By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
The new Mercedes CLA is one thing no previous Mercedes-Benz has ever been — front-wheel-drive (with AWD optional) and also another thing very few Mercedes Benzes have ever been — fairly inexpensive.
If you can afford a loaded Camry you can probably afford this car. But the CLA is not a Camry — or a Toyota.
And that’s just the point.
The object here is to sell more cars to more people — to make money on volume as well as per car. To increase the number of people who are part of the MB family — and not just lusters-after.
The tough part is doing that without cheapening the MB brand.
Does the CLA pull it off?
WHAT IT IS
The CLA is Mercedes’ new entry-level sedan, slotting in just below the C-Class in size — and price.
But way above it in curb appeal, performance and fuel-efficiency (if not back seat legroom).
Front-wheel-drive is the standard layout — a first for a Mercedes-Benz passenger car. And a unique, too — no other current Mercedes vehicle is available in FWD form. This version of the CLA — the CLA 250 — carries a base price of $29,900 — which also makes it it the most affordable Mercedes passenger car available.
But don’t mistake this for an economy car with a three-pointed star.
The AWD CLA45 AMG will vaporize such notions in a cloud of fast and furious. Twin-scroll turbos boost the output of its 2.0 liter engine to an incredible 355 hp — and 0-60 in just over 4 seconds (while still getting more than 30 on the highway).
This one starts at $47,450.
But even the base CL250 is no slow poke. In fact, it’s a fast poke — a full second quicker to 60 than a C250 (and delivers much better gas mileage, too).
Either way, the CLA is a groundbreaking car for MB — and for buyers, too. It doesn’t — yet — have any direct competition. BMW’s entry-level car — the 1 Series — comes only in coupe/convertible from (and is RWD). The least expensive BMW sedan — the base 3 Series — is larger, more formally styled — and significantly more expensive, with a starting price of $32,750.
The Lexus ES350 is FWD — but it starts at $36,620 — and it’s also a larger (and much softer-driving) car than the sexy/sporty CLA.
The closest CLA analog is the not-quite-here-yet Audi A3 sedan. It’s also available in either FWD or AWD versions — and its projected base price of $29,900 just happens to be exactly the same as the CLA250’s base price.
But, the A3’s a 2015 — and not actually available yet (at the time this review was written in early March of 2014). It should be out in a couple of months. But until then, the CLA largely has the field to itself — and a clear shot at the end zone.
The CLA is all-new, the latest addition to MB’s rapidly proliferating lineup.
Camry/Avalon price tag — Mercedes-Benz key fob.
Not low-rent. It looks, feels — and drives — like a Mercedes ought to.
Excellent — or exceptional — performance. Take your pick.
High-end equipment/technology (10 Gig music storage hard drive, adaptive cruise control, panorama sunroof) is available.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Space is tight in both rows; it’s a much smaller car than a Camry . . . or a C-Class.
Low-slung roofline, high beltline and fastback glass restricts outward visibility relative to a more conventionally (formally) styled luxury sedan such as the C-Class (or a BMW 3).
Some equipment — such as heated seats — that arguably ought to be standard equipment in a nearly $30k car still costs extra — or is only available as part of packages that boost the price of the car well beyond $30k.
UNDER THE HOOD
Both versions of the new CLA are powered by a 2.0 liter turbocharged four — a size (and type) of engine that seems to be becoming the “universal” engine among smaller/entry luxury cars. The BMW 3 comes with one — and so does the Audi A4. The Range Rover Evoque — and the Cadillac CTS, too. These engines are not coming from the same factory, however. Each is unique to its brand. So why 2.0? It’s not too big (for gas mileage reasons) and it’s not too small (for power/performance reasons). It’s a “just right” size for these times — especially when turbocharged.
Speaking of which.
The CLA250’s version of the 2 liter engine has a single turbo and produces a maximum output of 208 hp — as well as 258 ft.-lbs. of torque — the torque output being comparable to the output of a much larger V-6 engine. This gets the fairly heavy Baby Benz (3,262 lbs.) moving right smartly when you need it to: Zero to 60 in about 6.4 seconds for the FWD version (4-Matic AWD is available optionally). But the CLA is also capable of 38 MPG on the highway when you’re just loping along — and 26 MPG in city driving.
That is spectacular efficiency — almost as high as the most economical economy cars. To give you some perspective, the 2014 Nissan Versa — which is one of the most fuel-efficient new economy cars on the road — maxxes out at 40 on the highway — only 2 MPG better than the CLA250.
But the Versa does not get to 60 in 6.4 seconds.
If that’s not speedy enough for you, well — there’s more. One more turbo (two total, twin scroll type) and a bunch of heavy duty internals later, the 2.0 engine’s output rises to an incredible 355 hp and 332 ft.-lbs. of torque. This is V-8 power out of an engine with half the cylinders and a third the displacement. So equipped, the CLA45 AMG rages to 60 in about 4.3 seconds — supercar quickness — and manages 23 city, 31 highway.
