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Car Reviews The Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 is a highly competent luxury car that’s bested only by its stablemates

The Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 4MATIC Coupe.

ANDREAS LINDLAHR/Daimler AG

The heart wants what it wants. Some people simply must have paintings of cats dressed as celebrities, others collect those plastic meals from Chinese restaurants, and yet others go gaga for an impractical sub-compact from Mercedes-Benz.

The company would like us to call the CLA a coupe, but we cannot in good conscience, since it clearly has four doors. The CLA is a sedan, a fastback sedan if you must.

Hang on, we hear you say, Mercedes already has a sub-compact sedan, the brand-new A-Class, and it’s quite good. Yes, but the A-Class sedan hasn’t got the swoopy fastback. The CLA is also a bit wider and has a little more chutzpah in the engine department. To complicate matters further, the A-Class is available as a hatchback with the same engine as the CLA. For similar money, Mercedes will also sell you the GLA cute-ute, or the B-Class, which is like the lovechild of a minivan and a Smart car. Confused yet? You’re not alone, but more choice is a good thing.

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“[The CLA] will never have sales numbers like an SUV but that was never planned; there are still a group of people who likes these cars,” said Axel Heix, chief engineer for compact cars at Mercedes.

The outgoing CLA was a fine car on the German Autobahn, but here in Canada, it was not a car we could recommend. It rode over our horrible city roads like a horse cart, only faster. It was nevertheless an important model for the brand and was, in 2018, Mercedes’ best-selling sedan in Canada after the C-Class. A clear case of branding and style triumphing over substance.

“The CLA was [bringing in] customers that had never been in a Mercedes,” Heix said. It also attracted the brand’s youngest customers. “Very often they stay with Mercedes for their next cars, so it's very important for us to conquer these customers.”

Get ‘em when they’re young.

Mercedes says it can make its vast lineup of subcompact models profitable by building them from common parts. “For example,” Heix explains, “all these cars share the same wheelbase, electronics, the cockpits, and seats et cetera. Everything you don’t see, it’s more or less the same.”

You’d have to really, really like CLA’s swoopy fastback design to choose it over its stablemates.

ANDREAS LINDLAHR /Daimler AG

Heix said the team heard the criticism of the old CLA’s stiff ride, which is why they’ve engineered a new adaptive damper system. It’s soft and even too springy in Comfort mode, but nicely planted in Sport. Unfortunately, Canadian CLA 250 models won’t get that suspension option according to a company spokesperson. Our cars will have non-adaptive dampers. They will actually be stiffer than standard, since all Canadian cars come with the lowered suspension of the aesthetically pleasing AMG Line package. Mercedes didn’t have cars with Canadian-spec suspension available to test, so we can’t say whether the ride has improved.

The handling, however, is promising. The new CLA feels light on its tires. It accelerates with punchy enthusiasm and corners like it’s on rails. There’s no rear-wheel-drive fun to be had here, but most people will appreciate the Velcro-like way the car sticks to the street.

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While on the roads near Munich, a few drivers felt the car suddenly tug the steering and tap the brake for a split-second, as though the automatic-collision-avoidance or lane-departure system sensed some phantom obstacle. It was unnerving more than dangerous, and another reminder that despite all the hype about autonomous cars, driver-assistance technology is still very young.

The CLA’s biggest strength is its cabin; it’s the same as the A-Class and it’s a lovely place to be. These cars have the nicest interiors of any subcompact on the market right now. There’s every tech gizmo and connectivity feature you could hope for, although you’ll have to pony up some extra money if you want the bigger 10-inch screens rather than the sad 7-inchers with their thick black bezels.

Assuming the ride has indeed lost its harsh edge, the CLA 250 4Matic is a highly competent little luxury car. We’re just not quite sure why anybody would buy it when you can have the A-Class sedan or hatch, or indeed the GLA, for less money. If it’s sportiness you want, save up for a proper AMG version of any of the above. You’d have to really, really like CLA’s swoopy fastback design to choose it over its stablemates. Alas, the heart wants what it wants.

Tech Specs

  • Base Price: TBA ($41,000 estimate)
  • Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo
  • Transmissions: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): TBA
  • Drive: All-wheel drive
  • Alternatives: Audi A3, Mercedes A-Class or GLA, Acura ILX A-Spec

Looks:

There are fewer fussy creases because the new car’s larger size gives it better proportions; you don’t need to disguise it with erroneous lines. It’s much better than the old CLA.

Interior:

The CLA’s biggest strength is its cabin; it’s the same as the A-Class, and it’s a lovely place to be.

ANDREAS LINDLAHR /Daimler AG

The car is longer and wider than its predecessor, meaning it no longer feels cramped. The cabin seems more expensive than the price suggests.

Performance:

The 2.0-litre engine makes 221 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. It takes 6.2 seconds to get to 100 km/h and, for the record, the CLA did easily manage 200 km/h on the Autobahn. Handling is undramatic, rather than truly exciting.

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Technology:

The new MBUX infotainment system is a huge improvement on the old Mercedes setup. The haptic touchpad is excellent, and less distracting than a pure touch screen. Our only criticism is minor: The system’s response could be snappier.

Cargo:

The trunk opening is much wider, but if you want cargo space, get the A-Class hatchback. Rear passenger headroom is not good, but that’s the price you pay for style on every fastback sedan.

The verdict: 7.0

An interesting oddity, bested only by its stablemates

ANDREAS LINDLAHR /Daimler AG

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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