By now, anyone watching TV or viewing any kind of media should know that the sub-$30,000 Mercedes-Benz CLA is finally available at your local Mercedes dealer. I can’t recall any Mercedes-Benz product launch that has been so promoted to the point of annoying over-saturation.
On both a local and national level, Mercedes has been recycling its Super Bowl commercial featuring the ever-creepy Willem Dafoe as the devil tempting some gullible hipster to sell his soul in return for this new, super-sexy, Mercedes 4-door “coupé.” Luckily, Mr. Hipster passes on the temptation when he finds out that the all-new 2014 CLA250 starts at a paltry (by Mercedes’ standards) $29,900 [really $30,825 if you include the $925 transportation charge].
For several years, Mercedes has sold a different A-Class in Europe. It was an over-engineered, expensive, odd-looking subcompact hatchback with front-wheel drive. A decade ago, there simply wasn’t a market in the U.S. for such a small, odd duck. And for more than 100 years, there has never been a front drive Mercedes-Benz sold in the U.S. But the realities of higher fuel economy standards coupled with changing customer tastes and demographics set the stage for the next generation A-Class.
There was also a survey conducted by arch-rival BMW back in 2010 that found 80% of 1-Series (the smallest BMW) owners thought their car was front wheel drive or that they didn’t know the layout. So much for orthodoxy.
For the 2nd generation A-Class, Mercedes engineers were tasked with coming up with a lightweight, less expensive (but still premium) front drive (or all-wheel drive) architecture that could spawn several models and be sold worldwide, including North America. While the rest of the world gets both a slick VW Golf-sized 5-door hatchback A-Class and the new CLA-Class, in the U.S., we only get the CLA-Class, a baby 4-door coupé in the tradition of the much larger and far more expensive CLS-Class.
I’m genuinely excited about the new CLA. It reminds me very much of the introduction of the 190-Class, the “Baby Benz,” in 1984. For the first time, the car “Engineered Like No Other Car In The World ™” was attainable for a whole new customer base. It sucked me in and I bought one (a 190E 2.6).
For the past three decades, the smallest Mercedes available here has been the 190/C-Class. The all-new diminutive CLA-Class is here to shake the German Giant from its very roots. It sets a new baseline for a car fit to wear the Three-Pointed Star. And I’m glad to report that the 2014 CLA250 deserves the star.
Its exterior styling is an eye-pleasing derivative of the stub-nose SLS with the flowing lava-like lines of the latest S-Class. The side surface detailing looks like the designers poached from Mazda’s “Nagare” (“flow”) styling language. The roof and C-pillar rake down to create that coupé-like look which is great until you’re crammed in the back seat. The frameless windows are a slick, premium detail.
Like all Mercedes sports cars and coupés, the famous Three-Pointed Star is front and center in the grille. Unfortunately, it’s surrounded by cheap-looking black plastic crate. This is remedied in the upcoming A45 AMG and I’m sure there will be aftermarket replacements to spiff it up a bit. Another exterior feature that is in the commercials is the lit-up star logo. This is a dealer or port-installed option not listed on the website and for legal and regulatory reasons, it only lights up briefly when you start the car. I think the option is very cool, but others think it’s garish.
The interior looks and feels just luxurious enough to trick you and your friends into thinking you’re living large. The plastics are VW Golf quality which is not a knock; but the materials are definitely few ticks off the grade that you’ll find in more expensive models parked in the Mercedes-Benz showroom.
The five large round HVAC vents have a sporty, premium look and are a key Mercedes design element across the range – think SLK level, not S-Class. The perforated leather seating option only puts leather in the seat inserts, side bolsters and head restraints. The rest is the standard MB-TEX, an excellent vinyl most people think is leather. You could skip the leather option all together and no one would be the wiser.
The seats are thinner and tighter than those found in larger Mercedes. The side bolsters felt great to me, but might be tight for larger people. I’m 6’1” tall, so leg room is important. The CLA doesn’t disappoint. Like most Mercedes, I can put the seat all the way back and my feet can’t touch the pedals. Outstanding. Even better, the 14-way power front seats with 3 memory positions for the driver is a standard. The folding back seats are for tossing in gym bags and small children. The trunk won’t win volume awards either, but again, this is a small car sold on style, not cargo capacity. If you want more space, wait a year for the slick 2015 GLA250.
