SCOTTSDALE, Arizona—Mercedes-Benz likes to call its CLA-Class sedan a “gateway model,” we suppose in the way that marijuana was a “gateway drug” in pre-recreational parlance. The first one definitely isn’t free at Mercedes, but the idea is the same: That you’ll chip in for a small bag of CLA, and wake up one day huffing leather in an AMG-badged S-Class, with a depleted bank account, and no memory of who handed you the keys.
Apparently, the addiction model has been working: For the first-generation CLA of 2014, which Mercedes famously dangled at a street-corner price of around $30,000, 70 percent of buyers were first-timers to the brand. 65 percent of those people ended up buying another Benz. The flip side of all that upward mobility was a familiar debate in entry-level luxury, on whether the CLA was a “real” Mercedes or not.
This second-generation, 2020 CLA won’t be troubled by those whispers. This still-curvaceous sedan moves up itself, leaving the dirty work of brand recruiting to the new A-Class; just as the C-Class has steadily risen in size, luxury, and positioning to become arguably the most expensive compact sedan on the market. It’s hard to call anything “entry level” that can cost $68,000 and lease for $870 a month, and that’s just for a well-optioned AMG C43, let alone a full-blown AMG C63.
That leaves plenty of room for a redesigned, front-wheel-drive CLA250 at $37,645 to start, with 221 horsepower and 258 lb-ft from a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four. Add $2,000 for 4Matic all-wheel drive, and you’re looking at a nearly $40,000 Mercedes sedan before a single option is tallied. A lot has changed since 2014 and that $30K price. Fortunately, the CLA has changed, too, with requisite gains in luxury, features, refinement, and cargo space to help justify nearly $6,700 in price inflation over the original, and a $3,550 jump over the 2019 model.
The new 2020 CLA35 AMG 4Matic benefits from that higher baseline, and then raises it with 302 horsepower and 295 pound-feet from an AMG-massaged version of the 2.0-liter, twin-scroll-turbo engine. Mercedes figures a 4.8-second cannon shot to 60 mph, and that number felt about right—despite a lack of tire chirp or other drama when I engaged its automated Race Start launch-control mode. Peak velocity is limited to a familiar 155 mph.
The Mercedes CLA35’s visual impressions proved more exciting, as it’s a “four-door coupe” that still recalls a smaller doppelgänger of the arching CLS, right down to its frameless windows. Drivers peer out over a hood with dual, peaked power domes. That’s fronted by a probing, shark-like nose, an AMG-specific bumper with twin louvers, a yawning radiator grille and wide wheel arches. Eighteen-inch wheels are standard, with our test example flaunting a 19-inch, matte-black multispoke design whose $1,030 upcharge was the first of many on this particular car. The side sills are accentuated, too, while out back slender, wing-shaped taillamps soar over big round exhaust outlets and a gloss-black diffuser. A pert trunklid spoiler completes the pretty AMG picture. And that picture is enlarged with four additional cubic feet of trunk space versus the previous CLA.
Hopping into the CLA after an economy flight from New York to Phoenix, I’m met by a more first-class experience. Red-piped sport seats rise like Greek columns and feature integrated headrests. Here, they’re covered in black leather but microfiber treatments in red and black or black and gray are available. Ambient lighting adjustable to one of 64 hues accentuates the door trim and the lovely brushed-aluminum, bullseye-style vents. More splashes of color—in this case animated 3D-style—come from the new MBUX infotainment setup, which replaces Mercedes’ old Comand system with dual, 10.3-inch screens joined beneath a single glass cover like the world’s coolest iPads.
MBUX and its console touchpad may be a bit clunky for your fingers, especially before you’ve acclimated, but its reconfigurable displays and high-res graphics are incredibly easy on the eyes. That includes a digital instrument cluster with Classic, Sport, and Sport+ displays, the latter flashing a video-game-worthy central tachometer bookended by animated bars. AMG-specific readouts include driving programs, AMG Track Pace, and telemetry data. A piano-black AMG console adds buttons to toggle the adaptive suspension, stability control, and manual-gearchange function. As in the standard CLA, there are gesture controls for reading lights and basic infotainment functions, and Mercedes’ Voice Assistant remains a not fully baked Apple Siri or Amazon Alexa. Key options—and our test car bristled with most of them—include a Burmester surround-sound system, and the Driver Assistance package and its myriad camera- and radar-based support systems.
