Mercedes CLA, Luxury for the Rest of Us

Mercedes Benz CL class - Car on a roadWhat if Gucci, Prada or Louis Vuitton suddenly and unexpectedly produced its own designer knockoffs, ones that sold for more than 50 percent less than the majority of their lines?

Well, if you?re an automaker, say, Mercedes-Benz, then the product might be called the 2014 CLA-Class, an all-new model and market for the brand in the United States.

Stylistically, this car is clearly modeled on the ?four-door coupe? styling pioneered by the larger Mercedes-Benz CLS. With its rounded greenhouse and sloping shoulders, the CLA looks like the larger CLS ? if it had been left in the dryer too long. But the CLA?s look is a little crisper, a bit more aggressive and every bit the head turner.

But the CLA starts at just $29,900, an astonishing $42,200 less than the CLS. In fact, it?s the least expensive Mercedes-Benz you can buy for 2014; it?s even $5,900 cheaper than the C-Class sedan. And when typically equipped, the new CLA should average around $35,000, about the same as a top-of-the-line Honda Accord and less than a fully loaded Ford Fusion.

By offering filet mignon at hamburger prices, Mercedes-Benz is taking a big chance with its image. Unlike in some other countries, in the United States, Mercedes-Benz is viewed as a luxury car manufacturer, rather than a maker of cars for commoners.

So, just what do you get in this modest Mercedes?

Well, for starters, you get a car that uses a front-wheel drive platform ? a first for the brand in this market ? adapted from the redesigned A-Class, a small hatchback that Mercedes-Benz sells in Europe and Asia.

The CLA comes in two flavors: the mild CLA 250 and the wild CLA 45 AMG. Both cars use a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

The base CLA 250 is rated at 208 horsepower and can attain 60 mph in 6.9 seconds. By contrast, the CLA 45 AMG is rated at an astonishing 355 horsepower ? quite a lot considering the engine?s size ? and reaches 60 mph in 4.5 seconds.

All-wheel drive will be offered on the CLA 250 in the spring; it?s standard on the CLA 45 AMG.

Given the CLA?s stunning styling and remarkable price, you?re probably expecting it to be fun to drive. In reality, it?s a mixed bag.

It?s not that the car isn?t nimble ? in fact, it?s fairly athletic, with nicely weighted steering despite the lack of road feel. Overall handling is good and the CLA remains flat in corners. Opting for the $2,200 Sport Package, which includes 18-inch AMG five-spoke wheels, sport suspension and larger brakes, doesn?t seem to significantly alter this vehicle?s character, which includes a noticeable amount of road noise and a ride than can be jarring at times, thanks to a very firm suspension.

Acceleration is more than adequate in the CLA 250 despite the car?s turbo lag. As you?d expect, the CLA 45 AMG?s extra power makes it noticeably more fun to drive, and although very capable, it?s still not quite the driver?s car you?d expect.

But on the whole, this car is very much a welter-weight Mercedes-Benz. If you?re coming from a car that?s a bit more benign, this will not bother you. But if you?re expecting a car with classic sports sedan character, it?s not all there.

And then there?s the stop/start system, added in the name of fuel efficiency. When the car comes to a stop, the engine shuts off to conserve fuel. Once you lift your foot off the brake, the car restarts. But, like similar systems from other German manufacturers, it does so with an invasive shudder. Thankfully, this annoyance can be turned off at a touch of a button.

The cabin is sporty and modern and fairly premium in appearance. The interior?s ambience cleverly hides its modest cost, at least when compared to a traditional Mercedes-Benz cabin. Leather is optional, as is aluminum trim. The faux leather ? ?pleather,? if you will ? is fairly convincing. Any part of the cabin that your body touches is nicely padded.

At these prices, it?s little surprise that the small luxuries one expects in a premium car are optional. So be sure your CLA has the $2,300 Premium Package which adds a Harman/Kardon sound system, iPod/MP3 interface, SiriusXM satellite radio, dual zone climate control, heated ? but not cooled ? front seats, garage door opener, compass and auto dimming mirrors.

The CLA?s center stack is crowned by a screen that resembles a tablet. Some thought it looked like an afterthought, but its location is remarkably free of glare. And once you?re accustomed to the software, Mercedes-Benz?s infotainment system is fairly easy to use.

As for passenger accommodations, the front is acceptably roomy, while the rear is inhospitable for adults. Here?s where fashion has extracted its price. The stylishly rounded roof diminishes head room. Even if you manage to get in without knocking your noggin, you?ll find leg room is in short supply as well. And the front one-piece seat backs are annoying since the headrests are not adjustable.

And if you wear size 12s, as I do, you?ll find that the CLA?s footwell is cramped, with the brake pedal and accelerator placed very close to each other.

At least the trunk is huge.

Such quibbles are to be expected from a car that?s considered by Mercedes-Benz to be a coupe, despite having four doors. After all, coupes extract a pound of flesh in exchange for their good looks. In this regard, the CLA is no different. It?s a young take on the traditional Mercedes persona. But its sportiness comes from its look, not from its performance, unless you opt for the CLA 45 AMG. And it lacks the lush ambience founded in pricier products that wear the three-pointed star.

But to drivers who have never experienced a Mercedes-Benz, the 2014 CLA-Class allows entry into what once was an exclusive club with startling good looks and an equally attractive sticker price.

Make no mistake, with the CLA-Class, Mercedes-Benz has a hit on its hands.

But once the novelty wears off, you have to wonder if this reasonably priced car will eventually dilute the marque?s premium image. When the servants drive the same brand of car as the lord and lady of the manor, it?s hard to convincingly market yourself as a luxury manufacturer.

Engine: Turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 182.3 inches
Weight: 3,264 pounds
Cargo space: 13.1 cubic feet
EPA rating (city/highway): 26/38 mpg
Fuel type: Premium
Base price, base model: $29,900
Base price, test model: $29,900
As tested: $36,545

Source: MCT Information Services