The 2018 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class drives along a fine line between being the least expensive vehicle in the company’s North American portfolio while still trying to uphold all those lofty values represented by the famed 3-pointed star. At this price level, it could tempt buyers who may be looking at high-end versions of non-premium brands — like a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry — to stretch their budgets and acquire something with more cachet. Existing Mercedes-Benz owners may also see this model as a good downsizing option.
A compact sedan with "4-door coupe" styling, the CLA is based on the A-Class, a front-drive car that Mercedes-Benz doesn’t import to the United States. But it does offer all-wheel drive and, true to Mercedes-Benz form, there’s a hot AMG variant.
What’s New for 2018?
Nothing of any significance, just a couple of special editions with pre-selected options packages.
What We Like
Reasonable base price for a Mercedes-Benz; decent fuel economy; safety features; enthusiastic acceleration and handling; AMG model’s performance
What We Don’t
So-so interior materials; tight back seat; outward vision not ideal; pricey options
The CLA 250 uses a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that develops 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates the front-drive CLA250 at 24 miles per gallon in the city, 37 mpg on the highway and 29 mpg in combined driving. With 4Matic all-wheel drive (a $2,000 option in this model), those figures are 24 mpg city/32 mpg hwy/27 mpg combined.
The Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 also has a 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder, but boosted to 375 hp and 350 lb-ft. All-wheel drive is standard, and fuel economy is a respectable 23 mpg city/30 mpg hwy/26 mpg combined.
All versions have a 7-speed automatic transmission.
Standard Features & Options
The 2018 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class starts out with the CLA 250 ($33,695), which comes standard with 17-inch alloy wheels, push-button start, rain-sensing wipers, power-adjustable front seats with memory, dual-zone automatic climate control, a rearview camera, an 8-inch infotainment display with the Comand interface, Bluetooth and leatherette upholstery (called MB-Tex; sounds suspect, but looks and feels good).
The CLA 45 ($51,395) adds all-wheel drive, an AMG-tuned suspension, 18-in wheels, upgraded brakes, the stronger engine, a performance exhaust system and various AMG styling touches.
Options are plentiful and pricey. They include LED headlights, keyless entry, parking assistance, blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, an adjustable suspension, Harman Kardon audio, ambient cabin lighting, navigation, voice control, heated seats, a panoramic sunroof, a hands-free powered trunk lid, real leather upholstery and an Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone integration package.
The CLA 45 is also eligible for 19-in wheels, carbon-fiber accents, sport front seats and a Dynamic Plus Package that includes a limited-slip front differential, an AMG-tuned adaptive suspension, "Race" mode and a 167-mph top speed.
Standard protection includes stability control, antilock disc brakes, nine airbags (front, front-side thorax, front-side pelvis, driver knee and full-length side curtain) plus Mbrace2, a telematics system that can connect to the internet and contact emergency services if an airbag is deployed.
A rearview camera, driver drowsiness monitor and forward-collision mitigation system with automatic braking are also standard. Notable safety options include rear side airbags, blind spot monitoring, lane-keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control with enhanced automatic braking.
The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) has not crash-tested the CLA fully at this time, but it describes the car’s front-impact prevention capability as "Superior" when the optional driver aids are included.
The CLA hasn’t been subjected to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) crash-test program either. However, Mercedes-Benz conducts its own stringent tests, so there’s no reason to think the CLA will ruin the company’s fine reputation for safety.
Behind the Wheel
The CLA doesn’t share quite the same quality of materials as its larger siblings. The lower half of the dashboard, for example, has a hard plastic trim that doesn’t do justice to the marque. But there’s still a luxurious feel overall, particularly in light of the appealing base price.
Rear-seat accommodations are a downside, since the sloping roof encroaches on headroom. And legroom is only bearable for shorter trips. For a compact car, though, the CLA packs a useful trunk: 13.1 cu ft., more than enough space for two sets of golf clubs. The rear seats also split and fold.
The CLA 250’s engine is punchy enough to reach highway speeds in short order. The sprint from standstill to 60 mph takes a brisk 6.9 seconds. Power comes on in a smooth, linear fashion as the throttle pedal dips toward the floor.
Gear changes from the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission are similarly silky. The driver can put it in D and forget about it, or use the steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles whenever the desire to be more engaged takes hold.
To save the weight and space of a spare wheel, the use of run-flat tires imparts a harsher ride than is usually associated with Mercedes-Benz. Riding on the optional 18-in wheels means a smaller and therefore less pliant tire sidewall, which only adds to the firmness. For everyday driving, 17-in wheels could be a better bet.
The CLA 45 only needs 4.1 seconds to sprint to 60 mph. The handling is sports-car quality, and the standard all-wheel-drive system means tenacious traction in all conditions. It feels like the most complete version of the CLA range.
Other Cars to Consider
2018 Acura ILX — The Civic-derived ILX is an affordable alternative to the CLA. It lacks the Benz’s turbocharged urgency but enjoys a fine reputation for dependability.
2018 BMW 2 Series — If four doors aren’t really necessary, consider the sharp-handling and well-appointed 2 Series, one of the best performance bargains out there.
Even though the CLA 45 is an absolute star, the majority of CLA buyers are probably looking for what might be their first-ever Mercedes-Benz car, so the only major choice regarding the CLA 250 is whether to have all-wheel drive or not. The blind spot monitoring system is strongly recommended, though, because rear three-quarter vision is affected by the wide rear pillars. In fact, go for as much safety equipment as possible.