What’s the Difference Between a Mercedes CLA and a Mercedes C-class?

How does £208 per litre sound? I’ve been looking through the spec sheets again.

2014 Mercedes saloon.
2014 Mercedes saloon.

We know that the CLA is a front-wheel drive vehicle, related to the A-class which is now essentially MB’s offering in the Golf/Focus/Astra sector. The C-class is a monument in the automotive firmament, with roots going back to the rear-wheel drive 190E of the ’80s. That car was the first sign that Mercedes was interested in capitalising on its prestige by bringing their quality down to a smaller class of car than they had been offering up to that point.

The CLA has an in-line 4-cylinder 16-valve engine. And so does the C-class. Let’s look at a numerical comparison of the cars to see how they differ…

2014 CLA class comparison table

The C-class is lighter, taller, wider and longer than the CLA but not by very much. 50 mm separates them in length, nothing you’d notice on the street. The C-class driver has 10 litres more luggage space but you would have to use standardised volume blocks to detect this. A full boot of C-class luggage could be transferred to a CLA if the need arose. Everything is squashy when you are desperate enough.

Both cars have similar base engines but the CLA has a fuel tank that is disproportionately smaller (for no obvious engineering reason). It is in matters of acceleration, power output and top speed that the C-class bests its front-wheel drive sibling but the differences are nothing greater than those which often separate different versions of the same body shell (e.g. the 1.4 to 1.6 to 2.0 to 2.0 turbo hierarchy). £2080 is what one pays for another ten miles per hour top speed, a two second advantage in the 0-60 time and ten more litres of luggage space.

2014 Mercedes C-class

So, far it seems to me that most of the differences between these two cars could have been easily accommodated in the same body shell. And while at first one thinks that means the CLA is supernumerary, it actually implies that the C-class RWD platform is not wholly justified. Not with differences these modest. At the least, the saloon version of the A-class is a niche too far.

Some could point out that the C-class offers the delights of rear-wheel drive handling. To which one might respond that Audi have sold plenty of A4s to people wholly unconcerned with such matters. As BMW memorably said when selling the FWD Rover 75, most people don’t care. In almost all normal circumstances, the supposed advantages of RWD are of no relevance and are only really discussed by motor testers and the odd driving enthusiast.

2014 Mercedes saloon interior
2014 Mercedes saloon interior

I did not expect to find the differences between the cars to be so slight. And of of those that stand out the most, the differences in performance are ones that could easily be addressed by modest changes to the CLA. But Mercedes won’t address those. Not because it is not possible but because they don’t want to further erode customers’ reasons for spending the extra £2080 one needs for those extra 10 litres of luggage room (at £208 per litre).

It is also worth pointing out that the perceived quality of these cars can’t be differentiated all that much since MB wants buyers of top-spec Golfs, Astras and Focuses to trade up for a reason: the nice plastics and solid finish. So, it’s not as if MB has much leeway to worsen the impressions the CLA makes when you sit in so as to preserve a relative superiority of the C-class.

Another Mercedes saloon interior
Another Mercedes saloon interior

Capping it all, the CLA is arguably the nicer looking car. I don’t think so as I prefer the C-class’s comparative restraint. But when I was last at the MB showroom I noticed the customers admiring the CLA for its rakish looks and ignoring an identically painted C-class.

I don’t think Stuttgart is a big enough town for both of these cars. In a decade, the CLA may turn out to be the cuckoo in the nest.

[Post-script: Mercedes Benz of New Orleans offer their own guide to spotting the difference between the two cars here].

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

30 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between a Mercedes CLA and a Mercedes C-class?”

  1. I suggest that it is a move to delete RWD at this end of the market. The C class will become the CLA with a different rear end – eventually.

  2. “Capping it all, the C-class is arguably the nicer looking car. I don´t think so as I prefer the C-class´s comparative restraint. But when I was last at the MB showroom I noticed the customers admiring the CLA for its rakish looks and ignoring an identically painted C-class.”

    I take it you meant ‘the CLA- is arguably the nicer looking car’? This site could really do with some subbing before articles go live.

    “I don´t think Stuttgart is a big enough town for both of these cars. In a decade, the CLA may turn out to be the cuckoo in the nest.”

    Like Stephen Lewis above I think the writing is on the wall for the C-Class. If the platform is modular / shared in part with the E-Class, then the £2k extra from the C-Class over the CLA could still make it worth the trouble of producing it. But if the CLA sells like hotcakes then there will be no reason to keep a separate model.,

    1. The C-class is Mercedes’ first model based on Daimler’s own modular platform, so it should share its basic architecture with the next E- and even S-class. Therefore my guess would be that RWD remains safe in this sector, for the time being.

