30 Days of the Mercedes CLA: Fresh Eyes

October 29, 2013

We're winding up our 30 days of seat time with the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 this week. While we wrap up our month-long driving experience, I've asked High Gear Media's trio of senior editors to kick in their thoughts on how the CLA fits its many missions--from a mainstream price point, from a high-economy or green perspective, and from a luxury and performance point of view.--Marty Padgett

How does it look from the mainstream?

The 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class is offered at a bottom-line price of just $30,825.

That's going to be a revelation to a lot of shoppers who simply want to get the most car for the money. For just a few grand more than a loaded Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, or Volkswagen Jetta GLI—or somewhat less than a well-optioned mass-market mid-sizer like the Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry, or VW Passat—you could get this sexy-looking car with four doors and the Mercedes-Benz badge.

The 208-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged in-line four delivers strong performance and excellent drivability with the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, and the CLA feels as frisky as a VW GLI with the DSG gearbox but a little more 'grown up.' The CLA250 definitely won't fool you into thinking that it's a rear-wheel-drive sport sedan, and when you push it into action the raspy engine note might not fit your Mercedes dreams, but its ride-and-handling portfolio is better than that of any front-driver we know.

MORE: Read our 2014 Mercedes CLA review

Charm and style are what the CLA oozes, inside and out, from the moment you lay eyes on it. More like a baby CLS than a smaller sibling to the C-Class, the CLA has a long hood and flowing roofline that make it very, very pleasing to look at from some paces back. That said, the CLA isn't going to be a great vehicle for those who really need a sedan. The cabin feels cramped; headroom is tight even if you're approaching six feet; and the trunk doesn't make up for any inadequacies. Interior trim is priced according to the class--not according to your likely vision of a downsized CLS-Class.

In all, the CLA250 adds up to a lot of car for the money, especially if you can find an example in base form. And that's even before factoring in the 'badge equity' of the three-pointed star, and the image boost that goes with it.--Bengt Halvorson

Yes, but is it green?

Few things seem to excite car buyers like the idea of a luxury brand in a smaller, more affordable package. So the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250--helped by a memorable Super Bowl ad featuring Willem Dafoe as the Devil--has been eagerly awaited by consumers and auto writers alike.

Now we've driven it, and we can start to assess the question, is it actually a green Mercedes-Benz?

The specs are promising: a stylish compact four-door sedan with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine putting out 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Unlike most compacts, this one uses a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission--giving it a wider range of ratios than the six-speed automatics used in most compacts. That produces EPA ratings of 30 mpg combined (26 mpg city, 38 mpg highway), which is on the low end of average for compact cars these days--but hardly reprehensible.

The most fuel-efficient luxury compacts are the hybrid Lexus CT 200h, at 42 mpg combined, and the turbodiesel Audi A3 TDI, at 34 mpg combined. The A3 TDI especially will be exceptionally efficient on the highway, while the CT 200h is at its best in city and suburban traffic where it can frequently switch off its engine and run on electricity alone.

Two days of hard driving by a variety of High Gear Media editors left the little Mercedes registering about 34 mpg on its dash display; over our month-long test, we got about 33 mpg. Our fear with the CLA 250 is that its gas mileage will plummet when it's driven harder, which is to say, when its turbocharger is wringing the maximum power out of this small engine. Like several Ford models with EcoBoost engines, the CLA can be very thrifty when driven gently--and that gentle driving includes large parts of the EPA testing cycles--only to guzzle gas when pushed hard. Crowdsourced data isn't comprehensive enough to draw any conclusions. Fuelly has no CLA results submitted, and the EPA website shows only a single CLA owner has submitted real-world mileage results. (That 26 mpg may or may not be representative of what a broad swath of owners will get.)

So until we can test the car on a more punishing, gas-draining route, the answer to the question of whether the Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 can be considered green is: Maybe.--John Voelcker

Is it premium, or is it luxury?

Is America ready for truly compact luxury cars? Perhaps. At the least, Mercedes-Benz is betting we are, offering its all-new 2014 CLA-Class four-door.

Small but stylish, with available all-wheel drive, and offering up to 38 mpg on the highway (a figure our real-world testing backs up with ease) the CLA 250 certainly hits a high-water mark for its density of luxury-market features in a small-car package. The CLA 250's 208-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine is mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, offering paddle-shift or fully automatic mode.

Don't let the under-$30,000 base price fool you, however: loaded with suitable options, the price tag can quickly reach the mid-$40,000s.

There's even an AMG version of the CLA, called the CLA45 AMG. Outfitted with a potent 355-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a stronger version of the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, plus standard all-wheel drive, the CLA45 AMG is a fierce little performer (it hits 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds), and it's an arguable bargain with a starting price of just $48,375. In addition to the upgraded performance hardware, the CLA45 AMG also gets a unique exterior look, including more aggressive aerodynamics, plus AMG-specific interior details and materials.

Equipment levels across the CLA-Class range through a spectrum: base models get MB-Tex synthetic leather and cloth, while all-leather upholstery and upgraded trim materials are available as upgrades; likewise, infotainment and electronics range from basic to exhaustive. The CLA45 AMG starts with a generally high specification, and can be upgraded from there.

The real issue most buyers will have with the CLA-Class isn't likely to come from quality, design, or equipment, however; it will most likely be a matter of size. The CLA-Class is compact, despite being slightly longer in wheelbase than the current C-Class. Its four-door-coupe profile means the rear seat is rather small, with just enough leg room for most adults and no real headroom to spare.

Whether this alternately economical and dynamic duo of subcompact luxury cars can make inroads in the American luxury market--at the entry level or elsewhere--remains to be seen. In our testing, however, the outlook is promising.--Nelson Ireson

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