Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class VS Volkswagen Passat
- Quick pace
- Engaging dynamics
- Premium interior
- Harsh ride
- Limited rear-seat room
- Divisive styling
- Awesome fun
- Wagon practicality
- Feature laden
- Not cheap
- Interior a little dated
- Destined to be underappreciated
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|
Is life prying a hot hatch from your cold, dead hands? The story haunts car enthusiasts and echoes through time.
Family life has come knocking, so the go-fast hatchback must go, ultimately to be replaced by something more ‘sensible.’
Don’t worry, though, life isn’t over yet, you don’t have to kick around a dealership letting the depression sink in as you stare at SUV after SUV in a vain hope for something with a bit of spirit.
Volkswagen, the brand which likely gave you the hot hatch problem in the first place with its legendary Golf GTI and R, has the answer. While the word ‘Passat’ might not ring with much force in the minds of enthusiasts, this latest iteration, the 206TSI R-Line might just be the 'sensible family car' solution you’re searching for, and VW’s best kept secret.
|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.
Dear former hot-hatch owner and wagon appreciator. The search is over. This is the anti-SUV your heart desires at a fraction of the cost of Audi’s S4, or bahn-storming RS4. It’s as comfortable as it is fun, with subtle looks to boot, just don’t expect it to knock your socks off in quite the same way as a Golf R. You’ll have passengers to think about, after all.
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.
The Passat is attractive but understated. Not a head-turner, but the kind of car which needs to be properly looked at to be appreciated.
In the case of the R-Line, VW has gone to lengths to toughen it up with its sleek bodykit. The 'Lapiz Blue' signature colour aligns it with performance heroes in the VW range like the Golf R, and the mean looking gunmetal wheels and slim rubber is enough to get those in the know rubbernecking at it.
It’s the market’s latest quiet performer, epitomising the ‘sleeper wagon’ vibe, evoking echoes of legends past like the Volvo V70 R without being as loud as Audi’s RS4. A car that's seen, but not looked at.
The interior continues this theme with a simple but attractive design adorned with LED lighting, highlight strips across the dash, and quality trims in the doors.
The Passat has been augmented with today’s expected digital features, including VW’s stellar digital cockpit and classy 9.2-inch multimedia screen.
Volkswagen’s Audi-descended digital features are some of the smoothest and best looking on the market, and the multimedia suite slots nicely into its gloss surroundings.
The interior is well built and inoffensive, but in terms of its design I cant help but notice the Passat is starting to feel a little old, especially compared to the new-generation Golf and its more revolutionary interior design which also arrived this year.
While it’s nice the Passat scores the brand’s new steering wheel and logo, areas like the centre console, shifter, and some trim surrounds are just starting to feel a bit dated.
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.
Even if you’ve got a significant other breathing down your neck, you can tell them the Passat is even more practical than its Tiguan sibling!
In the cockpit the usual quality Volkswagen ergonomics are present. The key for drivers will be the R-Line’s lovely bolstered seats, quality partial leather interior trims which extend into the doors for comfort, and the sporty low seating position.
Adjustability is excellent, and that new wheel feels great.
Unlike the Tiguan R-Line, the Passat doesn’t get the haptic-feedback touch panel wheel controls, but to be honest you don’t need them, the nice clicky buttons on this wheel are the best.
Unfortunately, this is where the collection of lovely clicky buttons ends. The multimedia and climate panels in the updated Passat have gone completely touch.
To be fair to VW here, it is one of the better executions of touch interfaces I’ve had the misfortune to be forced to use.
The shortcut buttons which flank the multimedia screen have nice big areas so you don’t fumble them, and the climate panel is remarkably easy to use, with tap, slide, and hold functions for shortcuts.
Still, what I wouldn’t give for a volume or fan-speed dial at the very least. It mightn’t look as slick but a dial is unbeatable for adjustment while you’re concentrating on the road.
The back seat in every Passat variant is superb. I have leagues of legroom back there behind my own (182cm/6'0" tall) seating position and there isn’t a single area where VW has skimped out on the quality trims which appear in the front seats.
Rear passengers even get their own climate zone with easy adjust buttons and directional air vents. There are large bottle holders in the doors and three more in the drop-down armrest.
Rear passengers also score pockets on the backs of the front seats (although they miss out on the triple pockets in the new Tiguan and Golf), and for ease of access (you know, for fitting that child seat) the rear doors are huge and open nice and wide. They even have built-in sunshades to protect little ones from the sun.
Boot space? Now, this is where a wagon shines. Despite all that cabin room, the Passat R-Line still manages to sport a gigantic 650-litre boot capacity, complete with tie-down nets, a luggage cover, and even a built-in retractable divider between the boot and cabin – great for if you have a larger dog, and safe if you need to carry around lots of luggage.
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.
Well, that depends on what you’re looking for in a wagon. If you could relate to my preamble you’re looking for the rush this car offers.
And if you were once willing to fork out the extra for a hot hatch, I’m willing to bet you’ll appreciate what the extra spend ($63,790, before on-road costs) gets you in the R-Line.
If not? You can save significant dollars looking to the stalwart Mazda6 wagon (even a top-spec Atenza will only set you back $51,390), Style-focused Peugeot 508 GT Sportwagon ($59,490), or the Skoda Octavia RS ($52,990), which is essentially a less powerful front-drive variation on the Passat theme.
Our Passat, though, while only just below the Luxury Car Tax (LCT) cut-off, is unique among its peers, offering Golf R levels of power as well as an all-wheel drive system to set it apart for keen drivers.