      The CLA was selling like hotcakes upon release, but if some sales figures are to be believed (and not just due to supply shortages, as claimed by Daimler), its star has already somewhat faded.

  3. Sam I think by a country mile the C is the better looking car versus the hyena tailed and to my eyes hideously proportioned CLA.

    Though the C also has its foibles to my eyes. Principally the carbuncles around the headlight, grille and bonnet meeting point. Would look far better if that area was body colour. I changed them to white in these crude sketches:

    (No idea how to post photos on this site yet and there is seemingly no way to edit after posting either, so trust that will work)

    1. I wasn’t asking for your opinion, just trying to make sense out of Richard’s prose.
      But thanks all the same – and welcome.

    2. Oh so we are not allowed to comment on opinions here… very peculiar way to welcome someone to a forum (which is a place to exchange ideas by the way). But thanks for the welcome. I’ll ask for permission next time I comment on something then. 🙂

  4. Despite my general condemnation of most of Mercedes styling for well over a decade, I admit that the previous C Class was an exception in my eyes, though the fact that I was most attracted to an AMG C63 Estate might point out how irrational my opinion on motoring matters can be. I too agree with those here who generally prefer the new C to the CLA though, unfortunately, the C is blighted by the oversized grille that disfigures the fronts of all new star-topped Mercs. The CLA’s front is hardly elegant, but a bit better. Richard’s figures don’t include passenger headroom, but I guess that it’s better in the C Class, which would certainly be a clincher for me and, combined with better performance, would justify the price difference.

    But I agree that this, again, is another case of too many options being available. Over the past few months I’ve been toying with the idea of buying a new car and, each time I look at a configurator, I have the same feeling I get in a restaurant with a very big menu. I lose my appetite.

    1. Sean, you’re not alone. I too have a bit of a soft spot for the previous C-class (W204?). The semi-circular crease on the side always looked a bit uneasy to me, just as a clamshell bonnet appeared not very Mercedes-like, but apart from that it conveyed a sense of unpretentious solidity absent from the previous decade’s Mercedes models. I also liked its interior, which once again felt substantial and sober, rather than brittle and faux-stylish as its predecessor’s.

      In defence of the new C, I’ll have to state that I consider it the least offensive of the current Wagenerian Benzes, not least thanks to its good (albeit very BMW 3-like) proportions. Stating that it could be seen as being of Korean descent can be considered almost a benefit these days, after a plethora of incompetently styled Mercs that would have had Peter Schreyer snorting with laughter (if he ever did laugh, that is). And the C’s interior, slightly too glitzy though it is, isn’t all that unpleasant a place to spent time in, to be honest. If I was held at gunpoint and asked to buy myself a current Mercedes, I’d choose the C.

      Oh, and Johann: welcome, fellow namesake (not that you’d know it)!

    2. Ha! No, I didn’t know we shared a name. 🙂

      The interior is lovely apart from the Amstrad Android screen (I refuse to call it anything as nice as an iPad) haphazardly stuck on the dash. EVERY test moans about it, yet every new Merc gets it (apart from the S), even the spy shots of the new big SUVs show them! Grrr. Mercedes please have a look inside an Audi A3/A6/A7. Lovely big screens that neatly disappears when you don’t want them. But even when out they look great and purposeful.

  5. Wheelbase C-Class: 2840 mm
    Wheelbase CLA: 2699 mm

    Reading the headline I expected some calculation on overall interior space, not just the luggage compartment.
    Isn’t the CLA very small and claustrophobic inside?

    Quite an odd remark as a first comment, I have to admit (on Mercedes, of all things!). But “hi” anyway (after months of reading essentially everything). And sorry for my bad English – no native speaker.

  6. Welcome aboard!
    You might be right about the perceived interior space of the two cars. However, I suspect a lot of people choosing this class of car are not bothering about the rear passengers´interests. I notice that in the last decade nearly all the classic “family” saloons have reduced the spaciousness of the rear compartment to the extent that a Renault Kangoo offers a nicer place to sit on a long trip than an Insignia, S60, A4 or 3. The Ford Mondeo and VW Passat do still pay heed to the rear passengers. It really depends on your definition of a rational design. Is it the one with the measurable benefits but looks frumpy or the one with a stylish shape and no room inside? I can´t decide for anyone else, but I´ll take the one with the room.

    1. I’d definitely go for the room. Especially as there is no simple tradeoff between “room” and “style”. I like designs that are built around specific real-world problems (read: compromises), yet manage to do it with elegance/lightness/cleverness/whatever…
      But then… I am just one – and not the most affluent costumer anyway.

