2016 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 Rental Review - 'Authentic'

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
2016 mercedes benz cla250 rental review authentic

“I love it,” the man once said, “when a plan comes together.” And this was the mother of all ad hoc, free-range, domino-effect plans.

Avant-garde pianist Hiromi Uehara, along with six-string bass monster Anthony Jackson and noted over-drummer Simon Phillips, had a 7:30 p.m. gig one evening in Fort Lauderdale. Southwest had a nonstop from Columbus that touched down in Fort Lauderdale at 6:35 p.m. Could I get off the plane, get a rental car, and make it to my fourth-row center-stage seat by 7:30 sharp? Google Maps said that the drive was 27 minutes. This was the kind of concert where they don’t take you to your seat if you show up late.

Well, the plan came together. The plane took off 17 minutes late but arrived 13 minutes early. The drive was easy, parking was free, and I had time to get a drink and stretch a bit before Hiromi started the show at roughly 7:40 p.m. There was really only one problem: Hertz had “guaranteed” me a Benz C300 for the night, but the text that I got when I landed said “YOUR MERCEDES CLA250 IS LOCATED IN SPOT 440. CLICK HERE TO RESERVE A DIFFERENT CAR.”

“The hell with that,” I said, and clicked to reserve a different car.

“No cars available!” the Hertz site cheerfully declared. There was no time to argue the issue with one of the cheerful but slow-moving people in the yellow-and-black polo shirts. It was time for me to do what I’d long avoided doing: take a spin behind the wheel of the hunchbacked babiest Benz “coupe.”

If you want to know the true power of Geoff Day, Mercedes-Benz’s infamous party planner who’s allegedly had problems from time to time with “ bad little Jews,” a quick trawl through the early reviews of the CLA250 will show you that the man’s ability to influence the weak-minded lived on even after he left the company. “This an authentic Mercedes-Benz!” gushed noted hat-wearer Jean Jennings. Talk about a sop to PR; that statement is either meaningless or it’s a flat-out lie. So let’s look at both possibilities.

Strictly speaking, the CLA250 is an authentic Mercedes-Benz. It’s a development of the A-Class hatchback, which carries Mercedes-Benz’s flag in the Golf-and-Astra segment overseas. Although some of the units are probably assembled by Valmet in Finland, that’s no problem; all the Porsche Boxster “S” models through 2005 were also built there, and Valmet used to make a badass AK copy that was better than the real thing. The car was engineered soup-to-nuts by Daimler; it’s not a Chevy Luv or a Mazda Navajo.

So if that’s what Ms. Jennings meant, then yes, it’s an authentic Mercedes-Benz. If, on the other hand, she means that it provides a similar driving experience to what owners of an S550, E350, or even C300 would expect, then … haha fuck no.

Let’s start with the interior, because I don’t want to pick on the exterior styling too much.

It’s never easy to make a small car look like a big one, and the results are typically miserable whether you’re talking about the runt-ish first-gen Mercedes-Benz SLK or the 1984 Cadillac deVille. The CLA250 is no exception; if it looks like Ray Donovan’s CLS550 to you, then you’re legally blind and viewing it from a distance.

There’s a lot to like, one thing to dislike, and one thing to despise about this interior.

The lot to like: the materials are pretty decent for a car in the $30,000 class. If you have an Accord or Camry, then this will mostly feel like a step up, particularly when it comes to the big metallic sweep of the dash panel. The iconic M-B power seat controls are properly replicated here, which in and of itself is worth real money to people who need to share a car on long-distance trips. You can feel the cost-consciousness in some of the controls, particularly the Mattel shift lever and the tiny, vague-feeling iDrive-esque knob that controls many of the infotainment functions, but it’s certainly possible to spend more money and get a worse cockpit.

Compared to my old 190E, however, the CLA falls short in one important area. The seating position and relationship to the controls are straight out of the Ford Fiesta Human Interface Guideline Book, assuming such a volume exists. It’s all German supermini up in here; you’re bolt-upright in a relatively tall car with short windows. The dash is far away. The console is low. The angle at which you find your knees says cheap car. The old 190E, and the C-Classes which followed it, preserved traditional Benz seating position in smaller, tighter environs. By contrast, the CLA doesn’t feel cramped so much as it feels like a Honda Fit.

When I got back off the plane after my trip and sat down in my Accord Coupe, the first thought I had was “ooh, luxury car.” No, the Accord can’t match the CLA for quality of dashboard trim, but you have the luxury of a “real car” seating position instead of having your feet under your knees. This isn’t something that most buyers will be able to articulate, but they’ll all understand it on some intrinsic level the moment they sit in the little Benz. I will also say, for the record, that I found the CLA painful to drive and operate because of the supermini seating. In fact, I’d rather sit in Danger Girl’s Fiesta ST.

My last quibble with the interior is shown below:

What is that? Well, it’s a super-chintzy-looking door-lock knob that wouldn’t be out of place in a base-trim 1993 Ford F-150. Not only does it look terrible, it’s poised to impact the elbow of anybody tall enough to drive this car with their arm resting on the doorsill instead of the armrest. I’m only six-two or so and I found it absolutely infuriating. Enough for me to never buy the car on that single damming “feature” alone. I find it hard to believe that Mercedes-Benz can’t do better.

Everybody knows that the Florida Gold Coast isn’t exactly the Nurburgring, so it’s no surprise that my attempts to exercise the CLA250’s chassis and engine were limited to a few over-enthusiastic off-ramps. It behaves more or less as you’d expect: like a transverse FWD car with no chassis magic whatsoever. Think 2004 Honda Civic. Its current systeme Panhard siblings are much better, as was my 190E.

