Vital Stats

Engine:
Turbo 2.0L I4
Power:
208 HP / 258 LB-FT
Transmission:
7-Speed DCT
0-60 Time:
6.9 Seconds
Drivetrain:
Front-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight:
3,262 LBS
Seating:
2+3
Cargo:
13.1 CU-FT
MPG:
26 City / 38 HWY
Base Price:
$29,900
As Tested Price:
$43,245
With more than a year separating my test week with the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 from its debutante ball at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show, I had the advantage of a mountain of data and diatribes with which to inform my initial opinion. Conversations with colleagues and coworkers netted splintered ideas about the CLA's driving demeanor; reading hundreds of comments posted on Autoblog articles revealed a popular divide about everything from exterior styling to the execution of its navigation screen.

While commentary from the public and pundits alike has spun in a circle over the front-driver Mercedes this last year, the car-buying public has been voting the CLA up in fantastic fashion. Early sales have been very strong for the lowest-cost-of-entry Benz, despite being capacity constrained over the first months of 2014. Mercedes-Benz USA PR manager Christian Bokich told me that dealers are "selling the 250 and 45 AMG as fast as they can get them," and though he wouldn't share the internal number, says that the CLA has the lowest day supply of any model in the brand's lineup. Clearly, while we've been happily shouting at each other, Mercedes sales' staffs have been swiftly compiling signed purchase agreements, and racking up numbers.

Given the context of this first year of existence, I thought it would be helpful to review the CLA250 with a special eye to those areas of the car that have been the most hotly contested. By my research, that means wading into the fray on the attractiveness of its sheetmetal, the polish of its interior, the starchiness of its suspension and the thrift of its luxurious bottom line.
2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 2502014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 2502014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250

Amongst our crew of editors, the CLA's ride quality was perhaps the biggest bone of contention. A survey of reviews across the web shows a consensus that the car's suspension runs to the firm side of things, which nobody here debates. The argued point is whether or not the stiff suspension (abetted by optional larger wheels, I'm sure) ruins the ride quality entirely.

The front springs and dampers are probably ten to twenty percent too firm to be comfortable in routine driving.

The last of the Michigan winter snow had just melted when I took the CLA's keys, so the pothole situation around my driving world was at its yearly worse. Perfect. I can abide a pretty rough ride if the tradeoff is knifelike handling, but in the case of this CLA250, which utilizes a fixed-ratio suspension made up of MacPherson struts and double wishbones in front and an independent, four-link solution for the rear, I'm not sure that tradeoff works out.

Mercedes engineers have created a very firm front end with a softer, easier-to-slide rear, probably as a way to imitate a rear-drive feel from this front-drive chassis. And, to their credit, the result under all but the highest cornering loads (where the front pushes noticeably) is a pretty neutral chassis at speed. The very real downside is the front springs and dampers are probably ten to twenty percent too firm to be comfortable in routine driving, especially on dodgy north country roads.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 2502014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 2502014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 2502014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250

One of our editors called the resulting hard ride "completely unacceptable for a Mercedes," which I can't quite support. I think neophytes to the brand could test drive the CLA250, especially on better roads, and not think they were getting the short end of the stick. Either way, after a week with the thing, I was less enthused about the non-conforming ride quality than I'd been at first.

The turbo engine pulls the compact sedan hard through space, with naught but the peskiest little of torque steer under steering and full acceleration.

While dulled by its slightly slow-witted seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, reviewers have tended to look favorably on Mercedes' 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine, as is found under the CLA's hood. Pushing out a sturdy 258 pound-feet of torque at just 1,250 rpm, the turbo engine pulls the compact sedan hard through space, with naught but the peskiest little of torque steer under steering and full acceleration. 208 horsepower is not an impressive figure for the ever-more-impressive lineup of 2.0Ts around the world (especially considering I just drove a Volvo of identical displacement making 302 horsepower), but EPA ratings of 38 miles per gallon on the highway and 26 in the city really are. The ultra-slippery CLA – famously having a drag coefficient lower than the Tesla Model S or Toyota Prius – sips premium fuel slower than turbo'd 2.0s from all of its German competitors.

Kept to its default transmission mode, the powertrain feels as strong and responsive as I'd expect from a small luxury car; quick even. Selecting Sport mode enlivens things considerably, however, making throttle response really sharp. The trans offers a manual mode, too, but it's slow to respond, doesn't hold the gear you've selected at the engine's modest 5,500-rpm redline, and is generally less effective than simply letting the sport programming shift for itself.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250

That feeling of speed is never particularly overwhelming, though, even when flinging the Benz around, in part because the super-quiet cabin is rarely intruded upon by a strong note from the exhaust. The CLA250 isn't meant to be a sports car so much as fashionable near-coupe, so I think that tuning is probably spot-on for the intended audience, even if I found it a little disappointing.

