The 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 sees the famed 3-pointed star driving into an area that hasn't been its traditional neighborhood. Big cars and trucks, plus the occasional open-top boulevard cruiser, are how Mercedes-Benz has made its name -- with high-dollar prices to match. Making a front-wheel-drive compact sedan that starts at under $30,000 is a whole new deal.

Sedan or Coupe?

Despite the four doors, using the word sedan may not be strictly accurate. Its maker calls it a 4-door coupe, since the roof dips down to the trunk in a coupelike way, much like the larger Mercedes-Benz CLS. Because of that, getting in and out of the rear takes a little more attention than usual, or you'll be taking more Advil than usual.

The extra bracing required for the optional panoramic sunroof also cuts down on headroom throughout the cabin, but it's more easily perceived from the back. Even so, with an average-sized adult up front, an adult of similar build will find the rear quarters more than acceptable for at least a short trip.

The cabin's sound deadening does a fine job of insulating occupants from a lot of exterior noise, including (sadly) any stirring engine thrum. On a low note, some of the plastics used seem a bit cheap for a premium car -- an example of cost-cutting to help with the bottom line.

Trunk space is a roomy 13.1 cu ft -- easily enough for two sets of golf clubs. The back seats split and fold to handle the occasional awkward piece of cargo.

Drive Time

Beneath the CLA250's hood is a twin-turbo 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine making 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. The best aspect is that the biggest accelerative punch comes in at low revs. Building up speed from on-ramp to freeway pace is easy, quick and undramatic. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency estimates fuel mileage at a thrifty 26 miles per gallon city/38 mpg highway and 30 mpg combined.

Credit for those numbers goes partly to the Eco mode, where the engine cuts out while sitting at traffic lights and starts automatically as soon as the driver's foot lifts off the brake. There's also a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission. Having one more gear than usual means more chance of finding the right one for any particular situation and taxing the engine less.

If dual-clutch sounds complicated, it isn't for the driver, who only has to select D and get on with the ride. Steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles (right for up, left for down) offer the opportunity for greater involvement.

Business Plan

There are two things to really consider before buying a 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250. One, take a test drive and pay special attention to seeing all around. The thick A-pillars and swooping roof have undoubted aesthetic value, but they may also hinder visibility. The optional Driver Assist package ($2,500) that includes blind spot monitoring is recommended.

Two, the CLA250 uses run-flat tires; there's no spare, full-size or otherwise. These tires tend to give cars a somewhat harsh ride quality. So don't go for the biggest wheel with the smallest tire profile (sidewall) unless you absolutely must. It'll look mean as heck, but anything other than perfect road surfaces will soon become irritating, which is certainly a most un-Mercedes-like trait.

As with all German cars, it's the options that make the wallet wince. The base car starts out with eight airbags, Bluetooth, driver attention assist, power front seats (with memory) and MB-Tex upholstery (an excellent faux leather material), but it's possible to reach the $40,000 level without trying too hard. Temptations include a $2,300 premium package (heated front seats, upgraded stereo, satellite radio, iPod integration and more); a $2,370 multimedia pack (navigation, 7-inch screen, rearview camera and more); plus wood trims and special paint finishes. All-wheel drive becomes available in spring 2014.

author photo

Colin Ryan has driven hundreds of cars thousands of miles while writing for BBC Top Gear magazine, Popular Mechanics, the Los Angeles Times, European Car, Import Tuner and many other publications, websites, TV shows, etc.

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