2020 Mercedes CLA Review

When the Mercedes CLA first came out in 2013, the German brand boasted that it would raise the bar for the entry-level luxury segment.

But besides having a fancy three-point star on it, it really left us thinking, “Where’s the luxury?” Although it had decent driving dynamics and an upmarket exterior style, the old CLA was missing important parts of the luxury formula and the chintzy interior and lack of refinement throughout were two particular weaknesses. With this new second-generation model, the 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA lives up to the badge and the compact Benz finally feels like a legitimate luxury car.

The CLA used to occupy the entry-level zone of Mercedes’ American lineup, but now that the A-Class is here, that leaves some room for the CLA to grow up and move a bit upmarket. Although the two cars share the same platform, the CLA is the sportier and more premium option, similar to how the CLS is very closely related to the E-Class, but differentiates itself with a more “expressive” four-door coupe style.

Like the fancier CLS, the CLA has a sloping roofline and frameless windows to help achieve that coupe look. The visual center of gravity has also been lowered, giving the compact a more planted look. Adding to the upscale vibes are a more aggressive shark nose grille and toned down body lines, so it looks less swoopy than before. The result is a CLA that looks much more mature and is more aerodynamically efficient than the outgoing one.

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Is This an E-Class in Here?

As mentioned before, the old CLA’s interior was seriously lacking — it felt cheap and not worthy of something wearing a Mercedes badge. One of the biggest improvements to the new CLA is the interior. It could be an E-Class in here — the new CLA’s interior is that nice.

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Besides taking a bunch of interior styling cues from its bigger and more expensive siblings, it also has a lot of the same tech and features, so you’re really not being punished for having a smaller budget. Drivers will love huge dual customizable widescreens that house the infotainment system and the gauge cluster, the fancy-looking turbine-style air vents, the colorful ambient lighting, the customizable color head-up display, and the simplified and more streamlined design of the dashboard. Alcantara seats with contrast stitching also class it up in the cabin, and all the trim materials inside feel expensive — there is no cheap black plastic to be found and if there are budget materials, Mercedes did a good job of sneaking them in.

2020 Mercedes CLA-interior dashboard

Another sore spot for the old CLA was back seat room — it was uncomfortably tight back there. The new CLA has a pinch more headroom and legroom, but it’s still not great if you have two taller people sitting up front. Back seat passengers do get noticeably more elbow and shoulder room, however. The cargo capacity has shrunk a bit, now measuring 16.2 cubic feet (460 L), down from 16.6 cu-ft (470 L).

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Best of all, the new CLA comes with the most up-to-date high-end driver assistance and safety technology: It’s available with full-speed adaptive cruise control that’s capable of stop and go, but the system can also navigate bends in the road, will have automatic emergency braking, and active lane change assist. The adaptive cruise control was smooth and easy to use with the steering-wheel-mounted controls. The system can see up to 500 meters ahead, so it felt natural with its acceleration and braking, though in some cases, the active lane-keep assist was jarring because it jerked the car back into line by applying the brakes slightly to certain wheels, even if there was no imminent danger. It almost felt like we hit something, and it gave me a little scare whenever it happened, even though I was clearly in full control of the car.

2020 Mercedes CLA-19

The CLA also gets Mercedes’ newest infotainment system, MBUX, which comes with a personal assistant kind of like Siri or Alexa. You can say stuff like “Hey, Mercedes, what’s the weather like?” or “Hey Mercedes, turn down the temperature” and the more you use it, the more it learns and gets smarter, making it easier and more intuitive for you to operate. You should be able to speak to it pretty naturally. For example, you could say something like “find pizza restaurants near me” or “how long until we get to our destination?” and the system will be able to answer you pretty quickly.

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There’s also this crazy augmented reality navigation system that uses animated overlays on top of a video feed from cameras near the front bumper to highlight certain navigation prompts. It’s helpful when highlighting where to exit the highway, when to turn, or telling you what lane to be in and what your track should be. It looks cool and can be useful, however, drivers have to be conscious not to get distracted by it. There’s nothing else on the market like this right now, so it’s definitely unique.

2020 Mercedes CLA-touchpad

Inside, there’s also a new touchpad interface to control the infotainment system. It operates a bit like a laptop trackpad, so it’s pretty intuitive to use and has haptic feedback, but you can also use the touchscreen, which makes things a lot easier for typing in addresses and such. I’m thankful they give you both the options because I still find touchpads kind of finicky. There are also gesture controls, which is kind of a gimmick. In the end, I ended up using the “Hey Mercedes” function to interact with the infotainment system than the touchscreen or touchpad. It still feels silly to talk to your car, especially if there are passengers with you, but the voice recognition system is just too good not to use.

ALSO SEE: 2019 Mercedes-Benz A-Class Review

Luxury Car Driving Dynamics

Two versions of the 2020 Mercedes CLA will be offered from launch: the front-wheel-drive CLA 250 and the all-wheel-drive CLA 250 4Matic, though Canadians will only get the AWD model. Both the FWD and AWD versions will be powered by the same 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which is now good for 221 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque – 13 hp more than the outgoing CLA 250. A seven-speed DCT remains the only transmission option. A Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 with 302 hp has also been unveiled, and I can’t wait to see what that pocket rocket is like. 

2020 Mercedes CLA-red

With the CLA 250, the driving dynamics have improved dramatically and the increased refinement makes it feel like a true Mercedes. The old DCT was jerky and harsh, especially at low speeds. It would judder if you were creeping forward and would sometimes slam into gear, which was unbecoming of a luxury car. The new DCT is much smoother at all speeds and operates without much drama, always seeming to be in the right gear.

The suspension is also less crashy and harsh than before, now striking a good balance between comfort and handling, whereas before, the focus was clearly on the sportier side. A wider track helps the new CLA feel more planted in a corner, and the car feels agile and drives small, which is a good thing. The steering also feels a bit numb, though not enough to be a dealbreaker.

2020 Mercedes CLA-front

The Verdict: 2020 Mercedes CLA Review

The new CLA exhibits a new refinement in all areas that was absent from the previous-generation model, and now it finally lives up to its Mercedes badge. Finally, the German brand made good on its word, and this new model truly does elevate the entry-level luxury segment by offering an experience that is not too far off from cars that are much more expensive. The CLA impresses with its clever technology, well-sorted driving dynamics, expensive-feeling interior, and stylish looks.

The new 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA should be available to buy in late 2019. Pricing hasn’t been announced yet, but you can expect the price to increase over the last-generation model to compensate for all that increased luxury and fancy features.