2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class

Mercedes-Benz has been dabbling in front-wheel drive vehicles since the launch of the A-Class in 1998, but the new CLA-Class is the first front-driver that is earmarked for the United States market. Based on Mercedes' recently-introduced modular MFA platform, the CLA aims to boost the automaker's image while drawing a younger clientele into showrooms.

Often billed as a baby CLS-Class, the CLA is a compact four-door coupe that measures 182 inches long, 69 inches wide and 56 inches high. These dimensions make it about as tall and as wide as the rear-wheel drive C-Class but 1.5 inches longer.

Up front, the CLA is nearly identical to the third-generation A-Class hatchback that is exclusively sold in Europe. It features a muscular front bumper, a long and rippled hood and a single-slat grille that prominently houses Mercedes' trademark three-pointed star emblem. Bi-xenon headlights with integrated daytime running lamps are available at an extra cost.

Around back, the CLA features a sloping roof line that helps give it a drag coefficient of 0.23 Cd, making it the world's most aerodynamic regular-production car. It borrows design cues such as its curved trunk lid and its rounded LED tail lamps from the larger - and much more expensive - CLS.

Life Aboard
The CLA's cabin is largely carried over from the A-Class. Unabashedly designed to appeal to a young and trendy audience, the cockpit is characterized by aircraft-inspired round air vents surrounded by chromed bezels, an instrument cluster that is made up of four round analog gauges and a three-spoke multifunction steering wheel upholstered in leather. A pair of sport seats up front emphasize the performance-oriented nature of the car.

A 5.8-inch color touch-screen that protrudes from the top of the center stack comes standard, and it can be upgraded to 7.0 inches by opting for the Multimedia package that adds Mercedes' COMAND system. Controlled by either buttons on the center stack or a voice recognition software, COMAND integrates the car's audio, navigation, climate control and connectivity functions into a single unit.

The touch screen also lets passengers control Mercedes' MBrace2 infotainment system, which runs cloud-based applications and provides on-the-go access to the internet. In addition to offering a wide array of concierge services, Mbrace2 comes with an application that lets smartphone-wielding owners lock or unlock the car from a distance and instantly find it in a parking lot.

Standard Bluetooth connectivity enables the driver to make hands-free phone calls and stream music.

Under the hood
The CLA-Class lineup consists of a single model, the CLA250, which is powered by a turbocharged and direct-injected 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine mounted transversly in the engine bay. Linked to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, the mill sends 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft. of torque to the front set of wheels. Fuel economy is rated at an impressive 26 mpg in the city and 38 on the highway.

Mercedes will add a 4Matic all-wheel drive system to the options list later in the production run. An efficient new design specifically intended for the automaker's smaller, transversely-engined vehicles, it sends 100 percent of torque to the front wheels under normal driving situations while up to 90 percent can be shunted to the rear wheels when extra traction is needed.

Standard and Optional Equipment
The CLA-Class comes standard with power bucket seats up front, heated mirrors, a remote trunk release, a multi-function steering wheel, a CD player and run flat tires.

The list of standalone options includes a sunroof, a 12-speaker harman/kardon surround-sound system, an iPod/MP3 media interface, SiriusXM Satellite Radio that provides traffic and weather information, bi-xenon headlights, large alloy wheels, a trunk-mounted spoiler and heated seats.

For a more aggressive appearance, Mercedes offers an optional Sport Package that adds an aerodynamic body kit consisting of a beefier front bumper, side skirts and an air diffuser out back. 18-inch alloy wheels and a model-specific grille finish off the look, while drilled rotors come standard up front.

Occupant safety
In addition to seven airbags, the CLA features a radar-based Collision Prevention Assist system that can warn the driver of potential accidents and, when necessary, automatically apply the brakes to prevent or mitigate the severity of a crash. The car also comes with Attention Assist, which provides audible and visual warnings if it senses that the driver is drowsy.

Launch Edition
Mercedes will offer the exclusive CLA Launch Edition during the car's first twelve months on the market. The limited-edition model stands out thanks to Mountain Grey metallic paint and black 18-inch alloy wheels, while the interior is upholstered in black with bright yellow stitching. A sunroof, navigation and the aforementioned harman/kardon surround-sound system come standard.

Key competitors
The CLA's arch rival in terms of size, image and price is the Audi A3 sedan, but the Acura ILX embodies a similar concept in a more downmarket package. Although Mercedes has gone to great lengths to avoid overlapping in its lineup, CLA buyers will undoubtedly take a gander at the more luxury-oriented C-Class.