The drivetrain is unique to the CLA. The new 2.0L direct-inject gasoline twin-scroll turbo engine makes a peak 208 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. It’s mated to a new 7-speed DCT dual clutch automatic derived from the racing technology developed by in-house tuner AMG. Standard is an ECO Start-Stop system that kills the engine at a stop but fires it up the moment you lift your foot off the brake. I didn’t even notice it on my test drive. Of course, the transmission has a sports, eco and manual mode. The EPA rates the CLA250 at 26 mpg city, 38 mpg highway, and 30 mpg combined.
The twin-scroll turbo kicks in so far down in the RPM range that dreaded turbo-lag is non-existent. The smooth 7-speed DCT shift quietly, at lightning speed, without any the up- or down-shift hiccups I’ve experienced in other dual clutch units (I’m looking at you, Ford).
The two things that bug me the most about front drive cars is torque steer and turning radius. Both issues have been effectively banished from the CLA by Mercedes’ engineers. Torque steer is when the front drive wheels pull the steering during heavy acceleration. The torque steer from my MINI could have won a gold medal in wrestling. Clever engineering, modern electronics and a few thousand lines of software code have solved the torque steer problem for Mercedes.
Rear drive Mercedes passenger cars traditionally have a very tight turning radius. I was thrilled by how tight the front-drive CLA turned. It would put a Honda Civic to shame.
The ride was fairly well dampened and isolated for such a small car. My spine wasn’t punished over rough surfaces. The CLA tracked straight and, while the electric power steering boost was high, I was able to confidently feel the road and slot the car down a narrow road and into a tight parking space. The car tossed happily into turns and I felt in complete control. Road noise was noticeable, but I don’t think it would be a deal-breaker.
Brakes were strong and linear. Good thing I was alone on the test drive. It usually freaks out sales staff when I accelerate fast and then smash on the brakes hard enough to engage antilock.
The car didn’t have the $2,200 Sports Package with upgraded 18” AMG wheels and low-profile performance runflat tires. I might have had a different opinion of the ride and handling with the Sports Package. That said, the Sports Package may entice some BMW 3-series owners to switch brands after hefty 3-Series sticker shock.
Just about every CLA coming to a US dealer will have the $2,300 Premium Package which includes dual zone automatic climate control, heated front seats, 450 watt harman/kardon LOGIC7 sound, SiriusXM satellite radio, media interface, auto-dimming driver side and rear-view mirrors, digital compass and garage door opener. All these things should be standard on a Mercedes. At least Bluetooth connectivity is standard.
I didn’t have much time to fiddle with the infotainment system, but the premium sound system was sensational. The dealer-preferred Sirius classical music channel was crystal clear with impressive range.
If you want more tech, the $2,370 Multimedia Package delivers an 80GB hard-drive navigation and a 7” tablet-style screen replaces the standard 5.8” display. You also get 10GB storage for music, a 6-disc CD/DVD player, a rear view camera, “enhanced” voice control and Dolby 5.1 surround sound.
Of course, the smorgasbord of pricey German options continues. Mercedes advanced safety and technology features like Bi-Xenon headlamps ($850) and Driver’s Assistance Package ($2,500), including blind spot assistance, forward collision warning, lane-keeping assistance and Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control and Parktronic with Active Parking Assist ($970) are also available.
If you tick all the option boxes on the CLA250, you can easily top $46,000; but I think most CLAs will fly out the door for around $35,000. Mercedes is offering a cheap introductory lease of $329/month (plus tax) which will be very attractive to many drivers who would, for the same money, rather drive a Mercedes-Benz over an Acura, Lexus or Volkswagen.
Is this brand dilution? I mean, aren’t we sick of BMW and Mercedes racing to be everything to everyone? Exclusivity suffers. But in the massive global economy, to survive, size matters. In order for Mercedes to afford to make awesome machines like the SLS AMG, it has to be large enough and profitable enough to make the investments. In short, less expensive, frugal, high volume cars are necessary to survival. The CLA-Class challenges all those mainstream brands that are reaching higher. The message is clear: Mercedes-Benz standing its ground.