SAINT- TROPEZ, France – Mercedes-Benz is set to carve a new niche out of the entry-luxury market for itself, one that arch-rivals Audi and BMW have yet to enter.
The 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class, which crosses the Atlantic this summer, is a compact four-door sedan with coupe-like looks.
Mercedes believes a good-looking sedan will have a broader base of consumers to chose from than the five-door hatchback and two-door coupe offered by fellow German luxury car makers.
Firsts for the brand
The CLA-Class is a first for Mercedes in a couple of ways – its first front-wheel-drive car and its first compact sedan.
In typical Benz fashion the execution is spot-on, leaving little room for criticism.
Attractive, roomy, well-built and offering both performance and economy, the CLA should attract a whole new set of customers to Mercedes stores – and that is the intent.
Until the other German marques can summon up competitors, the CLA will enter an arena occupied by a diverse set of competitors like the European-based Buick Verano and the new Acura ILX, both front-drivers with four-cylinder engines but lacking the prestige of the three-pointed star.
And to these eyes at least, neither looks as good. The CLA-Class is fashioned after the CLS-Class, which is one of the best-looking sedans on the market.
The shark-nosed front is typical Mercedes with a wide single air intake above and three below the bumper. The upper opening is bisected by a chromed horizontal strip with the “star” in the center and some very distinctive “teeth” in the grille behind.
Like a seven-eighths scale CLS, the newest and smallest Benz sedan has a steeply raked roofline that cleverly hides the rear doors. Combined with frameless side glass the overall result is a coupe-like profile exaggerating the car's length and appearing to be lower than the tape measure indicates.
Benefitting from extensive time in the wind tunnel, the CLA has what the company claims is the most aerodynamic shape of any production car in the industry – with a very slippery coefficient of drag of 0.23 for the entry-level, skinny-tired diesel version sold in Europe.
The one to be sold here with its fatter tires and standard AMG styling kit comes in at a still-impressive 0.28.
Sporty interior design
The interior takes its design cues from the two-seat SLK sports car. Clean, round instruments and a quintet of round air vents placed in a variety of trims flow from door to door.
The transmission shift lever lives on the instrument panel instead of the console, freeing up space there for storage bins. Hard surfaces and obvious plastic dominate the landscape, giving a hint as to how they kept costs down.
As this is a compact vehicle, interior room is not exactly limo-like. But the front buckets are wide, supportive and adjustable in numerous directions and, combined with the standard tilt and telescope steering wheel, drivers of all sizes and shapes should be able to find a comfortable position.
Rear-seat space is somewhat restricted to two occupants. Big people will find minimal knee and headroom and entry and exit are hampered by the sloping roofline.
The same roof shape makes visibility to the rear less than ideal making a rear-view camera almost compulsory. The trunk, however, is surprisingly spacious with a flat load floor and easy access.
Standard equipment will include 17-inch alloy wheels, a 15-cm information display, 12-way power driver’s seat, Artico faux-leather seats, Nappa leather steering wheel, collision prevention system, Distronic cruise control to keep you a safe distance from the vehicle in front and attention assist to keep you in your lane.
A new radar-based Collision Prevention Assist system alerts the driver of a pending collision.
An available AMG Sport package adds a unique grille, front and rear bumpers, lower body cladding, 18-inch wheels wrapped in performance rubber and upgraded brakes with drilled rotors. Also available will be active bi-Xenon headlights and full LED taillights with fibre-optic technology.
Initially the CLA will arrive with a single drivetrain choice – a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder driving the front wheels through a seven speed dual clutch automatic transmission.
It will be followed by an AMG version boasting the worlds’ most powerful four-cylinder production engine and AMG-developed automatic transmission and 4Matic all-wheel-drive system.
Next spring the third CLA will arive, with the less-potent engine and 4Matic all-wheel-drive.
Punching above its weight class
The new small Benz punches well above its weight class. The 2.0-litre engine produces 208 horsepower thanks to direct injection and forced induction. Mercedes says it is capable of propelling the CLA from 0-to-100 km/h in 6.7 seconds.
My experience at the wheel here during the global launch left the impression those numbers may be a little pessimistic. It feels strong!
The sound under wide-open throttle is a subdued but characteristic four-cylinder growl, mostly from the engine, very little from the dual rectangular exhaust outlets.
There will be no diesel CLA for North America because there is not room in the current package for the complex exhaust treatment system required to meet our emission standards.
Using the paddle shifters on the back of the steering wheel can be enjoyable and help you feel more involved, but there is enough of a delay between ask and answer that I found myself letting the well-sorted automatic choose its own gears – which it does very well.
With its standard automatic stop-start system, which results in a slight quiver when in action, the CLA should be capable of some pretty impressive fuel economy numbers.
My driving style and the twisty mountain roads around the south of France were not exactly conducive to checking out fuel economy.
What those roads did prove was that the chassis engineers earned their pay. There is very little sense the front wheels are doing most of the work.
The CLA is a well-balanced car with quick and linear reactions to directional change and only when pushed very hard does understeer become prominent.
The steering is well-weighted and the suspension on the tight side. But this could well be dependent on the wheel-tire package. My test car had low-profile 18-inch summer tires where 17-inches will be standard fitment here.
Jorg Prigl, the man in charge of small cars for Mercedes-Benz told us the CLA is a completely new idea, “something fresh for the market, a global expansion to our profile.“ He said it will help in the company’s stated goal of being at the top of the premium segment by 2020.
The stylish new entry point to the Mercedes-Benz family is expected to be priced about the same as well-equipped compact and mid-size sedans wearing less revered nameplates – spanning the range from $30,000 to $45,000.
The pricing alone will help, but it's the CLA's style and driving dynamics that will seal the deal.