Combining look-at-me styling with a price point under thirty grand, Mercedes is hoping the CLA will lure a new generation of younger buyers to its showroom. But can a $29,900 car still live up to the Mercedes name? Come with us as we find out.
What is it?
More than just a smaller version of the CLS, the CLA signals a new direction for the Mercedes-Benz brand in the United States. Not only is the CLA Merc's first entry-level car since the C-Class SportCoupe of the 2000s, but also the brand's first front-wheel drive model to be sold on these shores.
The CLA borrows its architecture from a European hatchback, but you'd never guess those humble roots by looking at it. The CLA is clad in sexy body work that gives the four-door the appearance of a racy coupe.
What's it up against?
Audi's upcoming A3 sedan will be the CLA's most natural rival, but potential buyers might also consider BMW's latest 2-Series coupe, the Acura ILX and even the lame-duck Infiniti G37. The Cadillac ATS also checks many of the same boxes as the CLA.
Given its entry-level price point, we could even see some typical mid-size sedan buyers reconsidering their loaded Accords in favor of the stylish CLA and its prestigious badge.
What does it look like?
A case study in looking fast while standing still, the CLA features a fast-sloping roofline that gives this four-door sedan a coupe-like profile. Strong character lines along the front and rear doors add to the CLA's overall slinky look.
The front-end design of the CLA is more aggressive than we've come to expect from Mercedes, especially when optioned with our tester's AMG package. Some might like the AMG-spec mesh grille and larger air inlets, but the base car looks cleaner to our eyes.
The rear of the CLA features a subtle ducktail spoiler and LED taillights lifted from the S-Class flagship. As seen here, the AMG package adds a pair of air vents integrated into the rear bumper.
Overall, the CLA's styling is quite striking and should garner plenty of attention from admiring passersby.
And the inside?
The interior design of the CLA isn't quite as radical as its exterior, which is a letdown.
Slip into the driver's seat and you'll be greeted by Mercedes' familiar three-spoke steering wheel. Like other Mercedes, the CLA uses a stalk instead of a steering wheel-mounted control for the cruise control, which can be maddening at times. With the steering wheel pointed straight ahead, the cruise control stalk is completely concealed by the left spoke of the wheel, making for a high-speed guessing game on the highway.
The CLA employs a twin-pod gauge cluster that is more form than function. Because the actual faces of the gauges are set deep within the pods, shadows can make it difficult to read the speedometer, particularly on sunny days.
The CLA's center stack stands out as being somewhat dated for such a progressive vehicle. The high-mounted infotainment screen looks like an afterthought - no doubt the result of someone at Mercedes thinking that the younger generation is really into tablets - and the radio feels like a relic of the early 2000s. Do we really need a phone dial pad in the Bluetooth era?
Our biggest complaint with the CLA's interior, however, is the positioning of the HVAC controls. Mounted low in the center stack, the control panel is simply impossible to use while keeping your eyes on the road. Making things even more difficult, the lower buttons slant back toward the dash, hiding all symbols from eye's view.
They may not be forward-looking, but we're still big fans of Mercedes' retro-styled circular air vents.
Storage is at a premium in the CLA, with the center console containing just a small cubby and an over-sized cup holder. A second cup holder is located just in front of the center armrest.
Materials, for the most part, are decent in the CLA, but the plastic used on the lower portion of the dash and around the center console feel a little too cost-cutty for a Mercedes. However, French stitching on the doors does lend an air of quality, even if it is on vinyl.
The CLA's front buckets manage to be both comfortable and supportive, but the rear bench is a little cramped. Even with a sticker price north of $43,000, our tester was fitted with MB Tex rather than genuine leather.
As you might guess, the CLA's sloping roofline decreases rearward visibility, but a Blind Spot System can be had for $550. We'd highly recommend ticking that option box.
One option we might skip is Mercedes' COMAND infotainment system. Operated via a console-mounted dial, COMAND's interface is cumbersome and sometimes downright difficult to use. For example, we were only able to pair our smartphone with the system after several aggravating minutes and multiple failed attempts.
But does it go?
The CLA may be Mercedes' least expensive model, but it doesn't feel cheap to drive. The entire structure feels solid and substantial, which is quite the accomplishment given the CLA's light 3,262 pound curb weight. Even the CLA's doors close with a pleasing "thud."
That solid structure combined with Mercedes' optional AMG-tuned suspension gives the CLA a decidedly buttoned-down feel. Body roll is virtually non-existent in the CLA, giving you the confidence to throw it through a corner. We were concerned that the CLA's front-wheel drive would spoil the fun, but Mercedes engineers have done a masterful job of masking that potential pitfall.
For those wanting even more grip, Mercedes will eventually offer the CLA with all-wheel drive.
The CLA rides smoothly over most surfaces, but the suspension can "crash" over road imperfections that a softer setup would otherwise soak up. The CLA isn't vault-like, but road and wind noise are kept to acceptable levels.
The CLA uses a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder with 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, but we found it difficult to actually translate those numbers into forward momentum.
In its default Eco mode, the CLA doesn't so much have a gas pedal as it does an on/off switch. Pulling into traffic can be quite harrowing as there is very little throttle response even with a moderate depression of the pedal. Inevitably you'll have to stomp the gas in order to avoid being hit by the approaching vehicle that was a safe distance away just moments ago, resulting in screeching tires and a game of tug-of-war with the steering wheel.
Throttle response is better in sport mode, but still not ideal. It could be an issue with engine tuning, but we suspect the CLA's seven-speed dual-clutch transmission is to blame for the car's awkward starts.
Once in motion, the CLA offers plenty of pep with the gearbox providing quick shifts. The 2.0L motor sounds a little rough-running from outside of the vehicle, but is quiet from the inside. Operation of the start-stop system isn't imperceptible, but it's not offensive either.
During our week-long evaluation we had no trouble hitting the CLA's stated 26/38mpg city/highway fuel economy ratings, with the sedan even returning better than 40mpg on some highway trips.
Leftlane's bottom line
With the CLA, Mercedes has created an obtainable - and stylish - ticket into the world of luxury motoring.
Although not without faults, the CLA is an attractive package at $35,000, offering jaw-dropping looks and a brand name with plenty of cachet. However, the CLA's appeal falls apart quickly once the kitty climbs past $40,000, so be sure to go light on the options.
2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 base price, $29,900. As tested, $43,245.
Mountain Grey paint, $720; Panorama Sunroof, $1,480; Bi-Xenon headlights with LED taillights, $850; Premium Package, $2,300; Multimedia Package, $2,370; Sport Package, $2,200; Driver Assistance Package, $2,500; Destination, $925.
Photos by Drew Johnson.