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.

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