SEDONA, AZ – When the sub-$30,000 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class hit the U.S. market in 2013, its arrival was accompanied by – let’s be frank – a whole lot of head-scratchin’.
While beautifully styled and dynamically sound with a robust list of safety equipment, as WardsAuto editor Tom Murphy wrote of the car six years ago, the first-generation CLA suffered from a cramped back seat, excessive hard plastic in the cabin, disappointing powertrains and a human-machine-interface central controller that was less than user-friendly.
It was parent company Daimler’s bid to take the brand mainstream, but left industry watchers to question whether the sterling Mercedes brand shouldn’t be kept in its own gilded lane. But along comes the second-generation CLA 250 and AMG CLA 35, as well as the platform-sharing GLB 250 compact crossover, and the sins of the past are forgiven.
Each of the cars, which ride on the second-generation Mercedes front-wheel-drive architecture (MFA2) with optional 4Matic all-wheel drive, are wrapped in emotional exterior styling, boast surprisingly roomy interiors for their class and leverage responsive turbocharged 4-cyl. engines.
But let’s stop here for a few caveats. The previous iteration of the CLA actually accomplished much of what it was tasked with, drawing new customers to the Mercedes brand and moving metal off dealer lots. About 70% of CLA buyers were new to the brand and 60% of them returned to buy another Mercedes. And according to Wards Intelligence data, sales nearly reached a respectable 30,000 units in 2015.
There also is a new gateway to the brand with the A-Class sedan, which gives the 4-door CLA coupe room to move up a bit in pricing and, likewise, quality of available materials and technology, such as natural wood trim, active suspensions and the groundbreaking Mercedes-Benz User Experience system.
The CLA grows dimensionally, too, with the 4-door coupe’s wheelbase stretching 1.1 ins. (28 mm), while the length extends 2.3 ins. (58 mm) and the width advances 2 ins. (51 mm).
Pricing rises to a base of $36,600 for 2-wheel-drive models and $38,600 for 4Matic. But they easily will eclipse $50,000 with desirable options such as AMG performance styling enhancements and a safety package with an encyclopedia of available driver-assist technology, including adaptive cruise control that will automatically adjust vehicle speed according to the navigation route and an active lane-keep system that will change lanes automatically with a flick of the blinker stalk.
The AMG CLA 35 feels tailored for a 4,000-ft. (1,219-m) climb out of the Phoenix desert to the former railroading city of Prescott. Its new AMG-enhanced, all-aluminum 2.0L gasoline inline 4-cyl. (M260) delivers 302 hp and 295 lb.-ft. (400 Nm) of torque, perfect for a sprint out of the city and up long, twisty grades to Prescott.
Mercedes-Benz says the CLA 35 will run 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 4.4 seconds, but out on the shared roadway it is the responsiveness of the engine, which is mated to a quick-shifting 7-speed dual clutch AMG-tuned automatic transmission, that leaves the greatest impression.
Sure, the CLA 35 is fast and quickly gets ahead of freeway bottlenecks, but carving rural roads requires quick jolts of juice the AMG powertrain ably provides. The angry bark of the exhaust during high-revving downshifts with the steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters adds a visceral element to the drive.
The CLA 35 rides on a dynamic AMG suspension (independent McPherson front/4-link rear) with adaptive damping and five drive programs, including two degrees of sport mode and an individual mode so owners can separately tune the steering, suspension and engine and transmission responsiveness to their liking. But even in comfort mode, the suspension is tightly wound so buyers should be all-in on the AMG experience.
The 4Matic AWD enhances the car’s already sharp handling, while 19-in. AMG multi-spoke black matte wheels are wrapped in Michelin Pilot Sport performance rubber for tremendous grip.
The exterior and interior of the CLA 35 overtly conveys the sporty character of the car. No performance design cue is spared, as would be expected for a Merc in full AMG dress. The CLA 35 shares its swooping lines, prize-fighter haunches and aggressive shark-nose front end with the series car, but the AMG diamond-block grille receives twin-louvers, a front bumper with flics on the air inlets and chrome trim pieces. A lip-spoiler also is added to the trunk of the CLA 35.
A beefy AMG steering wheel with Mercedes’ new touch-control buttons greets the driver, and our test model dripped with brushed-nickel accents contrasting against piano black elements and firm, Recaro multi-contoured sport seats with integrated headrests that lock passengers in place while working the downhill switchbacks on the return to Phoenix.
The CLA 35, CLA 250 and GLB 250 models tested here each were outfitted with the latest-generation MBUX and the up-level 10.25-in. (26-cm) center display and 10.25-in. digital instrument cluster, a combination that helped the Mercedes-Benz A220 earn a 2019 Wards 10 Best UX award. Astonishingly rich graphics abound, and the navigation system includes augmented reality with address- and turn-overlays for pinpoint accuracy.
The MBUX voice-recognition wakes to “Hey, Mercedes.” It recognizes natural speech and uses artificial intelligence to learn its owner’s idiosyncrasies, but on this test drive it does not perform with the near-flawlessness of previous experiences in the A220 and GLE and GLS SUVs.
The system mistakenly wakes during cross-cabin conversations, misinterprets some commands and often asks to repeat the command. Product experts on site blame the system’s performance at least partly on drivers rotating through vehicles, unlike a private owner whose habits it would learn over time. Disappointing, either way.
At nearly $8,000 cheaper than its AMG stablemate and a discount of more than $9,500 as tested, the CLA 250 series car arguably is the more pleasing of the two from an everyday-driver perspective. It is outfitted with the same M260 4-cyl., but off the AMG Kool-Aid it is tuned to 221 hp and 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm) of torque. It’s plenty of oomph to motivate the 3,483-lb. (1,580-kg) CLA, which receives a 7-speed DCT without AMG enhancements.
Our tester wore an all-new color combination of Denim Gray Metallic on the exterior and Neva Gray/Black on the interior, making it arguably the best looking of the CLA models in the test field and a welcome relief from the arrest-me Jupitar Red of our AMG CLA 35 tester. But it is frustrating none of the new compacts offer visor extensions for relief from the ever-present Arizona sunshine, and map pockets lack cloth liners to quiet items that may rattle around.
The trio receives the company’s new gesture control technology rolling out across the lineup. It recognizes, for example, when a driver or passenger is reaching for a map light and illuminates it automatically.
It does the same when the driver reaches over to an unoccupied passenger’s seat for an item and illuminates that area. The system also knows which passenger might be extending their arm to activate the seat massager and highlights their position in the car.
A new blindspot warning technology stays active for three minutes after keying off to alert front-row occupants of unseen objects approaching.
The all-new GLB compact CUV fits between the smaller GLA and larger GLC in the Mercedes-Benz lineup with the same engine as the GLA with identical output numbers, although it is outfitted with an 8-speed DCT. It also receives an extra drive mode meant for light off-roading. Fuel economy was an identical 28 mpg (8.4 l/100 km) in both.
The well-mannered GLB targets young families and will offer an optional third row. There was not a 3-row model available for testing, but judging by the size of the rear cargo area it likely will be a tight fit for an adult yet fine for the younger crew. The second row on all GLB models recline and slide forward to offer an additional 6 cu.-ft. (170 L) of rear cargo space or rearward for an additional 9 ins. (229 mm) of legroom.
One in three Mercedes-Benz cars globally is a utility vehicle these days, and one in four is a compact model, suggesting the GLB may have a bright future ahead in today’s crossover-crazy market. The outlook for sedan and coupes carries less optimism, but if the AMG CLA 35 and CLA 250 do not make more of an impression this time around it will not be for lack of execution.