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Timing isn't everything, but in the case of the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA, it's one more big tactical advantage. The company's first compact four-door luxury sedan--its first front-drive car in America, ever--the grippy and gripping CLA goes on sale this fall at least a half-year before its German rivals can summon up a true four-door competitor.
Until then, the CLA lines up across the luxury field from the likes of the handsome, supple and quiet Buick Verano, and the well-meaning Acura ILX. Both have sub-$30,000 base price tags and lots of luxury features like the newest Benz. But neither has anything like the prestige of the Mercedes badge, not to mention the threat of a superhot AMG edition waiting in the wings.
The CLA is a scaled-down imitation of the prettiest Mercedes on sale today, the CLS, and that's its biggest ace. It may be as short as a Civic, but its elegant profile and frameless glass counter the compact-car blahs, and chip away visually at the front end's height. The sporty cockpit lifts its inspiration from the SLK, not the C-Class, and the mix-and-match aesthetic works extremely well. That is, until you scan the LCD screen planted on the dash, instead of integrated into the center stack.
The CLA's sole drivetrain in the U.S. pairs a 2.0-liter turbo four with 208 horsepower to a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission. It's a combination with 0-60 mph times of 6.7 seconds and a 149-mph top speed in its portfolio, underpinned with some grunty four-cylinder noises. The transmission needs quicker shift responses, though: even with paddle controls, it gets caught off-guard. Gas mileage numbers aren't in, but 30 mpg highway is an easy bet thanks to standard stop/start tech; 33 or even 35 mpg may be a stretch, with the available all-wheel-drive system sure to shave a mile per gallon off those numbers.
Unlike any other mainstream Mercedes before it, the CLA's tightly tuned steering and ride break from tradition. The variable-effort, variable-ratio electric steering is full of weight and quick to respond, and largely without feedback. Two out of three is good, by electric-steering standards. The CLA's independent suspension gets a standard "sport" setting in the U.S. and likely rare 17-inch run-flat tires, since 18-inch wheels will be a $500 option. We drove only CLA 250s with 18-inch wheels, and the very firm ride and occasionally jarring impacts of French roads would trigger a test drive of the standard setup, if it were our money.
Compact dimensions place the CLA in a vast class of cars that ranges from the Ford Focus to the Honda Civic, or to more upscale machinery like the BMW 1-Series, Acura ILX, and Buick Verano. It's 182.3 inches long, with a wheelbase of 106.3 inches. As with most of those cars, back-seat room is tight, with minimal headroom for medium-sized adults and somewhat difficult entry and exit in through the rear doors. Trunk space is good, with a flat load floor, and the CLA has a few useful storage bins in the cabin for small items.
Among its standard safety features, the 2014 CLA carries a new Collision Prevention Assist function; using radar, the CLA can alert the driver of upcoming obstacles when it's traveling at more than 4 mph, and can calculate the amount of brake force needed to avoid an impact. Also standard are Attention Assist and its coffee-cup reminder to pull over and avoid drowsy driving, and a driver knee airbag. Safety options include adaptive cruise control; blind-spot monitors; lane-keeping assistance; and parking sensors with parking assist. Visibility isn't great to the rear--we hope the rearview camera gets liberated into an inexpensive, stand-alone option in the near future.
Dollars to rubber doughnuts, the $30,825 2014 CLA comes comparably equipped to the high-trim versions of its contemporaries. It comes with standard Bluetooth, cruise control, a power driver seat, and MB-Tex upholstery. Smartphone connectivity comes via Mercedes-Benz's mbrace2 and a 5.8-inch screen, while three navigation options will be offered--the most expensive, with voice commands, the rearview camera and real-time traffic. With the Premium package--it bundles an iPod interface with satellite radio, surround sound, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, and a garage door opener--the CLA should retail for about $33,500.
A panoramic sunroof is a stand-alone option, as are leather seats, summer tires, parking assist, blind-spot monitors, and heated front seats. It will be impossible to option the CLA 250 past $40,000.
The CLA 250 goes on sale in September. By November, we'll also get the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 45, with about 355 hp, standard AWD, and a 0-60 mph time of 4.6 seconds, all for less than $50,000. The all-wheel-drive CLA 250 arrives early next year.
- Mini-CLS silhouette
- Eager turbo four-cylinder engine
- Grippy front seats to go with handling
- The least expensive new Mercedes
- The three-pointed star gets Facebook in the car
- Are we ready for a Civic-sized Benz again?
- Rear-seat headroom is tight
- LCD screen's tacked-on look
- Ride can feel stiff
- Shifts need to speed up