30 Days of the Mercedes CLA: What Is A Luxury Car Anymore, Anyway?

October 17, 2013

We're speeding through a month of seat time in the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250, over more than 2000 miles in a $36,320 Cirrus White example with Sahara beige MB-Tex upholstery and an infotainment system that connects us with Facebook feeds and Yelp reviews, right from the driver's seat.

That spray of features and fundamentals kicks off the inevitable, central question surrounding the Mercedes CLA: Is it luxury? And what qualifies as a luxury car anymore, anyway?

The so-called experts are no help. Coco Chanel called luxury "the opposite of vulgarity." Alas, what she'd say about the Mercedes CLA's LED-lit grille will forever be off the record.

Probably, what 30,000 buyers each year think will be more important anyway, as Mercedes pitches the CLA as a true luxury car--just one at a more popular price point.

Most car buyers are more attuned to a modern definition of luxury: it's something we pay more for to make driving more pleasant. It's something compiled from prestige, price, and features.

How does the CLA fit those contours? Is it a less expensive C-Class, or the equivalent of a Tiffany keychain?

Does it do prestige?

The first, and most obvious hurdle for the CLA, is to earn the three-pointed star on its badge. It has to be a natural fit, not an awkward adjunct to the brand--not a Phaeton, not a Viper, not an LFA. 

We've discussed the CLA's quality and its levels of equipment; by those measures, it's as advanced as the other compact vehicles in the Benz model range.

MORE: Read our 2014 Mercedes CLA review

The country of origin's not much of a factor, either. The CLA seems a better effort than the first Mercedes-Benz built outside of Germany--the M-Class, which had a somewhat glitchy introduction back in 1998. For the past 15 years, M-Class utes have come from Alabama, and Mercedes now commands more than $100,000 for some of them. The Hungarian-built CLA has a better interior and better standard specifications, and better execution.

Mostly, the CLA pulls off its Mercedes prestige by doing one better than a more expensive alternative. It looks like nothing so much as a mini-CLS "four-door coupe." Good looks aren't an inexhaustible resource, it turns out.

What about the price?

From the badge backward, the whole luxury discussion gets much more murky. The distinction between luxury cars and premium cars alone gives fits. Which one applies to the CLA?

It's the greyest of greys, at least in the automotive world. Buick calls its cars "premium," in part because GM has Cadillac. Mercedes thinks of its cars as luxury vehicles--a term Bentley reserves only for cars in its price class.

By our yardstick, luxury vehicles come from brands with a history of selling expensive vehicles, even if they're working their way down the ladder--while "premium" vehicles are working from the opposite vantage point. But they can also be vehicles priced at a substantial margin over the price of an average new car.

Taking both into account, the CLA would be a luxury car by dint of its heritage--but a premium car based on its almost perfectly average price.

Finally, features

The 2014 Mercedes CLA may not have the perfumed cockpit and quilted-leather dash of the 2014 S-Class, but its features leave little on the table. It has that in common, though, with cars with even lower base prices.

With its standard turbocharged engine and dual-clutch transmission, the CLA can be a rival both for vehicles in the ultra-exotic class--and a direct competitor for a less expensive Ford Focus, which has arguably a more capable (if maddening) infotainment setup.

If size is a luxury attribute, it's a big trade-off from a fully loaded $40,000 Ford Fusion and its much larger interior, or from a full-sized $45,000 Chevrolet Impala. If performance is the goal, the CLA outhandles both of those very good cars by a substantial margin--and neither of those can be optioned up into AMG territory.

MORE: Read our 2014 Mercedes CLA review

Down to the trim lines, the CLA walks a finer line, balancing its status off its equipment. Leather upholstery is an option on the CLA, just as it is on the $60,000 GL-Class ute--but it's standard on the Buick Verano Turbo, which may outpoint it on outright comfort and quietness.

In an automotive atmosphere in which heated rear seats are an option on a $20,000 compact, in which $300,000 vehicles have less sophisticated in-car technology than those, the distinctions have less meaning than they once did.

Answers, please

The idea of luxury always funnels down to one thing that can't be engineered, spent for, acquired or designed: perception. You can spend $60,000 on a duallie pickup truck--but it isn't luxury, not in the conventional sense.

To cut through all this clutter, we've settled on a definition of luxury for all the vehicles we review here at The Car Connection. We apply the luxury label to vehicles that carry a base price above $50,000, or to some cars with much more standard equipment in base form than similarly sized vehicles. But in the balance, status counts: we also dub a vehicle as luxury if its badge alone earns it a place in the discussion, whether or not it's a substitute for more interior room, more horsepower, higher fuel economy, or more in-car technology.

The CLA hits the luxury targets, obviously aware that those bull's-eyes are constantly moving.

Soon, we'll spend some time going in-depth with our 2014 CLA's powertrain and connectivity features--and take the CLA for another long-distance road trip. Stay with us as we bring you more details, driving impressions, and information on the new compact four-door.

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