The Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class answers several questions that were causing more than a few sleepless nights for the boys and girls from Stuttgart: What to do about a clientele that was aging with each passing minute, and how do we inject new blood into the brand that was known for having a price of entry nearing $40,000?
Seven years ago, Daimler officials started reading the tealeaves and determined that a new model tasked with bringing new customers into the fold was a necessity. The stylishly large CLS came first and immediately created a styling sensation that spread throughout the industry; witness the popularity of the Hyundai Sonata and Volkswagen CC. In 2012, the Concept Style Coupe was featured as a possible styling direction for such a vehicle.
Two years later, and due to overwhelming public response, the CLA250 hits the road and is nearly true to its concept form. Game changer for Mercedes-Benz? You betcha.
The marque of the devil... Or at least Willem Dafoe
A commercial seen during 2013's Super Bowl weekend depicted a nervous young man just about ready to sign over his soul to Beelzebub, in the form of actor Willem Dafoe, in exchange for rock star prowess, stamina and wit just so he can afford the new Mercedes-Benz CLA. Peering through a window at a couple of workers finishing up the CLA billboard outside, he notices the pricing part that reads, "starting at $29,900." He tears up the Devil's contract while stating, "I think I've got this."
With rivals yet to come from Germany, Mercedes is betting the farm that many others like him will want to have this, too.
Not only is Mercedes hoping CLA will help to recalibrate the value perception (after all, Ford Fusions and Kia Optimas sell at this level), the brand intends to keep assure buyers that this car is still a true Mercedes-Benz.
One startling difference is that it sends power to the front wheels (or all four when optioned with Mercedes' 4Matic all-wheel-drive system set to arrive next Spring). Available with what Mercedes-Benz is calling a new generation of engines, the CLA250 enters the marketplace with a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine. Rated at 208-horsepower and 254 lb-ft of torque from 1,250 rpm, it utilizes Mercedes' dual-clutch seven-speed Direct-Select transmission. For the 4Matic version, a power-takeoff unit with two-piece driveshaft powers the rear wheels, and the entire system operates with a variable front-to-rear bias from 100:0 all the way down to a 50:50 torque split.
Mercedes says the front-drive CLA is good for 0-60 mph in 6.9-seconds, while the EPA estimates that it's capable of a 26/38 mpg rating with an average of 30 mpg combined.
The steel unibody design rides on a MacPherson strut setup with springs and wishbones in front, and an independent rear kit with wishbones and control arms. Steering is through a speed-sensitive electrically assisted power steering unit, which displayed a 36.1-foot turning radius.
The CLA tips the scales with a curb weight of 3,264 lbs., a lightness made possible by the car's relationship to Mercedes' Euro-market A-Class and B-Class hatchbacks.
It's a looker
Mercedes decided a new entry-level car had to be authentically a Mercedes-Benz in every way, but they quietly admitted to us that it also had to be a little more "badass" than any Mercedes before. A little longer, lower and wider than the current C-Class, it carves, literally with its concave and convex styling, a place in the smaller mid-sized portion of the brand.
Three organic cutlines on the sides of the CLA lay the groundwork for future product styling, starting with the most notable touch, the scoop-like grille that just may be the start of something big for the Mercedes-Benz brand. Power domes on the hood add to the effect, and a brief squint evokes the style of big brother CLS.
All this shapeliness isn't just a look; the CLA is the most aerodynamic car ever built, with a Cd of 0.23 (a Euro-market CLA180 CDI Blue Efficiency will boast just 0.22).
The CLA's interior is authentic (there's that word again) Mercedes-Benz. We've seen the details before, from the standard thick-grip leather-wrapped steering wheel to the metallic climate control ductwork seen across the dashboard, all of which feels sufficiently close to an S-Class costing three or four times as much.
Carbon fiber and aluminum trim pieces are available interior decor. For those who appreciate a touch of nature inside, burled walnut or ash can also be ordered.
Adjustable sport bucket seats manage to hold the driver and front passengers firmly in place while the rear seat can accommodate two, or three passengers. The rear seats may be a tight fit for some and we were surprised at the lack of a rear center armrest for outboard passengers.
Mercedes claims that the connected car is important to new buyers, so it offers up its smartphone-based mbrace2 system. Updateable as long as a buyer maintains a subscription to the service, it works with the in-dash 7-inch screen to deliver apps from Google, Facebook and Yelp.
Power from the turbo four-cylinder came on smoothly and in a linear fashion, once we disabled the default Eco setting that, annoyingly, reverts every time we turned the engine off. With Eco engaged, the car was sluggish from the start, acting like a poster child for the Sierra Club. Shifting the control off and stepping through to Sport mode found an eager revver that was up to the task of hurling the 3,200-pounder down the highway. Using a stalk-mounted gear selector, the transmission was effortless until we desired to shift it ourselves with the steering wheel-mounted paddle shift levers.
The CLA's ride proved was extremely quiet on Skyline Drive and roads throughout Virginia horse country. It was only when we were on the coarse aggregate that there was any discernible interior noise to speak of. Ride control was likewise above average thanks to the electric power-assisted steering, advanced MacPherson struts with wishbones in front and multilink setup in the rear.
Speaking of steering, the speed-sensitive power-assisted rack offered firm road feel depending on speed and effort required during our time in the car.
The takeaway from our brief time in the CLA was that while this Mercedes might be lean in the pricing department, it was flush with accoutrements that clearly transmit the vibe that comes with driving a 'Benz.
Leftlane's bottom line
Several years ago, Mercedes-Benz board members wondered how to connect as a brand with younger buyers. The smoke and mirrors of a heavy social media presence were not enough. Dire measures were taken, with the company heading in a new direction. The result can now be seen in dealerships from coast to coast.
The CLA250 is a budget-priced Mercedes-Benz that is hardly budget-equipped. Featuring just the right amount of wrong in a car that an average Joe can afford, it is the perfect vehicle that will draw new customers to the brand as their older more established buyers age out
2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250
Photos by Mark Elias.