Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class VS Lexus ES
- Quick pace
- Engaging dynamics
- Premium interior
- Harsh ride
- Limited rear-seat room
- Divisive styling
Mercedes has long been the leader in niche filling, and we’d argue that no other model encapsulates that more than the CLA four-door coupe.
Now in its second-generation form, the CLA is based on Mercedes’ MFA2 small car platform that also underpins the A-Class small car range, B-Class tallboy hatchback and GLA crossover, but is actually dimensionally longer than the one-size up C-Class.
However, while the C-Class might offer more conventional styling, Mercedes says the CLA is targeted towards a younger demographic that puts more weight on design and aesthetics.
The previous generation CLA was topped by a hardcore 45 version, which makes a return here, but new this time around is the less-potent, but still AMG-badged, 35 variant to plug the gap between mainstream grades and the range-topper.
After living with the car for a week, here are our thoughts on the new baby AMG CLA.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
CT, IS, GS, LS, RC, LC. Yes, that list of letters looks like something you’d read when getting your eyes tested at an optometrist, but they are actually all Lexus models.
Ok, you may have known that already, but did you know that those are just their initials? They actually have full names, too; Compact Touring, Intelligent Sport, Grand Sport, Luxury Saloon, Racing Coupe, Luxury Coupe.
And so this review isn’t just on the new-generation ES, but on the Elegant Sedan, which made it to Australia in 2018. And, as if hinting at things to come, it’s available in ES300h petrol-electric hybrid guise only.
This is the seventh-generation of a model that has been part of the Lexus line-up since the very beginning, way back when the luxury arm of Toyota first stepped onto the world stage in 1989.
So, does the ES300h live up to its Elegant Sedan name? Does being hybrid-only in Australia mean it loses its powerful presence? And is there any reason why you’d get one over a Mercedes-Benz E-Class or BMW 5 Series?
So many questions, but after living with the ES300h in top-of-the-range Sports Luxury guise for a week, we now have all the answers.
Read More: Lexus ES300h Luxury 2019 review: snapshot
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
Is the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 the perfect choice in the sleek sedan’s line-up?
Well, if you are after outright performance, then the answer still clearly lies with the CLA 45. But for those that just want a little more pep compared to the standard CLA range, the 35 is undoubtedly the one to get.
It’s not without its flaws, though, commanding a $15,000 price premium over the CLA 250 and a tougher-than-we’d-like ride, but if you value a more engaging drive and a brisk 0-100km/h time, the CLA 35 should definitely be on your shopping list.
The ES300h is outstanding in terms of ride comfort, refinement and value. If you’re looking for a true driver’s car then a Lexus RCF is probably a better tree to bark up, but if you’re looking to ferry passengers in a serene, prestigious and fuel-efficient way, then look no further.
Is the Lexus ES300h in the same league as a BMW 5 Series or Mercedes-Benz E-Class? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
From the front, the CLA 35 exterior oozes style and luxury.
Up front, the sleek and slender headlights emphasise the width of the fascia, while the large Mercedes logo sits proudly front and centre of the CLA’s nose.
There are subtle hints to the CLA 35’s sportiness too, with a slightly bulging bonnet and chiselled lower chin.
The grille is also unique on the 35, with a dual-horizontal slat design instead of the non-AMG CLA’s diamond pattern or the CLA 45’s Panamericana grille.
To my eye, the front of the CLA 35 is actually a bit too tame in styling for an AMG model. I prefer the in-your-face aggression of the CLA 45’s widened track and front grille, while the CLA 35 opts for more subtle styling cues. To each their own, though.
The silver paintwork of our test car probably doesn’t help, and if it was my choice I'd pick 'Sun Yellow' or 'Denim Blue' to stand out a bit more from the sea of black, grey and white German cars out there.
Move to the rear of the car though, and a large rear diffuser, big dual-exhaust outlets and a bootlid spoiler are much more befitting an AMG model.
Step inside the CLA and you will see it adopts the same dashboard design as all new-generation Mercedes vehicles built on the MFA2 platform, with the 'MBUX' dual-screen layout, large air-vents and central touchpad.
Our car was specced out with red-leather interior, which is a bit too loud for my tastes, but a two-tone black leather/titanium grey combo can also be had at no extra cost.
Sitting inside the CLA 35, you can tell it’s a modern car thanks to the clean layout of all the controls, while the screen-heavy dashboard definitely makes it feel tech-focused.
If you think all Lexus models look the same, then pop on over to the Audi, BMW or Benz websites and take a peek at their line-ups. Compared to the ranges from those prestige car makers, Lexus models look wildly different from each other.