The CLA suffers mightily from Sarah Jessica Parker Syndrome: undeniably striking from some angles and in many photos, yet shockingly weird in others.

By leaps and bounds, over the course of our Detroit debut coverage, our First Drive and a few variant reviews, the topic most often contested seems to be the CLA's styling. There are well over a thousand comments on Autoblog CLA-based articles, so I didn't note each and every opinion (I'm currently accepting applications for the position of research intern), but it's fair to say that this is a polarizing design of the highest order. Succinctly positive remarks – "sexy!" "I think am in love." – are often found in hilarious proximity to colorful disagreement ­– "absolutely vomit inducing" and "it looks like someone with no muscle control designed this car" being two of my personal favorites.

To me, the CLA suffers mightily from Sarah Jessica Parker Syndrome: undeniably striking from some angles and in many photos, yet shockingly weird in others. Catch either Mercedes or Parker from a dead-front vantage, and if you're like me, you may conclude that both feature heads two-sizes too huge for their bodies. Look again and you might change your mind entirely. The company knows this design is confrontational, emotional and very young minded, and seems happy to be pushing the envelope, eager to capture buyers outside its traditional audience.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 2502014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 2502014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250

I'm much less conflicted about the interior of the CLA, even though in my tester's case it was trimmed in standard-equipment, MB-Tex pseudo leather.

The same lines that create such visual drama on the bodysides have a kind of inflating effect for everything forward of the front door handles when glimpsed from the wrong angle, like a traditional three-box car that's been caught holding its breath. The bluff front end with its dinner-plate emblem walks a very fine line between charismatic and cartoonish, and the weirdly resolved downturn of the rear end is harder for me to find graceful in any aspect. I suspect the slightly dowdy Mountain Gray Metallic paint of my tester successfully toned down the wilder parts of the bodywork, as I found myself rather drawn to the design in person. Yet, somehow, that doesn't come through in the photoset of the very same car. Let's call it camera shyness.

I'm much less conflicted about the interior of the CLA, even though in my tester's case it was trimmed in standard-equipment, MB-Tex pseudo leather. I'm probably an outlier here, but this material doesn't turn me off at all. The texture isn't convincing as leather, but it's soft to the touch and doesn't emit any kind of plasticky smell, and from what I've read, it wears better over time, with less maintenance than the real deal. That's not as big a consideration if you're going to lease rather than buy, but it's a factor for long-term ownership worth considering.

The seats themselves are striking, with a body-hugging, one-vent design the reminds me of chairs found in a Porsche 911. Tall guys like me won't love the fact that the headrests are fixed, but they also don't stand out by making one's head or neck uncomfortable over time.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 2502014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 2502014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 2502014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250

Taken as a whole, I think the CLA cockpit's great design stands out over some mildly undesirable materials.

The sweeping dash and forward cabin is equal to the seats in terms of pretty interior design. A grippy, technical-looking steering wheel draws the eye to a driver-focused instrument panel, while rotating-bezel air vents offer cool contrast to the sleekness of the liquid-silver accent strip across the dash. I actually enjoy the sort of 'floating' effect created by the high and proud mounting of the infotainment screen, too, but understand the (many) reader arguments that it looks like an aftermarket throw-in. Let me assure you: it is not mounted to the dash via suction cup. You can see that the harder black plastics in my test car – all found from about the centerline to the floor ­– have already suffered a few dings and scratches after just over 5,000 miles of life. Still, taken as a whole, I think the CLA cockpit's great design stands out over some mildly undesirable materials.

Which brings me to the question of value. When the CLA entered the market, many of you were stoked at the possibility of entering the Mercedes club for just $29,900. Well, round it off at $31k to start, after the $925 destination fee is punched in. Of course, my CLA250 had more than twelve-grand-worth of options added to its bottom line, as well. Packages included Driver Assistance (Distronic Plus, blind spot and lane keep assists), Sport (firmer suspension and 18-inch wheels), Premium (Harmon/Kardon sound, heated seats, etc.) and Multimedia (COMAND with navi, rear-view camera, DVD player, 10GB music storage, and more). Package costs were all more than $2,000 a pop. There was also a beautiful panoramic sunroof for $1,480 and another $1,550 in metallic paint and bi-xenon lighting. The total damage of more than $43k feels over the top, especially considering that doesn't include the $2,000 4Matic all-wheel-drive, but pick and choose at your whim and you could build a non-poverty-spec Mercedes for around $35k. That really does open up the brand for a lot of new buyers, as the model's hot sales readily illustrate.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250

