2 014 Mercedes-Benz CLA first drive, not the luxury bargain it aims to be

Not the luxury bargain it aims to be

Published: October 22, 2013 12:00 PM

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Starting at a tempting $29,900, the new-for-2014 CLA250 has something that’s quite foreign to American-market Benzes: front-wheel drive. And at first glance, it is more affordable than Mercedes’ cars in recent memory. The CLA sedan joins a small but growing niche of premium compacts that include the Acura ILX, Buick Verano, and the upcoming redesigned Audi A3.

In buying one for our test program, we quickly found that adding a few options sends the price tag soaring. Our CLA has a fair number of extras, including the panoramic sunroof ($1,480), bi-xenon headlights ($850), and the Premium Package (with satellite radio, heated front seats, premium sound system, and dual-zone climate system for $2,300). We did not opt for all-wheel drive. Final cost: $36,500—about the same as the starting price for the rear-drive C250.

The CLA is certainly a stylish sedan, or "four-door coupe" as the company likes to call it. The steeply raked windshield and prominent three-pointed star displayed in the front grill help the CLA strike an impressive pose. And the 208-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, driving through a seven-speed automated manual, practically shouts fuel efficiency.

First impressions: We’ve sampled many smooth-riding Mercedes-Benz products, but the CLA250 isn’t one of them. The ride is stiff and the car feels brittle on some impacts. Another Mercedes sacred luxury cow that the CLA sacrifices is cabin quietness. Road noise is quite pronounced, especially for a car priced in the mid-$30,000s. Day-to-day handling is decent and mostly tied down, but the CLA falls short of real agility. Steering feel was merely adequate, with many drivers going away wanting more lively feedback.

The engine’s power delivery starts out fairly flat and doesn’t provide a seamless rush. The transmission fell to harsher criticism, with most barbs thus far aimed at its reluctance to downshift with any sense of urgency. Some dual-clutch automated manuals can suffer from low-speed stumbles and vibrations, but the Baby Benz masks these partly because it shuts off the engine at idle. So far we’re seeing about 31 to 33 mpg according to the car’s trip computer. (The EPA rates it at 26 mpg city/38 mpg highway and 30 mpg overall.)

The seats look the part of an upscale sedan. They’re not real leather, but no one does a more faithful imitation than Mercedes. The seats provide good lumbar support, but they feel somewhat firm and too confining for most testers. Specifically, several drivers complained about their shoulder blades feeling pinched. At least the interior looks nice with the optional burl walnut wood trim. As in other Mercedes models, a center knob interacts with a dash-mounted screen and proves fairly logical, although some of us thought the screen looked like an aftermarket installation rather than a tastefully integrated factory system.

Problems continue with the low driving position and restricted view out. Many wanted to raise the seat height but found that head room quickly became scarce. And the coupelike styling creates thick window pillars all around, severely limiting the view out. The worst part is that the CLA has a high rear shelf and short rear glass. Combining that and our car not having a backup camera, and driving in reverse is needlessly stressful.

CR’s take: This coupe-ish sedan is certainly intriguing, but it begs the question whether a lower-cost car that dials back traditional Mercedes qualities will dilute this esteemed brand. Stay tuned for more as we fully test this new breed of Mercedes.

—Mike Quincy

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