By the Feds' rulers, there's no ruling yet on whether the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA is a compact or a mid-size car. But by the numbers we have to date, the CLA slots into a vast class of cars that counts everything from the Ford Focus and Honda Civic to the BMW 1-Series, Acura ILX, and Buick Verano in its ranks.
The CLA is 182.3 inches long, with a wheelbase of 106.3 inches--a little longer than today's C-Class, which gives that car some room to grow when it moves to the U.S. as a 2015 model.
In the CLA, the compact dimensions don't affect the front passengers nearly as much as they do those in the back. The CLA 250's front seats are Recaro-like in their shape--and they're good ones, with great firm bolsters around the back and on the sides of the bottom cushion. They're covered in a combination of MB-Tex synthetic leather and cloth on Edition 1 models and all MB-Tex or all leather on all other CLAs, depending on your wallet. The seats are adjustable for rake and position, with power adjustment for the driver and manual for the passenger seat, which moves via levers and wheels in the VW idiom. That's to say, it's a reach to get to the wheel that adjusts seatback angle.
The CLA45 AMG can be upgraded to actual Recaro performance seats, heavily bolstered affairs that pair well with the AMG car's red seat belts. They're aimed at the most enthusiastic owners and drivers.
Between the front seats, the CLA's console drops a shift lever, leaving behind instead two storage bins. One is squared off and sized for 64-ounce drinks--or for the shift lever that is offered on the CLA 45 AMG--and the other holds a power point and a smaller tray. Think of it as a smartphone charging station, if you don't opt for the console-mounted phone dock that comes with one of the feature packages.
Wedge into the back seats, and you'll experience the CLA's chief giveback to its size and style. Back-seat room is tight, with head and toe room especially lean. I found the rear seat's headroom short for me by about three or four inches, and had to warn a front-seat passenger to avoid a toe-mashing recline. Because it sits low and its rear doors are relatively small, older shoppers will want to try entering and exiting the CLA before deciding it's a nice alternative to the bigger Benz sedans.
On the upside, the CLA's trunk is about as large as the one in the C-Class, which makes it larger than the one in the Cadillac ATS. The rear seats fold down to expand that space when you need it.
Only in a few places will drivers notice the way Mercedes has kept costs down with the CLA. Soft-touch painted plastic rules the center console. The trim rings on the vents are glossy plastic with notches to cut their brightness, but the standard dash trim is a satiny metallic plastic that looks quite good. The CLA45 AMG's standard aluminum trim? Even better. The panoramic sunroof has a thin fabric shade that doesn't look like it could contain Richard Simmons' enthusiasm--but then again, what could? But road noise is mostly muted, and wind noise is pretty well-controlled, and there's no active noise control nonsense muffling the powertrain.
And then there's the column-mounted gear shifter, located exactly where the Mercedes wiper controls used to live. You too might put the car into neutral when you just want to clear the rain. If it revs when you wanted it dry instead, you're doing it wrong.