CLA's stability, which is aided by its wide stance, means it's well equipped to turn in and hold a corner. You won't get oodles of sensory information through the steering wheel, but the chassis is communicative enough to encourage driving this four-door like it's a sporty, ahem, coupe.
Autobahn driving reveals a comfortable, quiet cabin and a long list of driver safety and convenience systems. Some are useful and well executed, like the route-based adaptive cruise control that adjusts speed to get you smoothly through curves, toll booths, and exit roads, and the Active Lane Change assist that smoothly transitions the car over to the next lane when summoned. Also well done is the augmented reality navigation system, which overlays street name graphics over a camera view of upcoming turns. What could have been a potentially confusing interface is actually quite intuitive, and makes it easy to figure out how to thread through potentially complicated intersections.
Less successful: the lane keeping assist system, which responds to perceived drifting by activating the brakes on one side and pulling the car back into a lane. The system was inadvertently triggered more than once during my drive; though it could theoretically save the life of someone who falls asleep at the wheel (as could the standard Attention Assist system, which monitors driver fatigue), I found it annoying enough that I eventually dug through the vehicle settings menu and disabled it.
The 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA reflects a significant evolution from the attractively priced four-door that debuted in 2013. Sure, it's grown in size and price, but it has also been packed with considerably more features and technology than before. The chassis has become more refined and capable, and yes, the upcoming AMG version will undoubtedly be a more compelling offer for drivers who just wanna go fast. But unlike its first iteration, the success of the new CLA will hinge less on how it sways brand perception and more on issues like reliability and owner satisfaction. Mercedes-Benz has already done the hard work of breaking into this more accessible segment, and is now positioned to reap those rewards by attracting even more buyers to the brand.