The idea sounded fraught with danger: another sub-$30,000 Benz, this time with a transverse engine, front-wheel drivetrain. Apparitions of chintzy C-Class Sport Coupes (but with terminal understeer) danced in my head as I winged toward the launch in St. Tropez, France. Is the three-pointed star ready to go slumming again? Isn’t this VW territory?
This new bargain Benz is called the CLA-Class. It’s based on Euro-market A-Class hatchback underpinnings, but skinned in the stylish “four-door coupe” bodywork we Yanks find infinitely more palatable, complete with frameless door glass and a swoopy C-pillar. Of course, that gorgeous styling giveth—knee-weakening good looks and a 0.23 claimed drag coefficient—and it taketh away. Rear seat comfort is lacking—the headlining scraped this 5-foot, 10-inch rider’s scalp, and the cushion was none too cushy. As for the bargain aspect, good luck finding one for the advertised sub-$30,000 base price. Tempting options such as self-parking, a panoramic sunroof, Distronic radar cruise, harman/kardon Logic 7 audio, COMAND navigation, and 4Matic all-wheel drive threaten to bridge the gap with the C-Class’ base price of $38k.
I’ll spare you the suspense, because after driving the car for about as long as you’ve been reading this review, it became crystal clear that this new CLA is no C-Class Sport Coupe. That car was sort of a cynical play to get a low advertised price that could lure folks into the showroom, where they might be talked upmarket. This one is all about meeting Euro CO2 and U.S. CAFE regulations. Mercedes needs people—a lot of new people—to want this car, not one of the bigger ones into which salesmen of yore might reflexively have tried to upgrade them.
Consequently, everything you see, hear, touch, or feel has been tailored to the standards of the Mercedes lineup. The instruments and vent registers could be mistaken for those of the SLS. The standard MB Tex vinyl will pass for leather to casual observers, and cowhides are optional. The sport seats (standard in the U.S.) offer abundant lateral support. The 2.0-liter, direct-injected turbo makes a delightful snarl when it’s on the boil, settling into the background the rest of the time, while the 208 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque it delivers move the sub-3300-pound sedan around quite briskly. That’s thanks in no small measure to the seven nicely spaced gear ratios in the twin-clutch, paddle-shifted transmission.
Somewhat miraculously, given the torque at play, the driver’s sense of touch is never troubled with torque steer. I tried standing on the gas from a stop with the wheel turned, kicking down mid-corner at low speeds, and nuthin’. This is impressive, considering there’s no tricky multi-link virtual steering axis front suspension at work—just a humble strut and control-arm setup. It’s either magic, or (as Mercedes asserts) such forces are being cancelled by the electric power steering, which also allegedly compensates for extreme road crowns and heavy crosswinds, and applies corrective steering if the driver hasn’t mastered “steering into a skid.”
For the record, I also sampled a 4Matic all-wheel-drive system that incorporates a power takeoff in the seven-speed DCT, and an electronic clutch on the rear differential that dials in as much rear torque as conditions call for, between 100 percent front-wheel drive and nearly 100 percent rear if the fronts are in mid-air or on wet glare ice. The system is supposedly lighter than most as well.
True ride quality is impossible to assess on the seemingly micro-finished road surfaces traversing France’s Côte d’Azur, but the few speed bumps and pedestrian-crossing plateaus I encountered were absorbed with reasonable suppleness, even with the sport suspension that will be standard (at least initially) on U.S.-market cars. This is surprising, given that the test cars were all riding on the optional 18-inch tires (17s will be standard). We’ll see if Mercedes has the guts to outfit Detroit-area press cars with the 18s.
Those Continental ContiSportContact5s (Eagle F1 run-flats are also available) seemed to hang on at reasonably high g-levels before squealing a bit to trumpet their impending limits. They’re helped by spring and damping rates that help maintain a remarkably even keel, and while any messages they’re attempting to send up through the steering system get stifled by the electromechanical filters along the way, the helm does present a pleasing heft, an appropriately tight 14.4 ratio, good on-center feel, and linear response as you bend into a turn. The only dynamic niggle is that the brakes can be slightly overeager. They engage right at the top of the pedal, which is nice, but on occasion they seemed slightly grabby. Perhaps one would quickly get used to it, though, and at least they seem amply powerful.
I also came into this test thinking this car was aimed squarely at Volkswagen’s Passat CC—I mean, each comes with front- or all-wheel drive, a 2.0-liter turbo, and coupe styling. But in fact, the cars have very different personalities. The CC just feels more grown-up, staid, conservative; the CLA feels playful—almost GTI-like in its dynamics, and downright Hyundai Genesis-like in its comfort/convenience equipment. But is a $33,000 optioned one worth owning over a BMW 320 or Volvo S60, or more satisfying to drive than an Audi A4, BMW 320i, Cadillac ATS, or Volvo S60? I suspect it’ll hang right with those worthy competitors, with the brand cachet and styling winning more than a few converts.
So the new CLA250 is no C Sport Coupe. Instead, it really reminds me of the original kinderBenz, the 190e. Like that car, this one represents a genuine high-stakes investment in Mercedes-Benz’s future, and I’m willing to bet the CLA will pay off as handsomely in the U.S. as the 190 did everywhere else. Its running gear seems capable of cashing the checks written by its bold, aggressive styling. And if Volkswagen isn’t careful, I suspect this could end up being the car GTI owners want to graduate into…
2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250
BASE PRICE $30,000-$32,500 (est)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan
ENGINE 2.0L/208-hp/258-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4
TRANSMISSION 7-speed twin-clutch auto
CURB WEIGHT 3250-3300 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 106.3 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 182.3 x 70.0 x 56.6 in
0-60 MPH 6.5-7.0 sec (MT est)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON Not yet rated
ON SALE IN U.S. Fall 2013 (Spring 2014, 4Matic)
Read more: 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 First Drive - Motor Trend