2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250: Introduction
Nearly a decade ago, Mercedes-Benz took a risk when it introduced the original CLS-class four-door, which created an entirely new segment of sedans with stylish, sloping rooflines. Now, some years later and well into the second generation of the CLS, Mercedes-Benz is taking a similar gamble on the compact segment, with the introduction of the 2014 CLA-class sedan, led by the four-cylinder CLA250.
And that's not all: in addition to breaking into an entirely new segment, Mercedes-Benz is also positioning the CLA250 as a new entry point to the three-pointed star, with a pricetag just a hair under $30,000. Whether this move was intended to bring new buyers into the fold, or further diversify the brand's portfolio, bringing a smaller, less-expensive product to North America is undoubtedly a bold move for a German car manufacturer.
At a recent media preview held in Washington, D.C., Autobytel had the chance to sample the CLA250, and begin to figure out if Mercedes-Benz's strategy can work based on product alone.
2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250: Looks like a Coupe
The CLA250’s exterior styling is the first example of a shift in direction for the brand, led by chief designer Gordon Wagener, toward a sportier and less staid look. With the profile of the CLS-class, slimmed down to the size of a current C-class sedan, the CLA250 is definitely something different from the brand known for stocky, tanklike shapes.
The front fascia embraces a large grille with a center-mounted three-pointed star that is impossible to miss. Large front headlamps give the appearance of a much larger vehicle, using visual tricks to affect the CLA250’s appearance. An optional AMG-style front bumper treatment, with ground effects, is slightly overdone, what with much larger bumper openings and perceived. (We prefer the standard, more traditionally styled front clip.) In back, the CLA250 makes use of baby-CLS taillights, which are a direct connection to the coupe-as-sedan motif.
What’s not immediately apparent about the CLA250 -- from photographs, at least -- are its somewhat stubby proportions. Although the CLA250 does not emanate beauty in the same way as its larger sibling does, it is a remarkable effort at duplication at 2/3-scale.
2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250: Drives Like a Mercedes Should
While visual impact was a driving factor behind the development of the CLA250, the four-door coupe’s most impressive elements seem to be under the skin. Beneath the trendy sheetmetal, the CLA250 is exceedingly pleasant to drive. Dynamically, the CLA250 can stand with the top of the entry-level luxury pack, if not exceed it.
Worth emphasizing is that the CLA250 is the first front-wheel-drive Mercedes-Benz sold in the United States. A 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine delivers 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft. of torque, providing more than adequate thrust for moving the least-expensive Mercedes-Benz sold in North America. A smooth 7-speed dual-clutch automatic is the only transmission on offer, and gives the CLA a competitive advantage in a segment of continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) and traditional automatics.
A full roster of stability control and driver assistance features limits torque steer, which rarely made itself apparent. Braking performance is strong and steady, both for a car in this class and on its own merit.
The CLA250’s steering, however, is arguably a class above its competition. Precise movement and above-average weight help make it more of a driver’s car than most of its competitors. A thick-rimmed steering wheel adds to the feeling of solidity.
Along the back roads of Northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, the CLA250 remained planted and kept up with the twists and bobs in the road. Although Mercedes estimates up to 26 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway, we were unable to match those figures over a day’s worth of driving, which included some interstate stretches.
2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250: Business-Class Interior
The interior of the CLA250 focuses as much on flowing design as its exterior does. Borrowing familiar elements from the C-class sedan, GLK-class SUV, and the SLK-class roadster, primary controls are dotted along wide swaths of soft-touch materials that swoop across the dashboard.
The overall feel of the interior is business class, rather than first class. A tacked-on infotainment screen, which controls audio and telephone functions -- and navigation, if thus equipped -- seems like a design afterthought, and is fairly difficult to initially decipher. The Blackberry-style black plastic buttons are a mid-‘00s anachronism, but useful and straightforward.
Accommodations are available in leather or MB-Tex, and are roomy up front. The downside is that the back seat is tight for passengers of any size, with rear legroom slim enough to qualify the CLA250 for a compact designation. Further, its sloping roofline cuts into rear-passenger headroom, forcing most occupants five feet and over to lean forward during the drive.
2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250: Built to a Price
At the CLA’s media introduction in Washington, D.C., Mercedes-Benz executives made no bones about an edict passed down to its engineering team: We need the best car you can make for 30 grand.
A tall order? Perhaps so. On the surface, the CLA250 is designed to show off what a modern Mercedes-Benz can be, at an entry point for new buyers. Under the surface, the level of mechanical execution should be a point of pride for the brand.
Some obvious elements of cost-cutting are plainly evident in the interior, however, which suffers from inconsistency in materials, as well as its fit and finish. Most surfaces are acceptable to touch, but ill-fitting door panels and surprisingly flimsy plastic trim on the center stack and throughout the cabin fall short of expectations -- and its competition’s interiors. Further attention to noise, vibration, and harshness would be a welcome relief to somewhat excessive noise that emanates from the tires or the frameless windows.
2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250: Tough Competition
Mercedes-Benz has primed the CLA250 to enter a hypercompetitive entry-level marketplace, which is already full of contenders from luxury and mainstream brands. The CLA250’s aggressive price strategy, with a bottom line starting at just over $30,000, including destination fees, is new territory for Mercedes-Benz. Company officials expect leasing to play a significant role in bringing younger, less-moneyed customers to the brand.
The CLA250 will face direct fire from the Audi A3 (soon to be replaced), BMW 1-series, and Acura ILX entry-level luxury cars. But Mercedes-Benz acknowledges and is preparing for battle with high-option, non-luxury sedans, such as the Honda Accord and Ford Fusion.
While we're not sure that the same customer is cross-shopping family sedans and luxury cars, the CLA250 is a unique point of intersection for the brand. A look at the options sheet indicates that a nicely optioned CLA250 can be had for $36,000 or under -- a welcome departure from base model pricing that is virtually unattainable.
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