Style over substance. That's usually a negative connotation, but for Mercedes-Benz's latest foray into affordable luxury, it might be a saving grace.
The all-new 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA is a stylish car inside and out that will likely turn heads and open wallets.
It packs decent performance, surprisingly good gas mileage and even more astonishing rear legroom. However, it has flaws that can't be overlooked, such as a rough ride and options that escalate the price quickly.
I tested both the front-wheel-drive CLA250 and the significantly more powerful all-wheel-drive CLA45 AMG over hundreds of miles on rural roads, highways and downtown streets around our nation's capital.
The CLA250 competes with a variety of premium cars like Buick's Regal and Acura's ILX as well as BMW's smallest engine 3 Series, the 320i. You can compare all four here. The CLA45 AMG is wedged between less expensive mainstream models and more expensive high-performance variants from Audi and BMW.
Exterior & Styling
Walk into a Mercedes-Benz dealership and you'd be hard-pressed to tell the entry-level C-Class from its more staid E-Class brethren. Place the CLA in the same showroom and there's no doubt it is an entirely different vehicle.
But look at the numbers and the CLA, which many will think is the smallest sedan, actually compares to the C-Class across the board. The CLA is 1.5 inches longer than a C-Class sedan, yet the snub-nosed front, raked rear pillars and bulbous rear make it look smaller.
It also looks sexier. It's lower to the ground than the C-Class, and the slivers that Mercedes calls windows help accentuate the coupelike design. They certainly don't help with visibility. See the two models compared side-by-side.
How It Drives
The concept of a front-wheel-drive Mercedes likely riles purists, but after testing the CLA over hundreds of miles, I don't think buyers in this segment will mind the drivetrain. All-wheel drive is optional on the CLA250 and will be available early next year; the front-drive model is on sale now. The CLA45 AMG comes only in all-wheel drive and will be on sale later this year.
Powering the 250 is a new turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder producing 208 horsepower and 258 pounds-feet of torque teamed with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. These are impressive numbers that not only outpace the C250's power but also team with remarkable EPA estimates of 26 mpg city, 38 mpg highway and 30 mpg combined. Over a driving leg of 126 miles at significant speeds but with few stops and two adults onboard, the CLA250's trip computer showed 31.7 mpg with an average speed of 42 mph.
The CLA250 base model is 164 pounds lighter than a C-Class; it feels nimbler, even when pressing hard through twisty turns where the front-wheel drive is probably least impressive.
Hammer the throttle down on the CLA250 from a standstill and there is significant tire spin from the front wheels, but in more typical acceleration, the CLA250 pulls confidently both from 30 mph and, for highway passing, from 60 mph.
Where the CLA-Class stands out most is in steering. Even the CLA250 provides precise response and a steering feel that isn't heavy. There isn't much assist apparent from the electric power steering either, allowing for a natural feel.
The CLA45 AMG sports the most powerful four-cylinder engine on the market. While it is an impressive performance machine in some ways, it sits in an unsure spot for enthusiast shoppers. It's a step above most amped-up sports sedans on the market like the Audi S4, but it's unclear whether it will hold off the next M3 or M4 from BMW. The price will still be lower for the CLA45 AMG, though.
With 355 hp and 332 pounds-feet of torque coming from a seriously steroidal version of the same turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder as the base CLA250, the CLA45 AMG hustles from a stop, and any other speed, quickly, but it isn't as exhilarating as I expected with those numbers. A variety of drive settings impact throttle response, and when in Sport mode the engine timing is altered to deliver a loud "burp" through the exhaust when shifting hard.
It's a bizarre sound in some ways, but I found it pretty enjoyable. Otherwise, the exhaust sound is a bit rattly and always present — even in Comfort mode, though you don't experience the burping when shifting. Mileage numbers haven't been released yet, but over a 75-mile leg of aggressive testing, the trip computer read 25 mpg.
Like the 250, the CLA45 AMG's steering is a standout. Teamed with all-wheel drive, this is the blend of handling precision and livability anyone would appreciate. It hugged corners and gives an extreme sense of confidence when accelerating out of them.
Braking is also impressive in both cars. The AMG slows more aggressively with its larger rotors, but even the 250 impressed. It saved me from damaging a brand-new car when a large truck decided to change lanes without signaling in tight traffic.
But shoppers will have to decide if the performance plusses outweigh the pretty significant minus: The CLA — with a wheelbase 2.4 inches shorter than the C-Class — has a pretty harsh ride in base and AMG forms. The AMG's ride is extremely rough, with jolts coming through sharply over every road imperfection. It's so severe that it reminded me of more aggressive alterations like Audi's RS5 coupe. The AMG version replaces the standard suspension with gas-filled struts and front and rear stabilizer bars.
The CLA250 jolted me from driving enjoyment less frequently but with regularity whenever a moderate to extreme road defect came under wheel. Most of the roads I traveled were superbly maintained, but those that were more akin to my home turf of Chicago revealed unacceptable ride comfort.
No matter the vehicle and wheel and tire combination I tested, road noise was also extremely loud. Any surface that wasn't smooth blacktop made its presence known.
And then there's the visibility. I haven't tested any four-door vehicle with such limited sightlines. The CLA's back window is slim, all four side windows are similarly short, the side mirrors are relatively small and the rear pillars are rather huge. The only car I've tested in the recent past with such poor visibility — that wasn't a convertible — is the Chevrolet Camaro, and that's a two-door sports car.
This means drivers need to be much more aware when changing lanes — cars can sneak up on you easily with such large blind spots on either side — and especially when backing out of a parking spot.
