You know what Americans love? Animal memes? Arguing politics on Facebook? Bacon? No — well, actually yes — but, crossovers too! Americans love crossovers. So much so that automakers are scrambling to field new models with each passing year. And while these tall, lifted little people movers owe something to bigger SUVs, most of them have more in common with cars than anything else. The upcoming Ford EcoSport? A tall Fiesta. The Chevy Trax? A stretched Sonic. Even the luxury brands are getting into it, and like everyone else, they’re reaping the benefits from crossover-mania.
In late 2013, Mercedes introduced the CLA-Class, an attractive compact sedan designed to hook young buyers and make them life-long brand loyalists. Starting at a shade under $30K, the CLA has done an admirable job as Benz’s gateway drug, selling nearly 100,000 of them in the U.S. — big numbers for a luxury brand.
But less than a year later, Merc took the wraps off the GLA-Class, a lifted, liftbacked, crossover-ified version of the CLA, and sales results have been equally promising. We’ve covered the GLA-Class here before: Thanks to a partnership with the Renault-Nissan Alliance, the GLA also shares most of its DNA with the Infiniti QX30. In that edition of Buy This, Not That, the German crossover fell to the Japanese upstart.
So where will it stand today? Will the GLA save face after its loss to the Infiniti that’s based on it, by edging out the sedan it’s closely based on, which in itself is based on Mercedes’ strong-selling European-market city car? Did you get all that? Hopefully you will by the end of this latest version of Buy This, Not That.
Tale of the tape: CLA
Let’s get this out of the way first: The CLA is one good looking car. Bridging the gap between being the entry-level model and the rest of the Mercedes lineup, the sedan both looks befitting of the tri-star badge, and fits in even with its own unique looks. Despite its four doors, Mercedes sells it as a coupe, which almost makes sense when you look at it next to the C- and E-Class coupes. Its crescent-shaped side glass doesn’t look too far off from the larger E-Class, and its front end looks a lot like the C-Class, which is probably the kind of fake-it-til-you-make-it look that we doubt most CLA buyers mind.
Overall, it’s a sporty looking car, and has the performance to back it up. The sole powertrain is Benz’s 2.0 liter turbocharged inline four, which is good for 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. The 2.0 is mated to a seven-speed DSG transmission, which does an admirable job shifting gears at just the right time. And if you don’t like it, it has manual mode with paddle shifters in case you want to shift yourself. Zero to 60 comes in the mid-six second range, and top speed is a shade over 130 miles per hour. For the minority that believes the CLA’s looks write checks it can’t cash, there’s the red-hot AMG CLA45, with its 375 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque. But since that’s a whole other animal, we’ll exclude it here.
Inside, the CLA has a strong resemblance to the rest of the Mercedes lineup. There are the brand’s now-trademark round vents, a big slab of wood trim on the dash, and a thick, sporty steering wheel. But despite seating for five, the back seats are cramped largely due to the car’s sharply raked roofline, making the car live up to its coupe designation despite having the disqualifying extra doors. And it’s in here where the CLA starts to show how Mercedes got the price so low. The interior hard plastics feel cheap compared to the Mercedes-grade materials we Americans are used to, and ergonomic issues like overly firm seats leave something to be desired on long road trips. That said, it still feels like a lot of car, even in base spec.
Tale of the tape: GLA
Despite its slightly different looks, most of the GLA’s specs overlap with the CLA. Powertrain? The turbo 2.0 with the same horsepower and torque numbers, although here, it takes over seven seconds to hit 60. All-wheel drive? Yes, but you can get the CLA with Mercedes’ 4Matic system too. And despite being considerably shorter than the sedan (173.9 versus 182.3 inches), both share the same 106.3 inch wheelbase.
But once you get past the near-identical dash and features, the GLA’s trump card is its interior space. There’s actually enough room for five in here, with 87 cubic feet of passenger volume, compared with the CLA’s 80 cubic feet. Curiously, the sedan has the GLA beat on cargo volume — 13 cubic feet versus 12 — but once those rear seats are down in the crossover, all bets are off.
Despite its sub-$30K starting price a few years ago, the CLA has climbed to just over $33K for an entrance price, though that number quickly (and we mean quickly) increases once you start adding options. The GLA has a little higher buy-in starting at just over $35K, but then, its added utility makes it worth the admission price.
Don’t get us wrong, we love the CLA’s looks, but there’s just a different standard for Mercedes entry-level models. The iconic W123 has proven to be unkillable even 32 years after the last one rolled off the line. The W201 was a bona-fide BMW 3-Series fighter. The less said about the 2000s-era C-Class SportCoupe the better. The CLA-Class truly is a worthy entry-level car for the brand, but at the end of the day, it still feels too compromised for us. And compared to the GLA, those flaws stand out even more. Besides, we’d be left pining for the faster and more expensive CLA45 anyway.
Sure, the GLA-Class is topped by the equally bonkers AMG GLA45, but in the mid-$30K crossover segment, the base GLA stands out on its own merits. For the money, it offers everything the competition does, with that added bonus of Mercedes’ styling and quality. So a few months after falling short against Infiniti, the GLA-Class has proven to be the best way to break into new Mercedes ownership.