The chassis gets the usual AMG beef-up, including a revised front axle and an aluminum shear plate beneath the engine to help overall stiffness. A mechanical suspension is standard, with our car’s AMG adaptive dampers an $850 option. That one seems a must for pothole-strewn cities, and we found a nice bandwidth of both suspension and engine performance as we traversed five driving modes: Slippery, Comfort, Sport, Sport+, and Individual. That latter mode was helpful, allowing us to lock the steering into its most felicitous Sport setting while choosing a softer ride. The brakes are enlarged and the steering retuned, and the CLA35 gets a so-called Performance 4Matic AWD system with brake-based torque vectoring. The dual-clutch, seven-speed Speedshift transmission gets sportier overall programming as well.
It’s all a long dissertation, but the upshot is a CLA that’s stuffed like a calzone with luxury and performance gear. So why wasn’t I blown away by the CLA35? First, the price may singe your eyebrows, once this little Benz is equipped to your liking. And like the rival Audi S3, and a few other mid-range AMG Sport models, the Mercedes feels more capable than captivating; more a luxury express than a wicked sport sedan.
The sweet-voiced engine certainly gets the job done, whipping the standard CLA250 in the race to 60 mph by more than two seconds. The steering is firm and accurate, and the new red-stitched AMG steering wheel feels great, with its flat bottom, perforated leather grips and galvanized-steel shift paddles. But the powerband is packed sardine-tight, with peak torque available in a narrow band between 3,000 and 4,000 rpm; BMW’s high-performance turbo fours are more flexible and free-revving. Tire grip is enormous, but to the point that I felt the CLA was actually carrying too much tire: On long canyon summits and descents, with snowmelt leaking across smooth Arizona pavement, I tried and mostly failed to get the Mercedes to slide or rotate. Between the sticky 19-inch tires and the safety-first 4Matic system, the CLA mostly transitioned into dull, front-drive-style understeer when I tried to flirt with the cliffs.
Our Mercedes’ $47,895 price, already a $9,200 premium over a base-model CLA250, then rose to $65,765 out the door. Of course, you’re not required to slap on $12,000 in options. But even if you back off a bit, that’s a lot of money for any four-cylinder, front-drive-based compact sedan. At these prices, I could no longer ignore the existence of, say, the All-Stars-winning BMW M2 Competition. It’s priced from just under $60,000, with a sickening 103-hp advantage from the M3’s 405-hp inline six under its hood. Sure, that one’s a rear-drive coupe and not an AWD sedan. But if BMW decides to give its four-door, 2-Series Gran Coupe an M treatment involving a version with its overachieving, 385-hp turbo-six, this CLA will be down two cylinders and oodles of horsepower—and be thoroughly outgunned.
Ultimately, the redesigned CLA250 manages to uphold the Benz badge, and does a better job of balancing luxury and value. The CLA35 AMG moves quicker and doesn’t skimp on the toppings. But if you’re going to spend this much, enthusiasts might just consider going all-in for the CLA45 AMG, featuring the world’s most powerful four-cylinder engine: The 2.0-liter M139 turbo, with a crackling 382 horsepower (or 416 in Europe’s “S” version) and a resulting factory-stated 4.0-second sprint to 60 mph. We’re not sure what the CLA45 will cost, but we do know this: No one will accuse it of being entry-level.
|2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA35 Specifications|
|ENGINE||2.0L DOHC 16-valve turbocharged I-4; 302 hp @ 5,800 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 3,000-4,000 rpm|
|TRANSMISSIONS||7-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine AWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||21/31 mpg (city/hwy, est)|
|L x W x H||184.8 x 72.2 x 55.3 in|
|WEIGHT||3,505 lb (mfr)|
|0-60 MPH||4.8 sec (mfr)|
|TOP SPEED||155 mph|