The engine is not the 201-horsepower 1.8L that I more or less tolerated in the SLK250 under similar conditions last year, but rather a 208-hp 2.0-liter deal. To quote Brick Top from Snatch, “You’re not a diesel, are you, CLA250?”

“No, no, I’m not.”

“But you do have all the characteristics of a diesel, CLA250. All except economy.”

From the uninsulated cheap-clack of the direct injectors at a drive-through to the slow-revving, anodyne way in which this boosted four delivers power, it might as well be a diesel. You can feel the car limiting its torque in the low gears to prevent torque steer, and as a result it never truly feels rapid.

The dim-witted seven-speed dual-clutch transmission doesn’t help matters. Nobody will ever publicly accuse Mercedes-Benz of delivering outstanding gearboxes, but this one’s worse than the brand’s usual clunkers. My CL55 company car, which I often used as an example of how not to program an automatic, was better, and it had a supercharged V8 with which to deal. This DCT is always a little slow, a little late. It will toss in a head-shaker downshift for no real reason as you coast. The paddles act as mere suggestions, not commands. You can feel the thing trying to maximize durability with its shift strategy and I’m not sure it’s succeeding at its intended task.

What I’d like to suggest to you is that this car is a direct consequence of the way the media treats Mercedes-Benz in the United States. Ever since the debut of the 190E, the press has universally praised each new Baby Benz upon its debut then savaged it relentlessly upon its successor’s introduction. My personal favorite example of this was the C/D review for the W202 C-Class that compared the W201 190E to a dead hamster rotting in a child’s room. With each new small Mercedes, the press has felt free to castigate the previous car for being nothing but a cheap way to show off the three-pointed star to your neighbors. The truth is that the W201 and many of its successors were far more than that; they were good, solid vehicles that exemplified as many of the company’s core values as could be possible given the limited canvas offered by a 175-inch unibody. I’ve owned and driven various Benzes both great and small, from C to CL, and I’ve always had affection for the quiet dignity and high-speed comfort of the small sedans.

With the CLA, however, the nothing-but-a-star-on-the-grille criticism applies — and it applies to the fullest. The tested $35,375 price of this car would get you many, many cars that are simply better at everything they do. An Accord is a better car, as is a Camry, as is an Audi A3. A Ford Fusion Titanium feels much more like a Mercedes-Benz than does this stunted little Golf-alike. There’s no reason to buy this CLA unless you absolutely must have a new Benz for under $40,000.

Actually, scratch that. You can get a base C300 for just a few thousand more. That is a good, solid, attractive, high-quality sedan that doesn’t need to make apologies for anything. Do whatever it takes to get that extra money.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a phone call to make. I don’t see any reason why I should pay for a CLA250 when I really wanted a C300. You should feel the same way.

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2 of 165 comments
  • Hreardon Hreardon on Apr 09, 2016

    As someone else here mentioned, if you want to see how to do the whole "small, premium luxury", it's the A3, hands down. The proportions are right, the powertrain and chassis is right, the packaging is great, too. Yes, the interior is a bit spartan, but when you're in it, everything feels upscale, the buttons have good weight and tactile feel, the seating position is good (the base seats, as in all base model BMW, Audi and Mercs, suck, IMO). The advantage Audi has is that that the A3 rides on the VW group MQB architecture and they can take advantage of the mass scale that Mercedes lacks. The CLA is, as someone else here mentioned, an exercise in leveraging ones' brand name. I'll echo what Jack said: beg, borrow or steal the additional few thousand bucks to get into a real Merc. The new C Class is an awesome ride. The CLA is just...awful.

  • Multicam Multicam on Apr 10, 2016

    Haven't read every single comment, but I'm surprised more hate isn't being piled on that infotainment screen. Man is that thing ugly- like they designed the interior then said "oh sheet, ve forgot ze screen!" and tacked it on like an aftermarket GPS device. And the bezel surrounding the screen is way too thick. I mean, this is 2016... Screens need thin bezels. My 65" LCD TV has a thinner bezel, at least on the sides.

  • Bob65688581 Small by American standards, this car is just right for Europe, and probably China, although I don't really know, there. Upscale small cars don't exist in the US because Americans associate size and luxury, so it will have a tough time in the States... but again Europe is used to such cars. Audi has been making "small, upscale" since forever. As usual, Americans will miss an opportunity. I'll buy one, though!Contrary to your text, the EX30 has nothing whatsoever to do with the XC40 or C40, being built on a dedicated chassis.
  • Tassos Chinese owned Vollvo-Geely must have the best PR department of all automakers. A TINY maker with only 0.5-0.8% market share in the US, it is in the news every day.I have lost count how many different models Volvo has, and it is shocking how FEW of each miserable one it sells in the US market.Approximately, it sells as many units (TOTAL) as is the total number of loser models it offers.
  • ToolGuy Seems pretty reasonable to me. (Sorry)
  • Luke42 When I moved from Virginia to Illinois, the lack of vehicle safety inspections was a big deal to me. I thought it would be a big change.However, nobody drives around in an unsafe car when they have the money to get their car fixed and driving safely.Also, Virginia's inspection regimine only meant that a car was safe to drive one day a year.Having lived with and without automotive safety inspections, my confusion is that they don't really matter that much.What does matter is preventing poverty in your state, and Illinois' generally pro-union political climate does more for automotive safety (by ensuring fair wages for tradespeople) than ticketing poor people for not having enough money to maintain their cars.
  • ToolGuy When you are pulled over for speeding, whether you are given a ticket or not should depend on how attractive you are.Source: My sister 😉