Now, if you're a part of the group that's been fighting and commenting about the CLA for the last year, you probably also know that Audi has a tasty new A3 that's sized and priced to compete head on with the CLA. The A3's opening bid isn't as good, with an identical $29,900 buying a weaker 1.8-liter turbo engine and front drive, but it catches up quick with $32,900 asked for a more powerful 2.0T and Quattro. Options pricing between the two new entry-lux combatants is competitive, though Audi's list of desirables includes a design ethos that is far less challenging, for better or worse.

Admit it: Deep down, you'd rather drive a Mercedes, too.

BMW will be a player in this segment soon, with a completely new front-drive 1 Series sedan, but nobody has driven (or even seen) it yet, so it's hard to say where it'll stack up. Good money says price, power and performance will be right there with the CLA. Some outliers exist as cross-shops (many pointed out by you all in the comment threads), though none are perfect. Acura would argue its ILX is in this conversation (but its sales and this author would argue it isn't) as would Buick of its Verano Turbo, a car which I which actually find compelling. The much larger Volkswagen CC is a legitimate contender here as far as performance, price and style are concerned, albeit without the same cache you get with that gleaming three-pointed star decorating your office parking space. Admit it: Deep down, you'd rather drive a Mercedes, too.

Therein lies the real appeal of the CLA250. Unlike the SLS AMG, S-Class and C63 AMG that come in for glowing reviews and longing commentary, this is a car that many of you could sign a lease on, probably tomorrow. To make that happen, you'd have to submit to its well-sorted front-drive dynamics, firm ride, oddly perched navigation screen and chin-heavy styling. You'd get in return a rather flashy small luxury car, with a rakish roofline, a pleasant powertrain and that strong family pedigree. Only personal predilections would make that a square deal or highway robbery – so let the commentary rage on.