  7. @johann: you are on the right track. For me, the biggest (not the only!) problem of contemporary Mercedes-design is the treatment of the headlamps. They are oddly shaped and, most notably, very, very busy in themselves.

  8. And just look at this! See what Mercedes have done to the Plug-in Hybrid’s headlights!!! They moved the indicators to the bottom!!! It looks YEARS better (viz a viz my earlier sketch and comments on the standard car’s awful headlights):

  9. That should be the standard.
    I just saw a new S-class in the metal. It’s very elegant from the rear though the boot aperture seems rather small. The lamp treatment is interesting, with body colour between the boot shutline and rear lamp.

    1. The metal strip between the shutline and the rear lamps could be rather nice (and almost Callum/Fisker Astonesque), but it’s completely spoiled by that awful chrome strip on the boot lid.

      Right now, I’m eagerly anticipating my first real world view of the AMG GT. I find the published pictures hard to believe: from the windshield’s angle to the modelling to the mis-matched form languages, its design appears to be utterly inept on a scale I wouldn’t have thought possible even in the curious case of Gorden Wagener.

    2. I saw a picture of the AMG GT on the cover of a German magazine this Summer. At first I assumed it was cut-and-shut mule for the final version. But now I’ve had my awakening. After years of moaning and disapproving, I acknowledge that MBs are not meant to look attractive. I now look forward to every new Mercedes design with anticipation not dread, savouring the clunkiness. Based on this principle, whereas I totally agree with Johann’s point that the plug-in C Class looks better, for that very reason I abhor it.

  10. The A class family (including the CLA) is very poor – ugly, cramped and not great in terms of numbers. The C Class is a proper car with cutting-edge technology, a nicer cabin and a nicer design overall. It is easily worth a £2k premium… comparatively speaking, it is a bargain. The choice is this – buy a C class, or buy a better FWD hatch/saloon and save some cash… something like a Mazda 3, for example. There is no excuse for buying any A class. At all.

    As for the long term prospects for RWD, I thought they might be bleak, but look at Jaguar and Alfa Romeo, rushing into the compact luxury segment with new rear drive cars. Lexus before them did the same. I think it’s here for a while yet.

    1. The C is indeed leagues better. I’m based in Dubai for a few months and I only rent from Sixt, as they only rent Mercs – well 95% as their bottom two classes is Mazda 2 and a super slow Jetta 2,0 petrol with what must be an 80 hp engine. I had one and took it back – it was just too slow. So I have had plenty of Mercs here. In Istanbul we had had a CLA 1,5 DCI AMG. The most awful car I’ve ever driven. The most bone hard unforgiving suspension, with an anaemic Renault 1,5 DCI engine, yet with AMG body and interior. Cramped out back. Awful car. All show and no go.

      Here I’ve had many a C200 petrols here. Lovely things. But the class below is my favourite. The A250 Sport. 0-60 in 6,6 seconds and because it is NOT an AMG spec, it has normal suspension. YEARS better than the CLA AMG.. Love it. They also rent the CLA250 in 4 Matic form but I’ve not rented that yet, as they are scarce. And it’s a tricky balance between what day of the week you rent to get the standard one class upgrade I get which is subject to availability. So I rent a Jetta and normally get an A. And if you rent an A you normally get a C and not a CLA since they are thin on the ground. And I’m not going to outright rent a CLA when I can pay much less and get an A250!

      As stated above the £2k premium of the C is totally worth it over the CLA. I’d even rather buy a second hand C over a new CLA for sure. For one the C interior is much better of course. Nothing wrong with the A interior but it is a bit behind the C clearly but still of the same family – complete with perched Android tablet centre stage.

      My favourite Merc to rent here is of course the GLC 250 4 Matic. Sublime. Though the E250 Coupe was a close second.

      But this weekend I’m getting a Nissan! A 5,6 litre V8 gargantuan Patrol.

    1. Johann: thanks for the insight. You are lucky in that you get to drive many variants in the two classes. May I ask if the difference suprised you?
      Looking from the pavement, I see two not-very-different saloons and spec sheets that are oddly similar.

    2. They are both saloons and similar – but the engineering behind them is different. One is FWD and one is RWD. But to be honest once in them both have a feel good factor. If you’re not put off by the hyena rear end of the CLA or the limited rear headroom and space, it is not a bad place to spend time in. And as to FWD vs RWD: if you drive like a normal person there’s no difference in that either.

      So are you asking if blindfolded I’ll know which I’m in? In truth: no. Both are solid Mercs.

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