Introduced for the 2014 model year, the compact Mercedes-Benz CLA joined the larger CLS, which had given the brand a new, rebellious variety of passenger car. Dubbed four-door coupes, the CLS and the far less costly CLA flaunt a roofline that’s audaciously low and sensually curvaceous.
Little-changed for the 2018 model year, the Mercedes-Benz CLA250 is now available in an Ice Edition, while the performance-oriented AMG CLA45 gains an optional $4,000 AMG Performance Studio Package.
Undeniably, the striking, indeed, daring, profile of the original CLS served as a milestone in design. Now, in CLA form, it’s a lush example of the possibilities for entry-level premium automobiles.
Rivals have adopted the four-door coupe theme, but the sleek profile of the CLA, helped by frameless window glass, has aged well. Mercedes-Benz itself has adopted the basic concept for other models.
Beneath the hood of the CLA250, a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder develops 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. That’s sufficient to reach 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, while yielding 30-mpg fuel economy in combined driving. The 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission mates with standard front-drive or optional ($2,000) all-wheel drive.
Seekers of all-out performance can move up to the AMG CLA45. This version of the 2.0-liter turbo cranks out 375 horsepower and 350 pound-feet, cutting 0-60 mph acceleration time to a sizzling 4.1 seconds. In addition to altered ride height, the CLA45 benefits from modified steering and braking. Its three-link front suspension uses stiffer bearings.
Despite its significantly heftier price, standard equipment even on the CLA45 lacks several features that buyers in its category are likely to want. Plenty of options are available, but each raises the total price further yet. Both CLAs also suffer from lack of back-seat space. Largely because of the dramatically low coupe-style roofline, four adults cannot ride comfortably, facing limited head clearance.
No testing agency has crash-tested the CLA. Standard safety features include a rearview camera, adaptive braking, and driver-attention monitoring. Everything else is optional: adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking, LED headlights, and parking sensors.
Also available are a panoramic sunroof and Harman Kardon audio. The adaptive suspension is a particularly desirable choice.
The 2018 CLA250 ($32,700) comes with front-wheel drive, 208-horsepower engine, power driver’s seat, MB-Tex vinyl upholstery, rearview camera, 17-inch wheels, adaptive braking, drowsy-driver warning, dual-zone climate control, start/stop technology, Bluetooth connectivity, and an 8.0-inch infotainment screen. (Prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.)
CLA 250 4MATIC ($34,700) includes all-wheel drive.
AMG CLA45 ($50,400) gets the 375-horsepower engine, AMG sport suspension and exhaust, LED headlights and taillights, and sport front seats with adjustable cushion length. The new $4,000 Performance Studio Package adds 19-inch black/yellow wheels, unique styling and cockpit, top-stitched dashboard trim, and Recaro front seats.
Like its larger CLS forerunner, which pioneered the four-door coupe concept, the scaled-down CLA stands apart because of its sleek profile. Audacious when introduced, the shapely roofline is still attractive to the eye, causing some premium competitors to appear conservative by comparison.
Even the base CLA250 model conveys a sporty aura. Large taillights help align the CLA with Mercedes-Benz sedans. More visually impertinent than its CLA250 sibling, the performance-oriented AMG CLA45 comes across as an urbane roughneck. Oversize front air intakes blend with a grille that contains twin silver blades, rather than the CLA250’s mesh pattern.
Visual drama continues into the cockpit, which resembles a modestly shrunken offshoot of typical Mercedes-Benz cabins. Only in a few areas does anything look less than premium level, including soft-touch plastic on the dashboard and an 8.0-inch infotainment screen that appears almost like an aftermarket add-on. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity is optional.
Though handsome, the low roofline contributes to a lack of space within the CLA. Rear-seat headroom, in particular, is constricted. Leg space also is at a premium. Entry/exit through narrowed door openings is a challenge, helping to make the back seat look and feel less than welcoming.
Being realistic, the ideal passenger capacity would be two adults, not four. Rearward visibility is nothing to boast about, either.
Front seats are comfortable and nicely supportive, with helpful adjustments. In the CLA45, optional Recaro seats are firmly cushioned and provide even greater support.
Even the moderately powered CLA250 produces responsive performance, though power reaches the wheels somewhat fitfully, rather than in a smooth flow. These agitated reactions can be disconcerting in daily drives.
Takeoffs are sufficiently smooth. Although the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission strives to restrain the nervous engine, shifts into upper gears occur too quickly. At least, paddle shifters let the driver shift manually, if desired, using steering-wheel actuators.
Helped by sharp, agreeably responsive steering, the CLA250 handles with respectable prowess. Steering demands some effort, but the result is a surefooted road experience, with tires effectively planted on the pavement. Lifting one’s foot off the gas pedal primes the brake system, helping to bring the CLA250 to a quick, positive halt. All-wheel drive, dubbed 4Matic and optional on the CLA250, can transfer up to half of power output to the back wheels when needed.
Unless it’s equipped with the optional adjustable suspension, the ride is less than comfortable. In fact, it can be stiff, even punitive. The adjustable suspension is standard on the AMG CLA45 version.
As expected, the AMG CLA45 edition raises the performance quotient sharply. Because power output from a relatively small engine is so strong, acceleration approaches fierce levels. Larger-diameter anti-roll bars help boost the top model’s handling talents. As a result, the CLA45 is fully track-ready, for drivers who lean in the motorsports direction.
Fuel economy ranks close to smaller luxury-car competitors. With front-drive, the CLA250 is EPA-rated at 24/37 mpg City/Highway, or 29 mpg Combined. All-wheel drive lowers the estimate to 24/32 mpg City/Highway, or 27 mpg Combined. The CLA45 earns a rating of 23/30/26 mpg. A stop-start system is standard, but shutting off the engine is accompanied by a modest shudder, and it sometimes restarts at stoplights with a longer red light.
The Mercedes-Benz CLA offers sleek styling, and the CLA250 is the brand’s least expensive model. The rear seat is tight, the CLA250 drivetrain needs some refinement and ride quality can be stiff. Tempting options are available but raise the price swiftly, while competitors offer more features standard.
Driving impressions by Aaron Cole, The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.