Mercedes entry-level car really computes
In Europe, the idea of a Mercedes-Benz for every walk of life is a completely normal thing. Gargantuan S-Class sedans can idle next to compact A-Class taxis, and neither driver thinks twice about it. But over here, we’ve always had this image of Mercedes as the Tiffany of cars—and, you know, Tiffany isn’t supposed to sell affordable jewelry.
In the early 1980s, Stuttgart’s strategists attempted to shift that perception a few degrees. The everyman 190E sedan was a sort of miniaturized E-Class, and back then, I was involved in a controversial comparison of it against the ever-competent Honda Accord. It was another 33 years before Mercedes tested those waters again with the CLA 250.
Our relationship with the CLA hasn’t been all love letters, either—its interior materials are modest, and its drivetrain can be quirky. But its svelte looks and entertaining handling wound up winning enough fans anyway to earn a comeback appearance in this second generation, which I just had the chance to drive.
This time, the CLA won’t be the lone front-drive car in Mercedes’ showrooms—it’ll join the A 220 sedan it’s based on (and which is the 190 E’s direct descendant). The two share platforms, suspensions (struts up front, multilink in back), a seven-speed transmission, front- or all-wheel drive, and most of their interior appointments. However, the CLA gets a dribble of extra sizzle with a more potent, 221-hp (258 lb-ft of torque) turbo 2.0-liter, instead of the A 220’s 188-hp mill, plus a more rakish roofline arched over frameless side-windows—a configuration that MB says converts it into a ‘four-door coupe.’
After driving the 2020 CLA through what felt like every single village in Germany, it’s clear the car’s real message isn’t that it drives better (which it does), or that its interior is fashioned from higher-quality materials (which it is), or that it’s better-looking (for sure). Rather, it’s how the new CLA signals a shift in the way cars are going to be marketed in the future.
I’ll get to that. But first, how’s it drive? It’s good. Better than good. Its steering is accurate, if a little wooden (like most modern cars). Its handling is improved by wider front and rear tracks, new anti-roll bars, and available adaptive shock damping at each corner. It accelerates well, if not blisteringly—maybe 6.1 seconds to 60 mph—urged by 13 more hp, while simultaneously getting better efficiency. Catch the drivetrain off guard, and there’s still a little throttle and gear-change lag, though both are clearly improved. Perhaps brake pedal response is slightly bitey for my taste, but it’s not a big thing, while interior noise is quieter and ride quality is suppler. Almost everything is better by, I don’t know, 34 percent or whatever. Thumbs up.
A big consideration for the CLA is design. It’s a design-y car. And from beak to tailfeathers, it’s been resculpted. There’s a more aggressive overbite up front, and the grill opening is framed by deeper-dropping sides telegraphing a lower center of gravity. Its flanks have been polished down to just one prominent line low along the sides to emphasize length. The rear hips are wider and lead to two-part taillights that now extend horizontally into the trunklid to correct the previous stern’s melted droopiness, and the license plate has descended from the trunklid to the bumper.
The CLA’s chief designer, Achim-Dietrich Badstübner, asked us to remember the number 50. As in, 50mm (1.97 inches). “Its headlights are 50mm thinner.” He walks along its side: “The car’s 50mm longer, 50mm wider; the rear track is 50mm wider.” He walks to the back: “And the taillights are 50mm thinner, plus the trunk opening is 50mm wider on either side for easier loading.” Despite that fuller-looking stern, the car’s slickest version has a very slippery 0.23 Cd, with its range drag coefficients (depending on wheels and body trim) falling in a tighter range. Critical to this is managing how the air laterally glances around the nose. Its aerodynamicist crouched down next to it with me, tracing how the air moves around the corners and avoids being snared by the spinning front wheels—two of the biggest culprits in overall drag (the more aggressive AMG trim includes corner air fences for just this reason).
Along our road loop I commented to my co-driver that as nicely as this CLA drives, I was having flashbacks to that old 190E. “Frankly, it’s not obvious to me that this car is dynamically better than the Accord,” I muttered. I guess we’ll find out sooner or later. But how much does that matter anymore? Traffic and tightening emissions standards are exchanging those simple, 1980s yardsticks of track performance for a galaxy of useful driving aids and electronic features, the CLA’s MBUX being a very good example.
Say “Hey Mercedes,” and the car asks what you want. Via its cloud communication, it’ll become a sort of (friendly) better-understanding HAL, able to follow your voice in a conversation, or whoever last said “Hey Mercedes” (though it was sometimes over-alert to picking up for the word “Mercedes”). Unlike the previous CLA’s awkward tablet screen that seemed Gorilla-glued to the middle of a traditional dashboard, this one’s a thoughtfully integrated, mini version of the S-Class’ slick wide panel (in optional sizes) with its right half being a multi-touchpanel. Alternately, you can communicate via a touchpad or hand gestures—its camera can parse your finger pattern’s meaning from who’s doing the gesturing (mine might mean ‘route me home,’ the same by another driver might mean a different destination). There’s some system overlap, too. For instance, the camera can anticipate your finger’s intention on the touchscreen.
Although we completely forgot to try its turn-signal-triggered lane changing, we used the nav system a bunch. By this I mean sometimes we had four versions of it displayed simultaneously: a head-up on the windshield, another between the faux gauges, and a more detailed version to its right. The fourth, farthest to the right, was my favorite, though—a forward-looking video feed annotated with information and turn arrows (I’d move this one to dead center in front of the driver). But the most intriguing system of all (at least to me) is a new feature of Energizing Coach: a Mercedes-Benz-Garmin vívoactive 3 wrist-wearable that monitors your heart rate and sends it to your phone and then on to the car (you can watch your HR on the car’s screen). Along their journey, the pulses are interpreted into personalized stress or exhaustion markers, and the car responds with music and lighting, even seat massage. Crazy.
And who knows, maybe it’s actually this: The affordable Mercedes’ reinvention into being the Tiffany of the digital experience (rather than hardware) finally achieves the old 190E’s mission.