Mercedes-Benz CLA review - does the sporty saloon's drive match its looks?

Mercedes-Benz refreshes its compact saloon and estate - but can it compete with the class best?

Evo rating
Price
from £25,395
  • Looks, AMG performance, cool interior
  • Fussy automatic, cramped interior, not that memorable to drive

The CLA is Mercedes-Benz' smallest saloon sitting underneath the C-Class and is based on the front-wheel drive A-Class hatchback. Originally launched in 2013, the CLA has since gained a new (slightly) more practical ‘Shooting Brake’ variant, as well as a subtle facelift keeping it in line with the A-Class hatch.

The CLA shares most engine and transmission choices with the hatch, although is offered at a slightly higher price point due to not offering the most basic of drivetrain options from it’s hatchback cousin. Part of its naming strategy as a CLA , it offers buyers a sleek mini-CLS style rather than the more staid look of proper Mercedes-Benz saloons.

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If you were hoping that those looks would bring with them an exceptional dynamic package however you might be disappointed, as at best, most models are only average to drive. The shooting brake does what it can to improve practicality, and from some eyes improves the frumpy looks, but unless you really want that oversized three-pointed star on the hood, this is not likely to be the Mercedes-Benz of your dreams. 

Mercedes-Benz CLA in detail

> Performance and 0-60mph time - CLA 45 AMG is ballistic, but other CLAs still perform well. Petrol engines are sweetest; diesel models are a bit rough but still punchy. Read about the Mercedes CLA's performance and 0-60 time

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> Engine and gearbox - Diesel models have healthy torque outputs but the CLA 250 is worth a look, particularly thanks to its standard all-wheel drive. A six-speed manual is available on some models, but a 7-speed dual-clutch is more common. Read about the Mercedes CLA's engine and gearbox here

> Ride and handling - Lacks the fun factor of some rivals, but previously-punishing ride quality has recently been improved with optional adaptive dampers. Steering is well-weighted and direct, but offers little feel. Read about the CLA's ride and handling here

> MPG and running costs - Diesels score with high quoted MPG figures and low CO2 ratings - for equivalently low VED fees - but even the petrols are hardly profligate. Mercedes badge guarantees strong resale values. Read about the CLA's MPG and running costs here

> Interior and tech - Neat, attractive cabin kick-started Mercedes' recent run of better interiors. It's comfortable too, though rear-seat space is limited. Read about the CLA's interior and tech here

> Design - A love- or hate-it design, the CLA is probably at its best in Sport trim and Shooting Brake form, but it's distinctive. Read about the CLA's design here

Prices, Specs and Rivals

Mercedes would like you to see the CLA as a desirable, sporting coupe, which is demonstrated by its trim lines. Three specifications are offered (ignoring the flagship AMG car) the entry point being Sport, followed by AMG Sport, AMG Line and WhiteArt, in ascending order of price and specification. Throw in AMG models, and there's also a Yellow Night Edition trim line.

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The very least you can spend on a CLA is £26,190 on the CLA 180 Sport with a manual transmission (remember those?). That's for the four-door "coupe" - the Shooting Brake is an extra £980 and the dual-clutch automatic transmission adds £1500 to the price of each model.

As befits its premium pricing no model is stingily specified, the Sport coming with 18-inch alloy wheels, active parking assist, rain sensing wipers, Bluetooth, USB connection, cruise control, sports seats and two-zone climate control, as well as "comfort" suspension. AMG Line (£28,390 for the CLA 180 with a manual 'box) adds a lowered version of the comfort suspension, gets 18-inch AMG-design alloy wheels, LED headlights, a sports steering wheel, bi-Xenon headlights and AMG body styling.

The current WhiteArt models (beginning from £29,235 for the CLA 180, once again with a manual transmission) get black 18-inch AMG alloy wheels (19in on the CLA 250), gloss black trim elements and optional matt-finish stripes for the exterior - in either white or black on cars painted white, and matt black on black cars. The interior gets white and grey contrast detailing.

With its unusual four-door coupe brief rivals are a bit tricky to pinpoint, but Audi’s A3 saloon has a similar remit, if not being quite as stylised. It's probably marginally better to drive, particularly in S3 form, and there'll soon be a five-cylinder RS3 saloon to go toe-to-toe with the CLA 45 AMG.

BMW 2-series Coupé is a proper two-door but fills much the same brief. It offers something the others cannot: rear-wheel drive, and the extra throttle adjustability that promises. It offers modest levels of entertainment even as a basic diesel but the more appealing options are the £35,420 M240i and of course the M2, which is probably a better car than BMW's own M4. At £44,320 it's fantastic value for the performance on offer - barely more than the CLA 45 AMG but much more involving to drive.

If you aren't too bothered about the saloon profile, you could always just buy an A-Class and save a few pounds…

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