Mercedes has broken new ground here.
Hell, they’ve ripped up the entire lawn.
Both versions of the CLA come with seven-speed dual-clutch automatics, but they’re each tweaked for the application. The 250’s version has three driver-selectable modes — Economy, Sport and Manual — the latter controllable via paddle shifters on the steering wheel. The CLA45’s version is beefed up to handle the increased hp and set up to shift more aggressively when in Sport/Manual mode.
In the CLA250, there is a stalk-type column shifter (in addition to the secondary paddles) which you tap up and down to engage Drive and Reverse — with a button on the tip that you tap to engage Park. In the CL45 AMG, the not-so-sporty stalk is disappeared in favor of a meaty grab handle (brushed metal finished) on the center console. Naturlich, there are also secondary paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
While the CLA250 is available in either FWD or AWD versions, the CL45 AMG comes only in AWD form.
Both engines want — but do not require — premium fuel. They also come with automatic engine stop, to save fuel rather than waste it when the car is idling (as at a red light). The engine re-starts automatically when the driver takes his foot off the brake and depresses the accelerator pedal.
This feature can be turned off, if you so desire.
ON THE ROAD
Who’d a thunk it? A FWD Mercedes!
But, that’s the trend — and the truth is, FWD makes a lot of sense. It’s an inherently more space-efficient (and weight-saving) layout than a rear-drive layout, because with FWD, the engine/transaxle (that’s the transmission and drive axles) are snugged together up front rather than spread out over the length of the car. The rear axle assembly (and a long driveshaft connecting it to the transmission) are eliminated entirely. This also frees up interior space, because a “tunnel” in the floorpan for the driveshaft is no longer needed.
A FWD car usually delivers better grip on slick surfaces, too — because it’s being pulled along rather than pushed — and because of the traction advantage of having the weight of the drivetrain over the drive wheels.
But, there has — historically — been a downside.
Because there’s more weight on the nose (and because the drive wheels are also tasked with steering the car) the FWD layout has not heretofore been regarded as the optimum layout for balanced high-speed handling. This is why most performance cars (including most luxury-performance sedans) have — historically — been built on rear-drive layouts.
But that is changing.
For one, high-speed handling takes a real-world back seat to being able to make it work when there’s a little snow on the ground. For two, FWD-based vehicles are not necessarily clumsy handlers (ask an Audi owner).
Not anymore, that is.
The obvious things — like torque steer — that used to clearly call attention to a FWD car’s limitations as a performance car — have been disappeared by German engineering brain sweat and the technological advances which flow from that. Punch it and the CLA does not do the herky-jerky left-right dance that — not so long ago — was the characteristic flaw of powerful FWD cars. Instead, it just goes — pulling directly and authoritatively — very much like a RWD car. There is no sensation discernible to the driver that the CLA is a front-driver. That includes in the curves — which the CLA carves most adroitly. On my informal test track — the rightly-named Bent Mountain — the CLA snapped ’round 35 MPH-posted curves at 55 with no light-in-the-tail, front end tacking-toward-the-inside-of-the-turn FWD car flapdoodle. It felt more poised, in fact, than the last C-Class (RWD) I test drove. This may be a function of the CLA’s more sporting suspension (the car does ride firmly — especially if equipped with the optional 18-inch wheels and tires) but the bottom line is you’d be challenged to ID this car as a FWD car without crawling underneath for a look-see.
It really is that good.
Fuel economy is even better.
I took the CLA250 on a trip to Raleigh, NC from southwest Virginia near Roanoke. This is an appx. four hour trip driving 75-80 most of the way. I did not need to stop to refuel — and had plenty of fuel left in the 13.1 gallon tank when I arrived. You can go just shy of 500 miles (497.8 to be precise) on the highway on a single fill-up.
The CLA’s slightly bigger brother — the C250 — would be pit-stopping much sooner — if it didn’t have a larger (17.4) gallon fuel tank. The C250’s max range on the highway is 539.4 miles at the rate of 31 MPG. You do the math. And the C is slow — at least, compared with the CLA. It (the C250) takes 7.3 seconds to reach 60 — almost 1 full second behind the CLA250. The V-6 powered C300 outruns the CLA250 — but not embarrassingly so. It gets to 60 in 6 flat. But it also gets 20 city, 27 highway. That’s down 11 MPG vs. the fuel-sippy (and pretty doggone zippy) CLA250.
Order the CL45 AMG and you will — cuing Conan — crush enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of the women.
The thing’s a bullet — a 44. magnum hollow point — but it only costs “.22s” to shoot it. It is quicker than the 6.2 liter V-8 powered C63 AMG, which gets to 60 in 4.5 seconds vs. 4.3 for the CL45 — but only costs about half as much to feed (and thousands less to buy).
