Mercedes-Benz CLA250 — The real deal

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

It sounded like an idea whose time probably shouldn't have come — an entry-level Mercedes-Benz with a starting price under $30,000 with front-wheel drive and a transverse 4-cylinder engine. But here it is nonetheless, and we found that the 2014 CLA250 is the real deal.

With a sleek eye-catching design, performance that should please most folks, and an interior that looks and feels for the most part up to Mercedes' exacting standards, it's no mystery why the CLA250 has become an overnight sales success. The only caveat is that the advertised $29,995 starting price is simply to gain your attention. But even reasonably outfitted in $35,000 territory, the CLA250 opens the Mercedes door for buyers who want the luxury nameplate at an affordable price, but have been frozen out as the price of the previous entry-level C-Class has escalated to well over $40,000.

The CLA's so-called four-door coupe design gives it an aerodynamic and athletic stance taking its cues from the $75,000 Mercedes CLS, which was restyled into a graceful "four-door coupe" for the 2012 model year. The CLA's diamond block grille, frameless door glass, and sweeping taillamps set off the stylish look. In fact, the convex curves and gently arching character lines flowing from the front fender through the rear door and from the B pillar into the elegantly streamlined taillights pull off the looks-as-if-it's-in-motion-while-standing-still appearance.

Mercedes says the CLA is more aerodynamic than the Toyota Prius hybrid creating a win-win situation for the CLA owner who not only gets driveway bragging rights for the most stylish car in the neighborhood, but excellent gas mileage — thanks to its wind-cheating curves — measured at 26 mpg city, 38 highway, 30 combined. The only downside — premium gas is required.

This gas mileage from a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbocharged engine making 208 horsepower and a prodigious 258 pound-feet of torque mated to a seven speed dual-clutch automatic transmission with shift paddles offers a lot of bang for the buck considering that it can complete a 0-to-60 run in 6.3 seconds and a quarter mile dash in 14.9 seconds at 95 mph based on published numbers.

If you want more prodigious performance, Mercedes has the answer in the CLA45 AMG that infuses the compact sedan with 355 horsepower and a 0-to-60 time of 4.5 seconds from a slammed version of the 2.0-liter engine that features a twin-scroll turbocharger and a quicker-shifting version of the seven-speed automatic. The AMG version starts at about $48,000.

We think most people will be convinced they are driving a "real" Mercedes for their modest outlay once they discover just how agreeable the CLA250 is to drive. It accelerates without the slightest hint of the dreaded front-drive torque steer (are you sure this is front wheel drive?), and steering is spot on with a precision feel, exactly what you'd expect from a Mercedes. The standard suspension setup is just right — not too soft, not too firm. For those who want a firmer ride and 18-inch wheels there is a sport suspension package available for an additional $2,200.

Inside, the CLA is surprisingly quiet and the cabin looks and feels like a traditional Mercedes. Analog gauges are large and easy to read and controls are intuitive. You might be put off by the navigation screen that sits atop the dash, thinking it looks too much like an aftermarket add-on. But we weren't distressed by the look, and it's easy to see without taking your eyes off the road. The front seats are comfortable, the driving position is excellent and storage for drinks and phones is good.

Rear passengers, however, may encounter headroom issues because of the sloping roofline. And knee and leg room are on the tight side as well. On the other hand, trunk space is decent for a compact-sized sedan at 13.1 cubic feet.

Standard safety is well covered with multiple airbags; stability and traction control; antilock brakes; and a Collision Prevention Assist program, which intervenes with braking as necessary to avoid an impending collision and monitors the driver for signs of drowsiness. But to get such cutting-edge safety features as a rearview camera and blind spot assist you have to buy them as optional equipment.

For example, the rearview camera comes as part of the Multimedia Package that includes navigation for $2,370. And blind spot assist is part of a Driver Assistance Package for $2,500. Our test car included those packages as well as the Premium Package at $2,300 that includes satellite radio, an upgraded harman/kardon surround system, and dual-zone climate control. That brought the purchase price of our test car to $37,995.

Base price: $30,825; as driven, $37,995
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 208 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 258 foot-pounds @ 1,250 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 182.3 inches
Curb weight: 3,262 pounds
Turning circle: 36 feet
Luggage capacity: 13.1 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.1 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 38 highway, 26 city
0-60: 6.3 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: Cadillac ATS, Lexus IS 250, Acura ILX

The Good
• Mercedes quality for relatively low price
• Excellent performance and handling
• Commendable gas mileage
• Head-turning styling

The Bad
• Cramped rear seating

The Ugly
• Some safety features bundled into high-dollar packages