Opinions on that ‘Spindle Grille’ are as polarising as views on politics or religion. Personally, I like how upfront and brave the grille design is, but what seems odd to me is that it’s almost as if this was the only place on the exterior where designers were allowed to be a bit adventurous. The rear, while cleanly styled is a bit plain. The bottom just doesn’t match the face.
The ES300h’s roofline in side profile is beautiful as it sweeps almost fastback-style to the boot lid. Again, not the most dramatic styling, but it’s still pleasing in the sense that the design flows well together. The same can be said for the fit and finish – the panel gaps are near-perfect.
This perfection continues into the cabin, where the materials and craftsmanship matches German prestige rivals in places (the door handles, leather and digital instrument cluster, for example), only to be let down in other areas which disclose its budget Toyota family connection (the air vents, steering wheel and display screen).
The ES300h’s interior design isn’t going to set everybody’s world on fire, but there will be those who adore its asymmetrical styling with different textured surfaces that fold, swoop and jut up against each other’s space. Have a look at the images, they’re of the Sports Luxury which sits above the Luxury in the two grade line-up.
The differences visually between the grades is minimal. The Luxury has 17-inch alloys, while the Sport Luxury has 18-inch.
New colours for this generation include Glacial Ecru (the sandy hue of our test car in the images) and Radiata Green. Both grades’ interiors come in a variety of colour schemes, including Black, Chateau, and Topaz. Exclusively for the Sport Luxury cabin is Rich Cream, too. The Sports Luxury steering wheel has wood trim.
One of the more peculiar design elements of the ES300h’s cabin design, and there are a few, are the controls for the drive modes and traction control. They sit like horns on the instrument cluster hood, as though these are things the driver will constantly be reaching for, when in reality most people will never touch the traction control button.
A new-generation car means new foundations, and the ES300h is built on the GA-K platform which underpins the Camry. The platform is part of the latest global architecture which Toyota and Lexus are now using to build its vehicles.
The dimensions of the ES300h, if you’re wondering if it will fit in your garage, are just under 5.0m long, 1.9m wide and 1.4m tall.
Measuring 4695mm long, 1834mm wide, 1399mm tall and with a 2729mm wheelbase, the CLA 35 is definitely a sizeable sedan in the metal.
This actually makes the CLA 35 slightly longer and wider than a non-AMG C-Class sedan that measures 4686 and 1810mm respectively, but don’t expect the same level of practical interior space.
With a heavily sloped roofline, rear-seat comfort takes a hit. My 183cm (6.0ft) frame could not sit upright behind my driving position without tilting my head, while legroom was also slightly lacking.
With such large C-pillars and a small rear window, the second-row can actually feel a little claustrophobic for full-sized adults, but will seat children quite comfortably.
Second-row amenities include air-vents, two USB-C ports, back-of-seat storage nets, bottle holders in the doors, and two cupholders in the fold-down arm rest.
Just like at a music concert though, the best seats in the CLA 35 are up front, with plenty of room for heads, shoulders and legs.
The cabin is also much more light-filled up front, making for a more pleasant experience.
The front seats are electronically adjustable, as is the steering column, but the headrests are fixed.
Storage options include sizeable door bins, a centre console cubby, glove box, two cupholders and a wireless smartphone charger.
Boot space is 460 litres, but can expand with the rear split-fold 40/20/40 rear seats stowed.
Though the boot looks small and shallow on the outside, the aperture is actually quite large, and can easily accommodate a large suitcase with plenty of room to spare.
The Lexus ES300h is a five-seater sedan, but it’s really designed to sit two comfortably in the back, given there’s a large driveshaft hump in the floor and that the outboard seats are divided by a fold-down control panel/armrest.
Legroom in the second row is ample. I’m 191cm tall, and I had about 20mm of space between my knees and the seat back when it was in my driving position. Headroom gets tight with that sloping roofline, but there’s just enough space thanks to the low hip point of the rear seats.
Cabin storage is excellent. The fold-down armrest for the rear seats has a storage tray and two cup holders, while the large centre console bin has a lid which can open towards the driver and also to the front passenger (I spent way too long marvelling at how it worked). There are two cup holders up front and decent-sized door pockets, too. Those rear doors open wide for easy exit and entry.
Boot space in the ES300h is 454 litres (VDA), beating the 410-litre cargo capacity of the BMW 530e.
As far as power outlets, you’ll find two USB chargers in the centre console storage bin and a Qi wireless charging pad, which is awkwardly situated making it hard to place larger phones onto it.