Standard equipment is good, as you’d expect at this price point, with the R-Line featuring 19-inch ‘Pretoria’ gunmetal alloy wheels to match its more aggressive stance and bodykit, 10.25-inch ‘Digital Cockpit Pro’ instrument cluster, 9.2-inch multimedia touchscreen with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, built-in sat-nav, 11-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, leather-appointed interior trim, sports seats with 14-way power adjust for the driver, heated front seats, full ‘Matrix’ LED headlight and tail-light clusters (with progressive LED indicators), and tri-zone climate (with a separate climate zone for the rear seats).
The R-Line also scores some bespoke interior trim items and a panoramic sunroof as standard.
That’s heaps of stuff, and while it’s still missing a holographic head-up display and wireless charging bay offered by rivals, it’s not too bad at the price offered.
Again, the engine and all-wheel drive system are what you’re really paying for here, as the lion’s share of gear is offered on more affordable versions in the Passat range.
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.
The R-Line packs the good stuff here, a version of the brand’s renowned performance ‘EA888’ four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine which also appears in the Golf GTI and R.
In this instance it provides the namesake 206kW and 350Nm of torque.
The 162TSI which appears in the Alltrack was great, but this version is even better. The R-Line pairs this engine with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and drives all four wheels via VW’s ‘4Motion’ variable all-wheel drive system.
It’s an excellent powertrain, and none of its rivals provide a car in quite the same performance-oriented niche.
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.
The R-Line’s larger engine does carry a fuel consumption cost over the tamer 140TSI and 162TSI options in the range.
Official combined cycle fuel consumption is up from the mid-sixes in the rest of the range to 8.1L/100km, which is unsurprising.
In my few days of thoroughly enjoying this car, however, it returned a dash-indicated figure of 11L/100km, perhaps a more accurate indication of what you’ll get if you drive this vehicle as intended.
Like all VW petrol cars, the Passat R-Line requires mid-shelf 95RON unleaded fuel, and has a large 66-litre fuel tank.
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.
If you’ve driven a VW in recent years the Passat R-Line will be a familiar experience. If you haven’t, I think you’ll welcome what’s on offer here.
Put simply, this car in the 206TSI grade is one of the best engine and transmission combinations Volkswagen offers across its whole range.
This is because the brand’s signature dual-clutch automatics, which are fraught with minor issues when paired with lesser engines, shine when paired with torquier performance options.
In the case of the R-line, this means snappy performance typified by a strong turbo surge, angry engine note, and a responsive transmission.
Once you’re over the initial moment of turbo-lag, this big wagon leans back on its haunches and simply bursts to life out of the gate, with strong low-end torque controlled through momentous grip as the all-wheel drive system balances drive across the two axles.
The dual-clutch responds nicely, whether you leave it in automatic mode or choose to shift yourself, in one of the few instances where paddle-shift systems shine.
The R-Line’s progressive steering program shines when it comes to tilting this wagon into corners, giving you an unforeseen level of confidence, and it’s all backed by superb grip from the performance rubber and again, that variable AWD system keeping everything well and truly under control.
Despite the large power on offer, I struggled to get so much as a peep out of the tyres. And while performance is not quite Golf R level, it’s certainly somewhere between there and the Golf GTI, weighed down quite literally by the heft of the Passat’s larger body.
The trade off is well worth it. This is a car that allows the driver to have an absolute blast behind the wheel while also ferrying passengers in relative luxury and comfort.
Even the ride is finely finessed despite the large 19-inch wheels and low-profile tyres. It’s far from invincible though.
You’ll still want to steer well clear of potholes. What’s unpleasant in the cabin will be doubly so for the poor (expensive) tyres, and this makes the low-set ride not quite as ready for the trials of the suburbs as many of its more comfort-focused rivals.
Still, this is a performance variant by name and nature and while the goalposts are still way up in RS4 territory for hot mid-size wagons, this is the kind of reasonably-priced, warmed-over wagon which hot hatch lovers will be craving.
Suffice to say it’s more fun than you’ll have in pretty much any SUV.
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.
Volkswagen’s new ethos is one we can get on board with, and that’s to provide the full safety suite across the whole range in its latest offerings.
In the case of the Passat, that means even the base 140TSI Business gets its collection of ‘IQ Drive’ active features, including freeway speed auto emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane keep assist with lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and adaptive cruise control with ‘semi-autonomous’ steering features.
Extra stuff includes proactive occupant protection, which prepares the cabin in the instant before an imminent collision for optimal airbag deployment and seat belt tension, and a new emergency assist feature which will bring the vehicle to a halt when the driver becomes unresponsive.
The Passat range has the full array of airbags including a driver’s knee airbag, as well as the expected electronic stability, traction, and brake controls, for a maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating, carried over from the pre-facelift model in 2015.
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.
Volkswagen continues to offer its five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty across its range, placing it alongside most of its Japanese and Korean rivals, but behind Kia and the latest batch of Chinese up-and-comers.
Still, none offer a performance wagon in this space, so the Passat remains the standard here.
Volkswagen offers its cars with pre-packaged servicing which we recommend as it comes at a significant discount overpaying as you go.
In the case of the R-Line this means $1600 for the three-year pack or $2500 for the five year pack, saving you a max of $786 against the capped-price program.
It’s not the cheapest we’ve seen, but it could be much worse for a performance-focused European car.