A $30,000 Mercedes' interior quality and materials are going to be scrutinized to an extreme degree. To Mercedes' credit, shoppers in this price range likely aren't expecting much more. The wide swaths of textured black faux leather across the dash and doors were soft to the touch and had a sheen that resembled the real thing despite obviously being a synthetic material. The two dozen or so vehicles on hand were all equipped with black interiors; tan, gray and dark brown are also available. Even if you opt for leather seats, the dash material remains the same but adds some stitching for design flair.
To offset this cost savings, Mercedes did an artful job with the air vents. Yes, air vents. Five metallic-ringed circular vents break up the dash. Styled after the vents in the company's halo SLS AMG supercar, they're the stars of the interior. They work quite well with a quick flip of the interior cross-section to adjust air output, and they also swivel in all directions.
Attractive — if almost impossible to read — analog gauges bracket a much more usable digital display that shows the driver trip data and other information, though to avoid breaking speed limits, I set it to display the speed digitally. I really couldn't tell how fast I was going by looking at the analog option, especially with the sun casting harsh shadows.
While the interior looks good for the money, the seats sure didn't feel welcoming to my driving partner or me over our extended drive. After about 30 minutes in the seat, my back was aching. My partner complained about his lower extremity's lack of appreciation for the seat bottom's firmness.
Even on the second day of driving, when I often get acclimated to a car's seats, the CLA's still were too firm for me.
All CLA seats have fixed head restraints, which is unusual these days but look good and didn't impact comfort with the lack of adjustability. More shoppers will likely have issues with the seats' side bolstering. Even on the CLA250, the bolsters encroached on my torso and thighs. I'd say I'm average in these dimensions; people who consider themselves slim or petite will likely have no issues with them. The AMG has optional Recaro-brand seats with even more aggressive bolstering.
The most shocking interior development is the rear seats. Just by looking at the raking roofline you expect the backseat to be completely unusable, but once you duck your head to get in — you will need to warn rear passengers before they try to enter — the backseat has enough legroom that I was comfortable with the front seat adjusted for my 5-foot-10-inch frame. I also had plenty of legroom in the front passenger seat in this setup. Your feet are raised a bit to rest against the engine wall versus the floor, so it has the feeling of being in a recliner despite the lack of a footrest.
Headroom in back is a bit tighter. With the optional moonroof, my hair was touching the roof. In a model without the moonroof, the CLA gains 1.4 inches of headroom. In this car my hair wasn't touching the ceiling, but I doubt 6-footers will be as lucky.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The CLA250 is being heavily advertised with its $29,900 starting price — before a $925 destination charge — and with that there is a good level of standard equipment including a 5.8-inch display screen, Bluetooth, power driver and front passenger seats, and imitation-leather upholstery.
However, it's unlikely most shoppers will go for the stripped-down model with such feeble technology options.
A $2,300 Premium Package is needed to add an iPod interface, upgraded Harman Kardon stereo, satellite radio and dual-zone climate control. However, the most modestly equipped CLA250 on hand also added the $2,370 Multimedia Package, which includes a much larger 7-inch display screen, navigation and a six-CD changer. This means the sub-$30,000 car I was testing would actually cost $34,595 out the door.
The larger navigation screen itself floats out from the dash almost like an aftermarket kit, but the actual result is much more elegant. The resolution is quite good, with maps as impressive as any on the market. During our test, each route was preprogrammed into the computer with waypoints, which was convenient. After an unplanned detour, the computer quickly rerouted me back to my hotel.
Voice controls also worked well with no need to wait for a prompt or beep to give the next command. It would dial numbers and switch screens between phone and map interfaces with ease. Unfortunately, we didn't have a compatible device to test out the iPod integration, as the connector is still set for previous-generation iPods; an adapter for the connector would be needed. The USB port charged my iPhone 5 but did not play music. Bluetooth audio streaming worked well. Two phones could be paired at once so that one could be used for phone, one for music, and it was easy to switch back and forth between them.
The Harman Kardon system had decent sound quality but very little low range for robust sound on rock 'n' roll and R&B tracks where you'd want more bass in the mix.
Cargo & Storage
The CLA's trunk is a respectable 13.1 cubic feet, with a large, wide under-floor storage area. The C-Class is rated at 12.4 cubic feet and the BMW 320i at 13.0 cubic feet, but in real-world use I don't think the CLA is superior to either competitor. Luggage and golf clubs should be easily accommodated, but there isn't a lot of height to the trunk so bulkier items will be an issue, and the standard folding rear seats likely won't help there.
A new model, the CLA-Class hasn't been crash-tested as of publication.
The CLA comes with a standard suite of airbags including knee airbags for both the driver and front passenger. A $2,500 Driver Assistance Package adds lane departure warning as well as lane keeping and collision prevention systems. The collision prevention system was equipped on a few of the models I tested and came into use once as intended. Amber and red lights illuminate along with a warning chime to alert drivers to an impending collision. It can apply 100 percent braking force to avoid a collision, but I didn't notice braking besides my own in my testing.
Value in Its Class
However you shake it, no buyer is actually going to find a sub-$30,000 CLA. Mercedes predicts most CLA250s will be sold at roughly the $35,000 mark like the least expensive model I tested. A similarly equipped BMW 320i comes to $37,120, so the CLA still offers more for less, as they say, and has more power and better fuel economy than that most basic of 3 Series.
The front-wheel-drive setup will likely be irrelevant to a majority of shoppers, considering how striking this car is. The style, price and performance make the CLA a winner on paper; it's just the comfort sacrifices found on the road you need to check off before signing any paperwork.
The much more expensive CLA45 AMG, starting at $49,300 including destination, is harder to justify, but when compared against pricey cars with their top engines — like Cadillac's ATS — it becomes more intriguing.
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