The 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 is finally making its first public appearance at the Geneva Auto Show this week, showing off the luxury automaker's attempt at capturing a more youthful customer base.
Mercedes may not make much money on the car, which has a starting price of $29,900 in the U.S. But executives say the vehicle is about more than just revenue:
"The whole business case is about more than just how much do you earn on each vehicle," said Hans-Georg Engel, director of development and strategic project manager for compact cars at Mercedes. This car will help lower the corporate average fuel economy figures for Mercedes, which will help it sell high-end gas guzzlers with no financial penalty from the government.
But more importantly, the car could just get people coming into the showrooms again. Maybe the car will become hot among young professionals, reviving interest in the brand. Maybe someone interested in a CLA will buy a C-Class instead.
It is crucial Mercedes get the CLA right. A Reuters story this week said CEO Dieter Zetsche's career may be hanging on its success. The automaker has, by its own admission, lost ground to Audi and BMW in courting younger buyers.
AOL Autos had a chance to test drive the CLA this past week before the Geneva auto show. Click through to see if we think this car will be a hit.
MSRP: $29,900 - $41,000, estimated
Invoice price: NA
As Tested: Not sure – Mercedes hasn't released pricing for all its options yet
Engine: Turbocharged 2.0L I4
Performance: 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque
Transmission: 7-speed dual clutch
Fuel economy: Not yet calculated, but Mercedes says the CLA has the best aerodynamics of any car on the road, which they think will help fuel efficiency
Seating: 5 people
Mercedes has done a great job of using one single line that runs along the sides of its cars to make its cars look fast, even when they're standing still.
The CLA has two lines, kind of like a set of parenthesis laid horizontally. Some people didn't like all the lines, saying it made the car look too busy, but we here at AOL Autos quite liked the view from the side. The CLA looks distinctive; it's not just another box on wheels.
The automaker is particularly proud of its "frameless" windows, which look much like convertible car doors without a heavy door frame holding the side windows in. We're sure it took a lot of extra effort to do that, but it didn't make much of a visual impact.
Mercedes said the concave and convex surfaces created by the lines help give the CLA a "style rebel" attitude. That might be pushing it -- this car certainly won't appeal to the mohawk-wearing lip piercers of the world.
The CLA's interior doesn't feel skimpy, until you look close. The dashboard is clean, and looks particularly nice when accentuated with brushed aluminum. The GPS/entertainments system stands up in the center of the car, like someone glued an iPad into the dash. The 5.8-inch display looks nice, and gives the interior a very modern touch. You can upgrade to a premium package that comes with a 7-inch screen.
But there are a couple of places where the materials feel cheap, like the sun visors, some of the plastic in between the seats and the material lining the pillars that separate the windshield from the side windows.
The air vents are round and look like jet engines, which adds a nice touch.
Passenger And Cargo Space
The front seats are comfortable with ample leg room and optional heated seats, but the rear seats are a disaster. They're angled too tightly, making it nearly impossible for a grown adult to find a way to sit comfortably for any amount of time. We had three separate adults, all under 6 feet tall, testing out the back seats separately. Everyone hated sitting there.
Mercedes didn't release the cargo space stats yet, but we fit two large suitcases and a few backpacks in the trunk. Cargo space isn't something Mercedes is touting with this car, but it seems perfectly acceptable for most sedan owner's needs.
Overall, the CLA delivers on its promise of being an entry-level Mercedes. The car has tight, controlled steering that makes driving up and down windy roads a blast. Mercedes has given each car standard electromechanical power steering, which improves feedback to the driver.
And it's quiet -- probably a function of Mercedes' near obsession with making this car the most aerodynamic car on the market. It has a coefficient of drag (the figure that measures how much air slows down a car) of 0.22 -- the lowest figure of any car on the market, Mercedes says.
The front-wheel drive car comes with a standard dual clutch, which we didn't love when testing, especially when going up hills. There was a significant lag between stepping on the gas and when it would start to accelerate. Engle told us that might have happened because of a problem with the transmission fluids some of the test drive cars faced, so that's something we would look for if we test driving the car again.
We've heard people complain that the car is a front-wheel drive, but that isn't a downside. With the weight at the front wheels, it helps the car feel more stable and doesn't steal from the sporty driving feel.
Driving dynamics are even better in the CLA 250 4Matic, Mercedes' all-wheel drive system. That version, which will probably cost at least a few thousand dollars more than the base model, felt confident on the road and was fun to drive.
Tech And Infotainment
The sleek iPad-looking entertainment system is big part of Mercedes' attempt at looking young. The system comes with Mercedes' mbrace2 connectivity service, which gives drivers access to their smartphones at all times.
It worked pretty seamlessly and quickly in our test car.
The CLA 250 will also come with one of our favorite car technologies: Distronic. That's Mercedes' name for adaptive cruise control. Mercedes' adaptive cruise control can be set to keep a certain amount of distance between you and the car ahead, and will bring the car to a complete stop. It makes long commutes an absolute breeze, because the car can handle speed control in traffic quite well.
There are quite a few other safety technology options available on the car that come standard, like collision prevention assist, tire pressure monitoring, and a whole bunch of airbags. Two other neat technologies -- blind spot assist and lane keeping assist -- will cost you extra.
Mercedes doesn't have fuel economy figures yet. The car doesn't go on sale in the U.S. until September, so expect those figures sometime this summer.
Despite the nit picking, there's a pretty good chance Mercedes is going to sell a ton of these cars. They're attractive, fun to drive, and certainly don't feel like a cheap version of a nicer Mercedes.
And that's the key to success for this car: Finding a way for people to afford a cheaper version of an aspirational brand. BMW did it with the 3-series when that launched in 1976 and has had a ton of success with it. Ford tried doing something similar with the Jaguar X-Type, which was a $31,000 disaster that they shelved in 2005.
For Mercedes, even if people don't want to buy the CLA, it will be an intriguing enough value proposition to get people in the dealership doors. And once they're in, they might opt for a higher-priced C-Class, which would still make Mercedes happy.
Pricing, with all the options you'd want in the car, will make a huge difference. Mercedes says they expect most people will spend about $35,000 to $36,000 to get the kind of car they want. The car makes much less sense once the bill starts getting higher.
The CLA 250 hits the U.S. market in September with the front-wheel drive version. The 4Matic doesn't arrive until spring 2014 at the latest, but it's worth the wait.
AOL Autos has a policy against advertorial and keeping free stuff. Products, such as cars, software, hardware, etc. provided to the staff by companies for review are always returned, and anything else sent to us is given away to the readers. In order to review the latest car, we sometimes accept travel, accommodations, and access to vehicles from the automakers (along with other members of the press). Our opinions and criticisms are always our own. Our editorial is never for sale, and never will be.