2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250
With more than a year separating my test week with the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 from its debutante ball at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show, I had the advantage of a mountain of data and diatribes with which to inform my initial opinion. Conversations with colleagues and coworkers netted splintered ideas about the CLA's driving demeanor; reading hundreds of comments posted on Autoblog articles revealed a popular divide about everything from exterior styling to the execution of its navigation screen.
While commentary from the public and pundits alike has spun in a circle over the front-driver Mercedes this last year, the car-buying public has been voting the CLA up in fantastic fashion. Early sales have been very strong for the lowest-cost-of-entry Benz, despite being capacity constrained over the first months of 2014. Mercedes-Benz USA PR manager Christian Bokich told me that dealers are "selling the 250 and 45 AMG as fast as they can get them," and though he wouldn't share the internal number, says that the CLA has the lowest day supply of any model in the brand's lineup. Clearly, while we've been happily shouting at each other, Mercedes sales' staffs have been swiftly compiling signed purchase agreements, and racking up numbers.
Given the context of this first year of existence, I thought it would be helpful to review the CLA250 with a special eye to those areas of the car that have been the most hotly contested. By my research, that means wading into the fray on the attractiveness of its sheetmetal, the polish of its interior, the starchiness of its suspension and the thrift of its luxurious bottom line.
Amongst our crew of editors, the CLA's ride quality was perhaps the biggest bone of contention. A survey of reviews across the web shows a consensus that the car's suspension runs to the firm side of things, which nobody here debates. The argued point is whether or not the stiff suspension (abetted by optional larger wheels, I'm sure) ruins the ride quality entirely.
The last of the Michigan winter snow had just melted when I took the CLA's keys, so the pothole situation around my driving world was at its yearly worse. Perfect. I can abide a pretty rough ride if the tradeoff is knifelike handling, but in the case of this CLA250, which utilizes a fixed-ratio suspension made up of MacPherson struts and double wishbones in front and an independent, four-link solution for the rear, I'm not sure that tradeoff works out.
Mercedes engineers have created a very firm front end with a softer, easier-to-slide rear, probably as a way to imitate a rear-drive feel from this front-drive chassis. And, to their credit, the result under all but the highest cornering loads (where the front pushes noticeably) is a pretty neutral chassis at speed. The very real downside is the front springs and dampers are probably ten to twenty percent too firm to be comfortable in routine driving, especially on dodgy north country roads.
One of our editors called the resulting hard ride "completely unacceptable for a Mercedes," which I can't quite support. I think neophytes to the brand could test drive the CLA250, especially on better roads, and not think they were getting the short end of the stick. Either way, after a week with the thing, I was less enthused about the non-conforming ride quality than I'd been at first.
While dulled by its slightly slow-witted seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, reviewers have tended to look favorably on Mercedes' 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine, as is found under the CLA's hood. Pushing out a sturdy 258 pound-feet of torque at just 1,250 rpm, the turbo engine pulls the compact sedan hard through space, with naught but the peskiest little of torque steer under steering and full acceleration. 208 horsepower is not an impressive figure for the ever-more-impressive lineup of 2.0Ts around the world (especially considering I just drove a Volvo of identical displacement making 302 horsepower), but EPA ratings of 38 miles per gallon on the highway and 26 in the city really are. The ultra-slippery CLA – famously having a drag coefficient lower than the Tesla Model S or Toyota Prius – sips premium fuel slower than turbo'd 2.0s from all of its German competitors.
Kept to its default transmission mode, the powertrain feels as strong and responsive as I'd expect from a small luxury car; quick even. Selecting Sport mode enlivens things considerably, however, making throttle response really sharp. The trans offers a manual mode, too, but it's slow to respond, doesn't hold the gear you've selected at the engine's modest 5,500-rpm redline, and is generally less effective than simply letting the sport programming shift for itself.
That feeling of speed is never particularly overwhelming, though, even when flinging the Benz around, in part because the super-quiet cabin is rarely intruded upon by a strong note from the exhaust. The CLA250 isn't meant to be a sports car so much as fashionable near-coupe, so I think that tuning is probably spot-on for the intended audience, even if I found it a little disappointing.
By leaps and bounds, over the course of our Detroit debut coverage, our First Drive and a few variant reviews, the topic most often contested seems to be the CLA's styling. There are well over a thousand comments on Autoblog CLA-based articles, so I didn't note each and every opinion (I'm currently accepting applications for the position of research intern), but it's fair to say that this is a polarizing design of the highest order. Succinctly positive remarks – "sexy!" "I think am in love." – are often found in hilarious proximity to colorful disagreement *– "absolutely vomit inducing" and "it looks like someone with no muscle control designed this car" being two of my personal favorites.
To me, the CLA suffers mightily from Sarah Jessica Parker Syndrome: undeniably striking from some angles and in many photos, yet shockingly weird in others. Catch either Mercedes or Parker from a dead-front vantage, and if you're like me, you may conclude that both feature heads two-sizes too huge for their bodies. Look again and you might change your mind entirely. The company knows this design is confrontational, emotional and very young minded, and seems happy to be pushing the envelope, eager to capture buyers outside its traditional audience.
