Mercedes-Benz CLA (2019) International Launch Review

The fashion-forward 2nd-generation CLA has joined the A-Class and A-Class Sedan as part of Mercedes-Benz's 3-pronged attack on the premium compact segment. We headed to Munich (BMW’s backyard...) to test the newcomer.

What’s new?

This generation of CLA sports new underpinnings similar to those of the A-Class hatchback that was launched in South Africa during 2018. In terms of dimensions, that means the newcomer has grown in length and width, while its wheelbase is slightly longer too.

The CLA’s job within Mercedes-Benz's range of compact cars is to be the sportier of the 2 sedans and offer oodles of boutique appeal. The Sindelfingen-based brand considers its previous CLA a design success; it sold around 700 000 of the compact "4-door coupes". Therefore, it didn’t want to fiddle with the formula too much, so it maintained the "Coke bottle" shape, but refined the edges to make it less polarising than the previous model. The C118 arguably doesn’t evoke the initial excitement (good and bad) the previous model did, but it remains eye-catching and distinctive.

The new CLA is slightly bigger in all directions.

In order to position the CLA as the dynamic choice in its (admittedly small) segment, the model's track has been widened specifically for this application. It’s 45 mm wider at the front than the A-Class Sedan and 55 mm wider at the rear, but more on that later...

The final and most significant development in the new CLA, however, is the updated interior, which features the latest and greatest MBUX infotainment system and digital instrument cluster...

Own a Mercedes-Benz? Tell us about your experience here

What engines will we get?

South Africa has opted for the entry-level turbopetrol and mid-level turbodiesel derivatives. That means the 1.3-litre 120 kW and 250 Nm unit from the A-Class powers the entry derivative: the CLA 200. The turbodiesel unit arrives in the form of the CLA 220d, with a 140 kW and 400 Nm engine.

Mercedes-Benz SA has decided against the introduction of the 165 kW/350 Nm CLA 250 turbopetrol as it encroaches on the upcoming AMG 35 version it plans to introduce in 2020. What that means is that, upon introduction, there really isn’t a sporty-engined derivative available for this, the sportiest compact car that Mercedes-Benz produces. But, having spent a bit of time in the CLA 250, I'd say you’re probably not missing out too much, because it doesn’t quite match up in the performance stakes. If you want a performance-oriented CLA, it'd be best to wait for the AMG 35.

The CLA will come to SA with a 200 turbopetrol and a 220d turbodiesel.

For those less addicted to performance, however, both the turbodiesel and baby turbopetrol derivatives do a remarkable job of delivering just enough shove and, of course, creamy acceleration; indeed, the CLA still feels like a Mercedes-Benz should...

The CLA 200, with its 7-speed dual-clutch (automatic) ‘box, keeps the engine nicely on the boil (operating within the sweet spot of its power/torque delivery). Under 4 000 rpm it feels sharp and responsive, but beyond that its limited capacity becomes more noticeable and acceleration dissipates. 

The CLA 220d, in turn, utilises an 8-speed dual-clutch (automatic) 'box and provides smooth and surprisingly linear acceleration for a turbodiesel. It delivers commendable performance and surges off the line without quaffing too much fuel – its claimed consumption is just 4.2 L/100 km and you’ll have to work exceptionally hard to see anything over 7.0 L/100 km. It’s also particularly quiet on-road; diesel clatter is almost entirely absent.

What's it like to drive?

The wider tracks make it more stable at speed and mitigate body roll.

The previous CLA’s suspension was far too stiff for our roads and it thudded about tiresomely. But things are much improved for this generation, thanks to a more adaptable suspension setup. The multi-link rear suspension deals better with vibrations and bumps and absorbs them without affecting ride comfort. There’s also the option of adaptive damping if you want to tune the chassis a bit further towards comfort or sportiness.

You may be wondering what effect the widened front and rear tracks have on the handling? By effectively widening the CLA, Benz has lowered its centre of gravity, making it more stable, both at speed and in the corners. It also reduces body roll, which tends to improve driver confidence. As a result, when the CLA is driven with verve – albeit its less powerful derivatives – it maintains its balance and poise, doing just "what it says on the tin".

I wouldn’t describe the handling balance as "playful", because the chassis offers plenty of grip; to put it another way, the CLA sticks it to the road as if it's a Scalextric car that’s glued to the track. I’m sure that once AMG gets its hands on the CLA, we’ll see a bit more excitement generated.

How nice is the inside?

The interior is a technophile's dream. Big screens with loads of customisation options.

This generation of compact Mercedes-Benz models is attuned to what people get excited about when stepping into a modern car. Targeting a slightly younger market, the CLA’s inside feels like a modern entertainment area rather than a cockpit. The infotainment and instrument cluster are huge touchpads with crystal-clear screens akin to the latest smartphones, replete with adaptable themes, colours and voice integration. Wireless charging is available as well as Apple Carplay and Android Auto, although the native navigation system is nearly as good as Google Maps.

New to the MBUX infotainment system is an augmented reality component that significantly assists the navigation function. It utilises the front camera to display what’s ahead and then renders an arrow on the screen as to where exactly you need to make your next turn. It's a truly a sweet and simple setup that makes inner-city navigating significantly easier. What's more, it displays which lane you should stay in, or change to.

In terms of interior space, the slightly extended wheelbase has improved the CLA's rear legroom slightly, but headroom in the back remains tight for those who are taller than 1.8 metres.

Summing it all up

If performance is your want, wait for the upcoming AMG35 or even AMG45 variants.

With the new CLA, Mercedes-Benz has refined the formula for the compact "4-door coupe". The looks may be less divisive, but overall the newcomer appears smoother and will probably appeal to a wider audience...

It doesn’t have the engines to challenge its chassis (at least not yet), but the 2nd-generation car's general on-road demeanour is more comfortable and composed over varied surfaces compared with that of its predecessor. The engines that will be available in Mzansi at launch in late 2019 are targeted at buyers who are more interested in the design and appeal of the badge than outright performance, but the motors still provide Mercedes-Benz-worthy propulsion. Those who want to push the limits of the CLA are better off waiting for the AMG versions that will arrive a little later.

Crucially, the new CLA's supremely-connected interior remains the area in which Mercedes-Benz has stretched the biggest gap over its rivals' compact offerings. It has integrated what younger buyers love about smartphones, tablets and connectivity and incorporated it into the newcomer's cabin. It may not be right up there in terms of build quality, but that’s not likely to deter a buyer that’s wowed by how thoroughly modern the car is.

Related content:

Mercedes-Benz CLA: Old vs New

BMW Teases 2 Series Gran Coupe

Audi S3 Sedan (2017) Quick Review