The 'Almost Benz' succeeds in a lower gear
Anyone who's listened to the radio, watched television, read a magazine, seen a billboard, driven a freeway or, for that matter, even breathed in recent months could tell you: The big deal about the new 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 is its distinctly un-Mercedes-like price. It starts at $29,900 – almost $6,000 less than the automaker's previously least-expensive C-Class.
It's an impressive feat of pricing for a manufacturer so desired by beer-budget drivers and affordable only to consumers of Piper-Heidsieck. But now, with its new entry-level model, the same status-conscious crowd who purchase imitation Louis Vuitton handbags can buy in to the real German brand with a car that drives exactly as expected for its price point: well enough.
The first indication that the CLA250 is a bargain Benz is the exterior of this "four-door coupe," specifically the grille, which lacks the understated elegance of other Mercedes and instead looks as if a 6-year-old was let loose with a Bedazzler loaded with hexagonal pellets. Throwing open its doors to slide inside is only slightly better. Instead of a leather-y olfactory greeting, the smell is as generic as the black decor.
No, the CLA250 won't magically allow access to red carpet premieres with bodacious Sports Illustrated swimsuit models. It won't enable heel-and-toe skirmishes with race car drivers. Turning over the ignition, it hesitates to respond to even the slightest press of its accelerator pedal.
Despite the direct-injection and turbocharging of its 2.0-liter, inline four-cylinder engine, the CLA's default mode is limp. It automatically starts in an Eco drive setting that won't seem underwhelming for CLA buyers stepping up from a 5-year-old Toyota Camry but will feel decidedly lacking for anyone moving over from a higher-priced BMW of any stripe. For a more engaged driving experience, drivers need to manually switch to the significantly more sprightly sport mode, which shortens the shift times and holds the gears. Paddle shifters can operate in each drive mode and are, wisely, outfitted with an override feature that will automatically up- or down-shift to avoid redlining or a stall.
Its front-wheel-drive layout already says the CLA isn't a true driver's car, but its 208 horsepower and acceleration underscores that fact. A 4matic, Mercedes' all-wheel-drive, version of the CLA will be available in the spring, as will a 355-horsepower, $47,450 AMG version next month.
In Eco mode, the CLA's dual-clutch automatic transmission shifts quickly and smoothly through all of its seven gears at speeds as low as 40-ish mph, contributing to impressive fuel economy for a midsize sedan: 30 mpg combined. The start-stop function is also seamless and unobtrusive as it turns the engine off at full stops to conserve fuel.
Oddly, the mechanism that shifts between gears is on a stalk off the steering wheel, similar to a windshield wiper. And the LCD screen for audio, phone and navigation isn't embedded in the dash but likewise stuck on with a stem, as if it was an afterthought.
Other luxury details also lack finesse, such as the not-quite-opaque, black cloth cover for the panoramic sun roof and the remote unlock feature for the trunk. Pressing the button opens the trunk so quickly, I feared it would detach and fly across the grocery store parking lot.
There are, however, certain areas where Mercedes does a good job of disguising the low price of its four-door five-seater. To its credit, the CLA retains the quiet in-cabin character of its higher-priced models, with a ride quality that is smooth and comfortable if not exceptionally so. The rack-and-pinion steering firms up with speed and is fairly precise. And the curved edges on its dash, aviation-style circular vents and offset stitching on the door panels are all nicely done, though the silver on the audio controls' knurled knobs isn't metal. It's plastic that's been clad with a thin layer of real metal so the surface feels cool to the touch.
The CLA's main competitors are the $3,000-less Acura ILX, the Audi A3 (which will be priced exactly equal to the CLA250 for the 2015 model year), and the $1,300-more BMW 1 Series.
A less obvious competitor might be the $35,100 Kia Cadenza, which is operating in the same under-exploited gray area somewhere between the mainstream and luxury markets, only with a different psychology. The Cadenza confers no status whatsoever but delivers a premium experience with standard amenities that, on the CLA250, cost extra, including navigation, a backup camera and heated leather seats. All this makes the Cadenza, if not a better car than the CLA, one that's at least comparable – sacrilegious and improbable as that seems.
The CLA's stock features are minimal and include a 5.8-inch display screen, powered sport seats and collision prevention assist. The price can easily exceed the C-Class as customers add the appointments that make the CLA more of a true luxury experience.
Heated seats and an amazing Harman/Kardon stereo? You'll need to fork over an extra $2,300 for the premium package. Leather seats and top-stitching cost another $1,500, high-end navigation with a larger screen and a rear view camera are part of a multimedia package that costs another $2,370, and safety systems, such as radar-based cruise control, and blind-spot and lane-keeping assist, add $2,500.
With its CLA, Mercedes has succeeded in making a cheap imitation of itself that will appeal to Mercedes newbies more than its core buyership. Doing so, it is likely to prove the same tenet as Toyota with its sudden-acceleration debacle. It's more difficult to destroy an excellent reputation than to recover from a bad one.
2014 MERCEDES-BENZ CLA250:
–Powertrain: Turbocharged, direct-injected, 2.0-liter, inline-four-cylinder, four valves per cylinder, overhead cam
–Horsepower: 208 at 5,500 rpm
–Torque: 258 at 1,250 to 4,000 rpm
–Top speed: 149 mph
–0 to 60 mph acceleration time: 6.9 seconds
–Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
–Length: 182.3 inches
–Curb weight (estimated): 3,264 pounds
–EPA-estimated fuel economy: 26 mpg city, 38 mpg highway, 30 mpg combined
–Base price, excluding destination charge: $29,900
–Price as tested: $38,770
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