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2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250: Motoramic Drives

8 March 2013

For the first time, the United States has overtaken Germany as Mercedes-Benz’s biggest market, which means America is becoming ever more important to the world’s oldest automaker. Yet the Supersize Me phenomenon of expanding girth common to fast-food burgers and automobiles alike has created a void below Mercedes-Benz’ entry level C-Class — one now filled with the CLA250.

And Benz is banking on the CLA to become the affordable temptress that will woo young buyers into its otherwise out-priced lair. Crucially, it is performing this seduction first and foremost via design.

Consider a quartet of design choices: the upright grill, a windscreen that is pushed back 4-5 inches creating a longer hood, a raked A-pillar leading to an avant-garde coupé-like roofline, and the implementation of Mercedes’ “dropping line” — a crease that starts at the headlights and then swoops back and down towards the rear wheels. The dropping line was first introduced in the CLS and is making its way through the entire stable. “It’s kind of like the signature in every great painting, in every Mercedes you will see the dropping line,” explains Mercedes-Benz Head of Design Gorden Wagener.

The look hides the bulky front-wheel-drive architecture around the front axle, giving the CLA a much more brutish look. As the CLA is the first front-wheel-drive car Benz will ever sell in America (not counting the ultra rare F-Cell B-Class only leased in California), Mercedes didn’t want to pull a Maker’s Mark and water down its reputation.

“It was an active decision to move away from the ‘wedge’ design of the 90s, which we see as kind of old-fashioned, and transform it into a more streamlined 1930’s Art Deco design,” explains Wagener.

There are other nice touches: black pillar lines that run along the edge of the roof from the A-pillar back not only provide the car functional roof-rack latches, but also lend optical continuation to vertical rear air intakes now becoming standard across all AMG bumpers. The windows are frameless. The steering wheel is hearty, leather-wrapped with contrast cross-stitching.

And yet Mercedes has managed to squeak the CLA into the United States under $30,000. Usually when a luxury manufacturer strives to build a car with a particular price threshold in mind, all sorts of corners are cut; cheap materials, plastics and stripped interiors abound. Yet the CLA is robust with stylish accoutrements even in base form: aluminum pedals with rubber racing studs, power seats, anthracite trim, all standard, along with typical German luxury tech such as a 7-speed dual clutch transmission, start-stop fuel saver and a 5.8-inch display.

Even if you tick a couple of options — navigation, sunroof or the inevitable “sport appearance” package with the so-called “diamond” grille — you’ll still slip in somewhere under $35,000, a good $5,000 cheaper than a comparably equipped C-Class (which, naturally, will be growing larger in its next generation). You can tick some options and get a Volkswagen Passat up to that level, as well as a Kia Optima SX, Hyundai Azera, etc. But with the CLA you’re getting an actual luxury brand, not a value brand gussying itself up to achieve luxury status. If that matters to you, it’s a categorical difference.

There are tricks to this affordability. First, the CLA will be built in Hungary with considerably lower labor costs than Europe or the United States. More importantly, its expenses are decreased by building several models off the same chassis (A-Class, B-Class, the upcoming GLA, etc.) This production technique Benz execs reticently admit nicking from their nemeses over at VW, who across Audi, SEAT, Skoda and their own brand can build a dozen cars on a single platform.

While the CLA250’s turbocharged 2.0L 4-cyclinder won’t blow any minds with its 208 hp, its 25/36 mpg (city/hwy) is notable. Still the 258 ft-lb of torque provides plenty of get-up should you need to downshift the paddles to overtake Sunday drivers. With the optional 4MATIC torque on demand all-wheel-drive, all the power could theoretically go to the rear wheels, although that’s not going to happen in real life.

On a Mediterranean-hugging routes of the Côte d’Azur from Marseilles to St. Tropez certainly provided plenty of driving pleasure. The electromechanically assisted power steering delivered nice driver feedback, and in conjunction with the sport-tuned suspension handled all but the hairiest of switchbacks at admirable speeds. The array of standard safety technology worked well too, which we discovered when a car we were following turned right, and we attempted to overtake it on the left. In the close quarters the CLA’s Collision Prevention Assist engaged and slammed on the brakes, interpreting an impending crash. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not, as we were in no danger of hitting anything, so the braking in that instance seemed intrusive. Had it been caused by a moment’s distraction, I’m sure owners would be thrilled for the added protection.

In the end convincing new customers to add the Tristar to their shopping list requires more than just building a lust-worthy car. Benz also has to offer one that a new level of buyer can afford, and maybe that’s the real incantation of the CLA. Clearly for Stuttgart the CLA is a statement of purpose. It is also a potent statement of Mercedes-Benz design, for the present and future.

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