The same lines that create such visual drama on the bodysides have a kind of inflating effect for everything forward of the front door handles when glimpsed from the wrong angle, like a traditional three-box car that's been caught holding its breath. The bluff front end with its dinner-plate emblem walks a very fine line between charismatic and cartoonish, and the weirdly resolved downturn of the rear end is harder for me to find graceful in any aspect. I suspect the slightly dowdy Mountain Gray Metallic paint of my tester successfully toned down the wilder parts of the bodywork, as I found myself rather drawn to the design in person. Yet, somehow, that doesn't come through in the photoset of the very same car. Let's call it camera shyness.
I'm much less conflicted about the interior of the CLA, even though in my tester's case it was trimmed in standard-equipment, MB-Tex pseudo leather. I'm probably an outlier here, but this material doesn't turn me off at all. The texture isn't convincing as leather, but it's soft to the touch and doesn't emit any kind of plasticky smell, and from what I've read, it wears better over time, with less maintenance than the real deal. That's not as big a consideration if you're going to lease rather than buy, but it's a factor for long-term ownership worth considering.
The seats themselves are striking, with a body-hugging, one-vent design the reminds me of chairs found in a Porsche 911. Tall guys like me won't love the fact that the headrests are fixed, but they also don't stand out by making one's head or neck uncomfortable over time.
The sweeping dash and forward cabin is equal to the seats in terms of pretty interior design. A grippy, technical-looking steering wheel draws the eye to a driver-focused instrument panel, while rotating-bezel air vents offer cool contrast to the sleekness of the liquid-silver accent strip across the dash. I actually enjoy the sort of 'floating' effect created by the high and proud mounting of the infotainment screen, too, but understand the (many) reader arguments that it looks like an aftermarket throw-in. Let me assure you: it is not mounted to the dash via suction cup. You can see that the harder black plastics in my test car – all found from about the centerline to the floor *– have already suffered a few dings and scratches after just over 5,000 miles of life. Still, taken as a whole, I think the CLA cockpit's great design stands out over some mildly undesirable materials.
Which brings me to the question of value. When the CLA entered the market, many of you were stoked at the possibility of entering the Mercedes club for just $29,900. Well, round it off at $31k to start, after the $925 destination fee is punched in. Of course, my CLA250 had more than twelve-grand-worth of options added to its bottom line, as well. Packages included Driver Assistance (Distronic Plus, blind spot and lane keep assists), Sport (firmer suspension and 18-inch wheels), Premium (Harmon/Kardon sound, heated seats, etc.) and Multimedia (COMAND with navi, rear-view camera, DVD player, 10GB music storage, and more). Package costs were all more than $2,000 a pop. There was also a beautiful panoramic sunroof for $1,480 and another $1,550 in metallic paint and bi-xenon lighting. The total damage of more than $43k feels over the top, especially considering that doesn't include the $2,000 4Matic all-wheel-drive, but pick and choose at your whim and you could build a non-poverty-spec Mercedes for around $35k. That really does open up the brand for a lot of new buyers, as the model's hot sales readily illustrate.
Now, if you're a part of the group that's been fighting and commenting about the CLA for the last year, you probably also know that Audi has a tasty new A3 that's sized and priced to compete head on with the CLA. The A3's opening bid isn't as good, with an identical $29,900 buying a weaker 1.8-liter turbo engine and front drive, but it catches up quick with $32,900 asked for a more powerful 2.0T and Quattro. Options pricing between the two new entry-lux combatants is competitive, though Audi's list of desirables includes a design ethos that is far less challenging, for better or worse.
BMW will be a player in this segment soon, with a completely new front-drive 1 Series sedan, but nobody has driven (or even seen) it yet, so it's hard to say where it'll stack up. Good money says price, power and performance will be right there with the CLA. Some outliers exist as cross-shops (many pointed out by you all in the comment threads), though none are perfect. Acura would argue its ILX is in this conversation (but its sales and this author would argue it isn't) as would Buick of its Verano Turbo, a car which I which actually find compelling. The much larger Volkswagen CC is a legitimate contender here as far as performance, price and style are concerned, albeit without the same cache you get with that gleaming three-pointed star decorating your office parking space. Admit it: Deep down, you'd rather drive a Mercedes, too.
Therein lies the real appeal of the CLA250. Unlike the SLS AMG, S-Class and C63 AMG that come in for glowing reviews and longing commentary, this is a car that many of you could sign a lease on, probably tomorrow. To make that happen, you'd have to submit to its well-sorted front-drive dynamics, firm ride, oddly perched navigation screen and chin-heavy styling. You'd get in return a rather flashy small luxury car, with a rakish roofline, a pleasant powertrain and that strong family pedigree. Only personal predilections would make that a square deal or highway robbery – so let the commentary rage on.