Price and features
Priced at $85,500 before on-road costs, the CLA 35 sits $15,300 upstream of the CLA 250 but is $25,700 cheaper than the $111,200 CLA 45.
Standard equipment includes leather interior, dual-zone climate control, electronically adjustable front seats with heating and memory function, keyless entry and push-button start, 64-colour ambient lighting, and a wireless smartphone charger.
AMG specific appointments include 19-inch wheels, a flat-bottomed steering wheel, sports exhaust, high-performance brakes with silver-painted calipers, blacked-out exterior highlights, sports suspension, a racy bodykit and speed-sensitive steering.
Instrumentation is displayed on a 10.25-inch screen, which can be customised and features AMG readouts.
The multimedia system, which includes satellite navigation, digital radio and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity, is also outputted to a 10.25-inch screen, with inputs including touch, voice commands, centre touch pad or steering wheel controls.
Our test car also came with a ‘Mojave Silver Metallic’ paint finish and 'Vision Package', adding $1190 and $990 to the bottom line each.
The Vision Package adds LED headlights with adaptive high beams, a panoramic glass sunroof and surround-view monitor.
Though the CLA 35 features a long list of equipment, it is still a sizeable chunk of coin, costing more than the C300 sedan and Volvo S60 T8 PHEV, the latter boasting higher engine outputs.
Yes, and don’t let anybody tell you any differently. The Luxury lists for $59,888 and the Sports Luxury is $74,888. Both are bargains when you consider the quality and features.
If it was my money, I’d go for the Luxury which is almost indistinguishable visually but doesn’t come with as many tech and convenience features as the Sport Luxury.
Still, the Luxury gets the 12.3-inch screen with sat nav, a 10-speaker Pioneer stereo system with digital radio, a head-up display, dual-zone climate control, wireless charging, 10-way power adjustable front seats, privacy rear windows, a moonroof, proximity key and LED headlights.
The Sports Luxury takes all of that and adds a Mark Levinson 17-speaker sound system, leather seats, heated and ventilated 12-way power adjustable front seats, heated and power reclining rear seats, three-zone climate control, heated steering wheel, power rear sunshade and manual side rear window shades, gesture-open boot and cornering LED headlights.
The Sports Luxury also comes with noise reducing 18-inch wheels – they contain what’s called a Helmholtz resonator which cancels out the drone that can be produced when driving.
Is there anything missing? When I saw the rear fold-down armrest with the control panel I instantly thought the ES300h must have had seat-back screens, but nope. Also, it’s annoying that Lexus still doesn’t have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as part of its package. This will change we hear, but it has been slow on the uptake.
The Lexus ES300h’s direct rival is the Infiniti Q70 Hybrid GT Premium for $82,900, but it also challenges the likes of Mercedes-Benz E-Class, which starts at $91,900, BMW’s 5 Series, which begins at $92,990, and the Audi A6, which kicks off at $81,900.
Engine & trans
Powered by a 2.0-litre, turbo-petrol four-cylinder engine, the CLA 35 punches out 225kW/400Nm.
Drive is sent through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmissions to the road via Mercedes’ '4Matic' all-wheel-drive system, enabling a 0-100km/h sprint in the 1603kg sedan in just 4.7 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 250km/h.
Though I didn’t get a chance to test the latter, the former certainly feels accurate when taking off from a freeway on ramp, however, there is some hesitation from the turbo in getting on boost.
Peak power comes in at 5800rpm, while maximum torque is available from 3000-4000rpm.
This combines a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine making 131kW and 221Nm, with an electric motor that has an output of 88kW and 202Nm. The 244.8V nickel-metal hydride battery has been moved from under the boot floor in the previous generation car to under the rear seats, so it no longer eats into the cargo space.
The ES300h isn’t a plug-in hybrid, so battery recharging is done through regenerative braking.
A continuously variable transmission means seamless and smooth low-speed driving using just the motor, but under heavy acceleration the engine activates and you’ll hear that drone associated with CVTs.
Officially, the CLA 35 sips 7.5 litres per 100km on the combined cycle, but we managed a 9.9L/100km figure in our week with the car.
The majority of our driving was done in inner-city environments, with the two trips down the freeway to seek out twisty country rounds.
Minimum fuel grade in the CLA 35 is 98 RON.
This is the point of a hybrid, right? To save fuel? The electric motor can power the car at low speeds around car parks or in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and I found that after 104km of both urban and open road usage my fuel economy in the Sport Luxury was 5.4L/100km.
Lexus’ official combined fuel economy figure for both the Luxury and Sports Luxury is 4.6L/100km.