The C63 is an epic gas guzzler: 13 city, 19 highway — worse than my ’76 Pontiac Trans-Am — vs. the CLA45’s 23 city, 31 highway. Even if you’re flush with cash, that’s a hard to ignore disparity — especially given that the C63’s not quicker than the CL45. Given its appetite, it ought to be. The fact that it’s not spells Bad News for the C63 once the word gets out about the CL45.
There are two downsides to CLA ownership, on-the-road-wise.
First — as mentioned earlier — even as-it-comes CLA250’s ride is on the firm side. Not harsh — but definitely firm. It becomes very firm if equipped with the optional Sport package, which includes those aggressive compound/stiff sidewall 18-inch tires mentioned earlier.
The CL45 AMG’s ride is firmer still.
An optional automatic/adjustable suspension for the CLA250 would be nice — and Benz will probably want to address this, if the object is to broaden the CLA’s potential buyer pool beyond just the 20-30-something enthusiast driver crowd.
Second, visibility’s not the greatest due to the extreme rake of the fastback rear glass (and the tall, federally mandated back seat head restraints which limit the already restricted rearward view) and the low-cut roofline. This is compensated for to some extent by smart (deliberate or inadvertent) positioning of the B pillars which — though thick, as they are in almost all modern cars — don’t get in the way of your peripheral vision too much. There are also electronic supplements — an automatic blind spot warning system, with lights built into the car’s outside mirrors.
AT THE CURB
The CLA is styled to have a “coupe-like” profile — the latest take on the four-door-two-door concept Benz pioneered a few years back when it debuted the CLS. Others have since imitated the concept (e.g., VW Comfort Coupe) but Mercedes gets credit for being first.
But unlike the CLS, the CLA does not cost $72k — even in AMG form.
However, the CLA also doesn’t have the space you’d get in the CLS — or even the C-Class, for that matter. Both rows are tight — but the second row is really tight. Legroom maxxes out — minimizes out? — at 27.1 inches. The C sedan — which is actually shorter overall (180.8 inches bumper to bumper vs. 182.3 for the sleek CLA) has six-plus inches more legroom in the second row (33.4 inches). A Toyota Camry’s backseat offers 38.9 inches — almost a foot more room for your feet (and knees).
Rear headroom is also a tight squeeze (35.4 inches vs. 36.9 in the C-Class) and the trunk is tiny — 13.1 cubic feet. However, this is actually a bit more trunk than you have in the C Class — 12.4 cubes. This is the inevitable result of the C-Class sedan’s being shorter overall than the CLA while still having a more leggy back seat. Compromises have to be made somewhere.
The CLA, in contrast, sacrifices trunk space — and legroom — for the sake of a sexier, more sinuous shape.
This car looks great — and far from entry level (unlike the old 190s and — frankly — the current C-Class). The interior is as sharp as the exterior — with high-grade finishing (even the carpets have stitched edging) throughout.
A 190 this isn’t.
The only problem I foresee for Mercedes is that the CLA could peel away C-Class — and maybe even CLS — buyers who love the looks — and the price tag — who can live without the extra inches in the back seat.
Someone like me, for instance.
The seat heaters are top-drawer — they get piping hot, not merely warm — but they aren’t standard. You have to buy the Premium Package ($2,300) which — in its defense — also includes an upgraded Harman/Kardon LOGIC7 surround sound stereo with 12 speakers. However, Mercedes could have messed with the heads of competitors even more than it already has by including the heated seats as part of the standard equipment package in the $29k as-it-sits CLA250.
Space — the absence thereof — also manifest in one other slightly inconvenient way. The buttons for the AC, heat and fan are small — and tucked down low (and recessed slightly) at the very bottom of the center stack. Just ahead of them are flip-up lids for storage cubbies and coffee cups — and these (when up) partially obstruct easy finger access to the controls, especially the “up” and “down” buttons for fan speed.
On the other hand, the iPad-like flat screen is slick-looking and well-positioned. And the COMMAND interface is much improved, too. Master a few basics and it’s among the easiest to use without having to ponder first — or fiddle with buttons overmuch.
The Sport package — a $2,200 option for the CLA250 — adds some AMG enhancements, including a body kit with a more aggressive front clip and those super low-profile 225/40R-18 “summer” tires. Steering response is even quicker with these meats and the car will amaze you with its absolute refusal to break loose in the curves, even when driving at Ludicrous Speed. But test drive this one for awhile before you buy it, though — as those 18-inch “summer” tires do not help the CLA’s already stiff ride at all.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I personally love this car. It is — hands down — my favorite new Benz. My favorite Benz, period. It was hard handing back the keys. If you’ve been reading my reviews over the years, you’ll know this is rare praise from me — for any new car.
There is nothing else like it in the MB lineup — and nothing like it anywhere else, either.
Three cheers, guys. This one’s out of the park.