To do that, we'll first put the CLA 250 in some better context. There are remarkably few direct competitors to the CLA, and in part, that's on purpose. Mercedes pushed the CLA up on its priority list specifically to outflank Audi and BMW, as they work on bringing new compact sedans to market. It's in a niche, then, with some German cars that don't directly line up against it in body styles or drivetrains--and against some other cars that are more out of skew, in terms of price or packaging or brand luster.
So, what cars do we put in the competitive pool, and how does the CLA compare with those other choices in its price and size class?
Let's start with some home turf, and with the BMW 1-Series, which has been on sale in the U.S. for a few years. It's a bit of a mismatch: the 1-Series is the smallest BMW (until the electric i3 arrives), but it's rear-wheel drive, and it's offered only in two-door coupe and convertible body styles through the 2013 model year. Part sports car, part small luxury coupe, the 1-Series puts handling above everything else--including value and interior space, and sometimes, that's okay. Looking ahead, there's a replacement for the 1-Series due soon, but we're betting it's dubbed a 2-Series by the time it arrives.
Next up is the Audi A3, which comes with turbo-four and turbodiesel engines, but comes only in a five-door hatchwagon body style--for now. It's aged well, and still is a versatile and sporty choice for anyone that can afford to spend a little on prestige. Soon, though, we'll be driving the 2015 Audi A3 and S3--which will arrive early in 2014 as four-door sedans, the first real direct challenge to the CLA 250.
MORE: Read our 2014 Mercedes CLA review
There are a few early arrivals in this segment, sedans that hail from America and Japan. If you're amenable to a front-drive Mercedes, you just might be amenable to a "premium" or even a mainstream brand, if the car's good enough. Right?We might give pause to the 2014 Acura ILX. It's a more luxurious version of the Honda Civic, and shares that car's drivetrains and other underpinnings. Performance is lackluster in the ILX, and its skimpy back seat isn't vastly better than that in the CLA. It's balanced in terms of performance, and comfort up front is good, but if you're seeking true sport-sedan reflexes, seek on.
The most fascinating counterpoint to the CLA is the 2014 Buick Verano. The Verano's been around since 2012, but it only truly arrived when it adopted its turbocharged four-cylinder. It's a remarkably quiet, composed, serene four-door, especially in relief against the CLA 250. It goes upscale, without bowing to sport-sedan cliches, and we're convinced there's a place for that.
But at the opposite end of the CLA's competitive set, we're going to put the 2014 Mazda 3. It's a compelling piece of design, for starters, and its handling is well up to snuff, actually more relaxed than the CLA's--for about $5,000 less fully equipped than the base CLA. Badge-conscious status-ticians may sneer, but the Mazda 3 has much to endorse, in about the same footprint as the compact Mercedes.
We'll dive in more deeply with head-to-head comparisons between the 2014 Mercedes CLA and a couple of these cars as we weave through our month of driving. We'll also be going in-depth with our 2014 CLA's powertrain and connectivity features, and hit the interstates again next week for more one-on-one time with the CLA 250.