Pros: Enticing starting price; fresh styling with distinctive, CLS-inspired looks; entertaining driving dynamics that back up the sharp appearance
Cons: Longer than a Mercedes-Benz C-Class but smaller on the inside; sloping roof line makes for awkward rear seat entry and exit; upright rear seat posture and tight headroom limit passenger comfort
What's New: Mercedes-Benz took a clean sheet approach to the CLA and built it around a new platform they call MFA -- short for Mercedes Front Architecture, which refers to the car's front-wheel-drive configuration. The CLA250 is powered by a turbocharged 208-hp 4-cylinder engine mated to a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Though it's classified as a 5-passenger vehicle, the CLA model's interior setup is far more welcoming for its front occupants. One of the CLA model's selling points are its advanced safety features, many of which have trickled down from pricier Mercedes models.
Mercedes-Benz wants to attract younger buyers to their brand, and the manufacturer's first plan of attack is to unleash the all-new 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 on the American public. The German manufacturer hopes several factors will lure entry level car shoppers to the 3-pointed star when it hits showrooms in September, 2013. First and most obvious is the attractive $29,900 starting price that's been heavily hyped on Super Bowl XLVII commercials and a big budget ad campaign. Mercedes has also trickled styling down from its CLS-series sedan, which lends the CLA muscular, flowing lines and a swooping, so-called 4-door coupe silhouette.
The 2014 CLA is slightly longer than a C-Class but has a shorter wheelbase, which compromises some interior volume for the sake of exterior styling. When the C-Class is redesigned for 2014, it will grow in size and make the CLA more clearly defined within the Mercedes-Benz lineup. The CLA model's dimensions seem to suggest Mercedes engineers chose frivolity over practicality, but this sedan's curvy sheet metal actually helps it cut through the air with the lowest drag coefficient of any passenger vehicle on earth. And while official fuel economy numbers have yet to be released for the CLA250, its combination of a turbocharged 2.0 liter 4-cylinder engine and a new 7-speed dual-clutch transmission should help it achieve competitive Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) figures to help catch those elusive younger buyers who are more budget conscious than typical Mercedes-Benz customers.
Performance enthusiasts can look forward to a 360 horsepower CLA45 AMG version, which hits showrooms in November 2013, while an all-wheel-drive CLA250 4Matic version will follow in the Spring of 2014.
Comfort & Utility
The Mercedes-Benz CLA250 model's standard equipment list includes a 5.8-inch display screen, Bluetooth, a power driver's seat, cruise control and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with paddle shifters. Bundled options include the Premium Package, which adds an iPod interface, SiriusXM radio, a Harman/Kardon surround sound system and heated front seats. A Multimedia package includes a COMAND interface with a 7-in display screen, hard drive-based navigation, a rearview camera and a 10-gig music hard drive, among other items. A few items can be ordered as standalone items, including blind spot assist, heated front seats, Parktronic and a panorama sunroof.
While the CLA incorporates plenty of safety-related technology that's covered below, most of the noteworthy tech offerings are based around its dash-mounted display screen and the standard mbrace2 system, which uses apps to integrate programs like Twitter, Facebook and Yelp. Other features include the ability to unlock the car from your smartphone; mbrace2 is free for 6 months, and monthly services thereafter include a $280 yearly package, mbrace Plus ($20/month) and the apps program ($14/month).
Performance & Fuel Economy
Official performance figures haven't been released yet for the CLA, but considering the less powerful 201-hp C250 achieves 0-to-60 miles per hour in 7.1 seconds, we're expecting healthy acceleration numbers from the 2014 CLA250. EPA fuel economy ratings are also yet to be determined, but the compact sedan should score solid figures, especially thanks to auto stop/start technology and Mercedes-Benz's claims that the CLA is the most aerodynamically efficient car in the world.
The CLA features numerous safety features, including Collision Prevention Assist, which helps avoid wrecks by actively applying brakes and alerting the driver with a warning, and the Attention Assist drowsiness detector, which warns of driver fatigue by processing eye movements and steering inputs. Other standard items include a tire pressure monitoring system and airbags for the driver, windows, driver knee and side impact areas. Options include adaptive cruise control, blind spot assist and lane keeping assist.
From behind the wheel, the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 delivers much of its visual promise of buttoned-down speed and agile handling. The turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder doesn't quite deliver neck-snapping acceleration, but when the transmission is set to Sport and the pedal is mashed, this compact sedan is capable of reasonably brisk scoots to freeway speeds and beyond. The dual-clutch transmissions delivered inconsistent shift speeds among different test vehicles, which might be attributable to the fact that the car's final calibration is still being worked out. Highway cruising revealed some road noise, but the cabin -- specifically the front seats -- is otherwise generally comfortable enough for long drives. The narrow-feeling cockpit can make the interior seem even smaller with the driver and passenger seated side by side, but that sensation is helped somewhat by the optional panoramic sunroof, which makes the interior feel airier.
We tackled twisty roads in both the standard front-wheel-drive CLA and the available all-wheel-drive 4Matic version. While the former provided excellent body control and predictable high speed dynamics, the latter is the enthusiast's choice (at least until the all-wheel-drive AMG version comes along), as it enabled even higher handling limits and greater G-forces without upsetting the balance of the car. One pleasantly surprising area is the CLA model's electromechanical steering, which delivers reassuring road feel that doesn't make us miss a traditional hydraulic setup.
Other Cars to Consider
Audi A4: Starting at $32,500 with a 211-hp 4-cylinder mated to a CVT (continuously variable transmission), the A4 is a cautiously stylish sedan that has developed a loyal following over the years; though more spacious than the CLA, Mercedes might win over some Audi loyalists with their more adventurously sculpted offering.
BMW 3-Series GT: Long considered the driver's car of choice, the BMW 3-Series expands its lineup with a recently debuted 4-door coupe-themed offering based on the 328i model, which starts at $36,850. Though Mercedes-Benz has traditionally positioned itself as a slightly more premium offering than BMW, the CLA shifts that paradigm with its decent basic equipment list and considerable savings over the 3-Series GT, which will be motivated by a more powerful 240-hp engine. The BMW can also boast more spacious rear seating than the CLA.
Volkswagen CC: This is one of the few affordably priced models that matches the CLA's sense of style at $30,965, thanks to its so-called 4-door coupe silhouette, but it also subjects rear passengers to some of the same discomforts experienced by the Benz -- though the CC model's wider stance lends it a more spacious interior.
Mercedes-Benz has done an admirable job of building a stylish, fun-to-drive compact sedan. But even more importantly, it has done so with a surprisingly low starting price of $29,900 (excluding a destination charge of $925), while offering a reasonably complete standard equipment list. Though options packages have not been priced yet, Mercedes says a decent front-wheel-drive CLA250 can be had in the $35,000 range, while a generously outfitted model shouldn't be very far past $40,000.
Though the CLA250 model's limited rear seats will make it less appealing to small families -- and likely drive them to cross-shop the pricier and more spacious C-Class, which starts at $35,350 -- we think this new entry level sedan will find loads of style-conscious buyers ready to take the plunge into Mercedes-Benz ownership.