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 92 Comments
      dohc73
      • 8 Months Ago
      LOL. Poor Sarah Jessica Parker.
      Carpinions
      • 8 Months Ago
      "The CLA suffers mightily from Sarah Jessica Parker Syndrome: undeniably striking from some angles and in many photos, yet shockingly weird in others." This is down to 2 things: - The emaciated skull-face front with fighter jet side air intakes and a narrow jaw in the middle; IMO it's a horrible design cue and a bad move on M-B's part to go with this, as it doesn't look good in pics or person. - That tiny @ss.
      telm12345
      • 8 Months Ago
      Just went to the NY Auto Show so I can't speak to the driving experience, but my ol’ lady and I are looking for a new car and what better place to shop around pre-test drive? We focused on the A3, CLA, Mazda 3 and 6, GTI and the MINI. Yes, there all somewhat different, but for the most part serve a purpose as fun to drive and fit 4 people. The car I was most excited about and ended up being most disappointed by is the MB . The hype of it and my own added hype, was definitely a factor, but I was disappointed mostly by the interior. I can’t stress enough that I don’t think it’s a bad car, but being 6’2”, I felt somewhat confined (I did not feel confined in the MINI) and the short windshield didn’t help much. The materials were okay, but “luxury” – not really what I felt. The A3 was a little better, but we ended up both liking the GTI the best. My girlfriend didn’t like the Mazda6 because the interior felt cheap to her. We liked the Mazda 3, but fully loaded it was about $30K, which we couldn’t really see on the same level as the GTI (just the difference when you close the doors was enough for her). For me it was a smooth and short shifter and a car that fully loaded at about $30K, felt like it was a great deal considering. It doesn’t hurt that on our recent trip to Europe we saw how families of 5 manage to live with Polos, Clios and other small hatchbacks. None of the cars we looked at were bad, but none really captured it all like the GTI. The only thing I didn’t like about the GTI (and the possible reliability issue) is the number of pizza-faced 17 year olds who were waiting in line behind me to get into the car. So the Mazda 3, GTI are on the list and we will likely also look at the Focus ST. Any other thoughts/recommendations would be appreciated!
        Hello, Brian
        • 8 Months Ago
        @telm12345
        Be sure to test drive them all. For my money,it would be the Focus ST. It is the best drive of the group and when I compared them back-to-back, it won me over against the 3 and GTI...but with that being said, the MKVII GTI may be hard to beat when it finally arrives on these shores.
          telm12345
          • 8 Months Ago
          @Hello, Brian
          Thanks! I can't wait to test it. Rep actually told me they may release a later version of the GTI MKVII that may include some of the European upgrades we're not getting here (aside from the available performance pack with diff). I'm very curious to test drive the GTI and ST back to back. The MKVII looks and feels tighter than the MKVI and its more impressive in person than the pictures give credit.
        allanstrings
        • 8 Months Ago
        @telm12345
        I tested one of these along with a few others in the segment, and ended up favoring and leasing a '14 Mazda3 S-GT. It had much better reflexes, all the same kit as the top option pkgs in the $45k loaded Merc, and the availability of the gorgeous hatchback model clinched the deal - all for $28k. Of course I would have plunked down more for a turbo variant, but the Mazda feels quicker and more fun with 186hp than the Merc does with 208hp. About 2,000 miles in, and I could not be happier with my choice. Here's hoping that there will be a turbo AWD Mazdaspeed hatch variant by the end of my lease :)
      Stinkyboy
      • 8 Months Ago
      I hear it does 0 to 60.
      NY EVO X MR GUY
      • 8 Months Ago
      This car gets expensive in a hurry. No lie. I saw an AMG version. Loaded with every single option. $76K. Nice starter car for a city hipster. But, Id rather go the C class over this car.
      Jonathan
      • 8 Months Ago
      "The CLA suffers mightily from Sarah Jessica Parker Syndrome: undeniably striking from some angles and in many photos, yet shockingly weird in others" THAT'S EXACTLY IT! The front looks really good (With the LED lights) but the rear just slopes down too low. It looks awkward. Also, without the LEDs whole car looks... well... cheap. Which I don't understand considering the pre-FL W204 non-LED/xenon headlights look just fine..
      mikeybyte1
      • 8 Months Ago
      SJP Syndrome? Hysterical !!! But quite true. I have been seeing a ton of these CLAs all over the place. They do look much better in person. Striking even. (No clue if the same holds true for SJP.) I think you summed up the review best, that if you can live with the compromises - another being the tiny back seat and trunk - then you will probably enjoy it. But I thought the A3 actually came with a lot more standard equipment than the CLA. It would be interesting to compare some $35k sedans like the Verano and CLA together to see what your money gets you.
      domingorobusto
      • 8 Months Ago
      I rather hated the looks in pictures, but figured I'd give it a chance and reserve final judgement until I saw it in the flesh. But after having seen several in person, nope if anything I think it's even uglier than my initial impression. This is just not a good looking vehicle at all. It looks like it was a good design and something stepped on it, crushing the rear end especially hard. It looks like something is supporting the middle and the ends are melting. I quite like the interior though. The front seats are a nice place to sit, although the back seat was very cramped for me, and I'm only 5'11". The screen is very oddly integrated though. It looks very after-market. When I was sitting in the car at the local auto show, another person commented that "if I wanted a Garmin on my dash, I'd just go buy a Garmin". And only a 5500 rpm redline? Good lord, I haven't seen one that low in a decade. Overall, I really don't like this car. It's very average dynamically, doesn't look good, and it's almost ludicrously expensive for what it is. Save some money and buy a loaded C-segment car. Basically any of them will offer a better driving experience, more luxury, more space, and comparable fuel economy, all for a lot less money.
      herrstreet
      • 8 Months Ago
      I think the front of this car is really similar to the Volvo s60. I got the Volvo, but a friend of mine has the CLA and he likes that it gets better milage than his old E Class, thinks the interior is fun, and finds it to be plenty fast enough. If I were going to get a car like this, I'd just get a Jetta GLI - I'd think the performance is damn close, there is more room, and interior spec is pretty much a draw unless you spend C Class money. But he's very happy with his so who am I to argue?
      EJD1984
      • 8 Months Ago
      I'd rather have a Buick Regal This is a very revealing comparison http://www.motortrend.com/roadtests/sedans/1403_entry_level_luxury_sedan_comparison/viewall.html
      Andrew
      • 8 Months Ago
      As-Tested Price: $43,245 ...is where I quit reading.
        express2day
        • 8 Months Ago
        @Andrew
        Why put so much emphasis on the as-tested price? Most cars can add options that greatly increase its price over the base price but that doesn't mean they have to be equipped that way. CLAs can easily be had in the low to mid $30s. Dirt cheap for what is supposed to be a luxury brand car.
      Michael Scoffield
      • 8 Months Ago
      I'd rather have a Buick Verano Turbo.
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