The CLA 35 might not offer the outright thrills or breadth of capability of the CLA 45, but don’t think the cut-price AMG offers up a cut-rate driving experience.
From the driver’s seat, one of the cool things about the CLA 35 is that it doesn’t actually look any different from its more expensive sibling.
The drive-mode selector that is now embedded on the steering wheel is fantastic, a feature first seen on the Mercedes-AMG GT 4-door, and makes changing the driving dynamics on the fly an absolute breeze.
In fact, we think all cars where you can select drive modes should have a selector on the steering wheel like this, which lets you quickly and easily dial it up or down while keeping your hands on the wheel.
'Comfort', 'Sport', 'Sport+' and 'Individual' modes are available, while the transmission can also be put into manual mode independently for those that prefer to use the flappy paddles.
Suspension settings can also be tweaked regardless of which drive mode you are in, and it’s this level of customisability that we appreciate.
You want loud exhaust pops and the engine in full attack with manual shifting and the softest suspension? Sure, that’s doable here in the CLA 35. And toning it down to its most comfortable settings is just a flick of the wrist away.
The steering feels a little numb on centre and at slower speeds, though feedback picks right up with speed and is communicative enough when the road starts to get twisty.
Fitted with wide and sticky Michelin rubber, as well as the aforementioned all-wheel drive system, the CLA 35 is certainly not lacking in grip.
The suspension does an okay job of absorbing bumps, but uneven surfaces, like Melbourne’s tram tracks, can send uncomfortable jolts into the cabin if travelling quickly.
In fact, we think the ride comfort of the CLA 35 is probably its weakest aspect, offering not enough variability in its Comfort and Sport settings, and instead settling somewhere in between, regardless of drive mode.
The CLA 35 is ultimately still a fun and engaging sports sedan, though there are some sacrifices made to get it there.
Two words: quiet and comfortable. Well that’s three words, but that sums up the ES300h on the road. Yes, rivals may have intelligent adaptive air suspension and leather made from free range cows, and they are supremely tranquil and sumptuous places, but challenging them is this ES300h.
Even with its regular shock absorbers and steel-spring suspension, the ride was outstanding for its comfort and composure on the worst roads Sydney could throw at it over the week we tested the car.
Front and rear seats were supportive and comfortable over long distances, too. From a driver’s perspective the experience was serene – this was an easy and relaxing car to pilot.
I’m not a huge fan of petrol-electric hybrid powertrains, but it suits the seamless personality of the ES perfectly, adding to the smoothness of the ride as it slipped silently through traffic.
Just don’t expect the ES300h to be rewarding from a dynamic driving perspective. The steering was heavy and a little numb, and while the handling was good, I felt disconnected from the road. And whenever I needed to move quickly the combustion engine would splutter to life and the CVT would begin to drone.
The CLA 35 has not been tested by ANCAP or Euro NCAP, but the standard CLA range was awarded a five-star rating in September 2019.
Standard safety equipment in the CLA 35 includes autonomous emergency braking, automatic high beams, nine airbags, drive attention alert, blind-spot monitoring with exit warning, lane-keep assist, traffic sign recognition and tyre pressure monitoring.
The standard CLA also comes with these features, and was awarded 96 and 92 per cent respectively in ANCAP adult occupant and child occupant protection tests.
For the vulnerable road user and safety assist examinations, the standard CLA scored 91 and 76 per cent respectively.
ANCAP says the AEB system works from seven-200km/h.
Of note, adaptive cruise control is not standard in the CLA 35 like it is in the CLA 45. Instead, buyers will have to tick the 'Driving Assistance Package' box for the feature, which also comes bundled with cross-traffic alert and lane change assist.
The Lexus ES300h was awarded the maximum five-star ANCAP rating when it was tested in September 2018. Coming standard on both the Luxury and Sports Luxury grades are 10 airbags, AEB with pedestrian detection, lane keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control.
By stepping up to the Sports Luxury you’ll also get adaptive high beams which is fair enough, but you’ll also gain equipment which really should be on the base grade, too, such as blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert - which come standard on a Camry SL for half the price.
You’ll find two ISOFIX mounts and three top-tether anchor points across the second row which we used for our four year old and his car seat.
As with all new Mercedes-Benz models, the CLA 35 comes with a five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, which is one of the best assurance periods offered by a premium carmaker.
It also comes with five years of roadside assist.
Scheduled service intervals are every 25,000km or 12 months, whichever comes first.
A three-year service plan is available for $2150 for new CLA 35 buyers, saving $500 when priced individually.
Four- and five-year plans are also available, and are priced at $4200 and $4950 respectively.