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2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class Test Drive Review
The CLA250 is roomier, more practical, more stylish and more capable than I ever expected, and if the car has that sort of impact on me, imagine how excited Gen-Yers must be about leasing their first brand-new car… and a Mercedes-Benz, no less.
When buying a Mercedes-Benz CLA250, don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re getting a prestigious luxury car for $30,000, because you’re not. What you’re getting is a ton of style accessorized with a world-renowned brand name, a starter luxury car emphasizing surface detail and delivering very little substance beneath its skin. Or, as my wife put it, the CLA250 is the equivalent of a Coach outlet mall purse.
Look and Feel
Out of 10
To understand the Mercedes-Benz CLA250, you’ve gotta put it into perspective, or you’ll be forced to draw unfavorable conclusions about the automaker’s “Best or Nothing” advertising mantra. Evidence on sales charts would suggest, however, that CLA buyers aren’t having any trouble understanding their new rides.
1. Mercedes-Benz pointed star emblem in the grille? Check.
2. Swoopy, stylish, “Sensual Clarity” design that has set the styling pace for the latest C-Class and S-Class? Check.
3. Somewhat affordable payment? Check.
4. Inspiration of envy among family, friends and co-workers? Check.
Mercedes knows that everybody wants one. A Mercedes, I mean, not a CLA-Class. Young and old, rich and poor, male and female, it doesn’t matter. Car buyers aspire to own a Benz, and it is the CLA-Class that can make such aspiration a reality for greater numbers of people, and earlier in their lives.
So, now that all the hullabaloo over its under-$30,000 price tag is over, and the new “Sensual Clarity” design ethos it introduced is now evident in a number of other Mercedes models, I thought I’d take my first close look at the CLA250, keeping in mind the car’s purpose and intent, and discovering that doing so makes it much easier to excuse the car’s flaws.
My CLA250 test vehicle was not what one might call a loaded example of the breed. It had 4Matic all-wheel drive, larger 18-inch aluminum wheels with summer performance tires, Mountain Gray Metallic paint, a panoramic sunroof, heated front seats, a Becker MapPilot navigation system and a dealer-installed illuminated star emblem for the grille to make sure everyone knows this is a Benz after the sun sets. The price tag came to $37,455, including the $925 destination charge.
That’s not bad… for a Mercedes. Trouble is, you’re still paying for the prestige associated with the brand, and little of substance. Here is a short list of things missing from my test car: leather seats, wood trim, automatic climate control, a premium sound system, a reversing camera and safety systems such as blind-spot and lane-keeping assist. Adding them would have brought my test car up to about $45,000.
What you’re also paying for when choosing a CLA250 is style. There is no question that this is a stylish car, inside and out. The latest Mercedes-Benz design language, known as Sensual Clarity, looks a little out of proportion on a compact, front-drive platform, but the CLA sure looks like it ought to cost a minimum of $10,000 more than other small cars.
The interior, where you spend all of your time, is even better. Although it doesn’t take long to discover that the quality and heft of the materials reflect corporate cost savings, this two-tone cabin looks terrific. Well, except for the silly tacked-on infotainment screen.
Out of 10
The Mercedes CLA250 is equipped with a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine featuring direct fuel injection. It generates 208 hp at 5,500 rpm and 258 lb-ft of torque between 1,250 and 4,000 rpm, all sent to the car’s front wheels through a 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission equipped with paddle shifters.
If you’re not crazy about the idea of a front-wheel-drive Mercedes, you can opt for the CLA250 4Matic, which includes an all-wheel-drive system that automatically delivers up to half the engine’s output to the rear wheels for improved traction whenever driving conditions warrant. The system also includes a 4-wheel electronic traction system that feeds power to just one of the car’s wheels if necessary.
Every CLA250’s powertrain includes Eco Stop/Start technology that’s designed to conserve fuel by shutting the engine off when the car is idling in traffic or at an intersection. According to the EPA, my test car should have returned 27 mpg in combined driving. During my week behind the wheel, and while driving the car primarily in its Eco mode rather than its Sport mode, the car provided 26.4 mpg, so it looks like the numbers on the window sticker are realistic.
Drive the CLA250 primarily around a city, and you’re likely to be disappointed by the experience. The standard sport suspension tuning is undeniably stiff, and my particular test car’s summer performance tires transmitted lots of pavement texture and road noise into the cabin. These factors revealed plenty of interior buzzes and rattles, and the CLA isn’t particularly isolated from noise, vibration and harshness in the first place. Furthermore, this is a hard car to see out of, and unless you spend thousands of dollars on extras, you’ve got to live without a reversing camera and a blind-spot information system.
Now, in addition to these tiring traits, add a transmission that likes to upshift to the next gear just as soon as is possible in order to conserve fuel. However, because the engine’s substantial torque is offered starting at a remarkably low 1,250 rpm, this characteristic doesn’t limit acceleration. It only sounds that way due to the lack of rising engine rpm. Selecting Sport mode using a button on the dashboard helps resolve this shifting trait to some degree, and when properly set up and driven, the CLA250 accelerates to 60 mph in less than 7 seconds, according to Mercedes. In my opinion, it feels that way as long as you mash your foot down on the accelerator pedal or choose to use the car’s paddle shifters.
Power the CLA250 around a corner, such as when turning right on red, and you can both feel and hear the 4Matic AWD system going about its business, reminding you yet again that the price to be paid for an affordable Mercedes is a lack of isolation and refinement. On occasion, when driven in Eco mode, I also caught the transmission napping, which caused software bewilderment followed by clunky gear changes.
Aside from the rough ride, the cabin chatter, the eager yet sometimes confused transmission and the grinding 4Matic AWD, it isn’t easy to bring the CLA250 to a smooth stop. The brake pedal itself works fine, though it is located too close to the accelerator. Rather, the CLA comes to a jerky halt, a common trait of Germanic machinery.
With that glowing city driving report out of the way, I will tell you that the CLA250 is an agreeable highway commuter. Wind noise is nicely quelled, and you can’t hear the drivetrain. Road noise is a completely different story, though, and depending on the surface, you’re going to need to raise your voice to communicate with passengers more often than not.
Where the CLA250 shines brightest, when equipped like my test car, is on a writhing, mountainous back road. With all of this car’s turbocharged torque, the 4Matic AWD, the paddle-shifted transmission, the available Sport driving mode, the standard sport suspension and the P225/40R18 Goodyear Eagle F1 summer performance tires, this car hauled you-know-what down Southern California’s Mulholland Highway. Combine these features with the CLA’s compact packaging, and it ran from peak elevation to the beach in no time at all. In fact, the only complaint I had in this driving environment pertained to the steering, which feels a bit artificial in the middle of higher-speed bends in the road. The wheel itself, however, is perfectly sized and a genuine joy to grip.
As much fun as I had driving hard across the Santa Monica Mountains, my CLA250’s talents are the opposite of what they really ought to be. What this car needs is a big dose of refinement in terms of how it works in the city and on the highway, because that’s where it will be spending the majority of its time. The fact that it can, when properly equipped, behave like a genuine sport sedan on a back road should be the icing on a tasty cake.
Form and Function
Out of 10
When you look at the Mercedes CLA250, you don’t expect that it will be comfortable or practical, what with that low, curved roof and stubby little trunk. Actually get into one, or open the trunk, and you’ll be surprised by how roomy and useful this car is.
The front seats offer a wide range of power adjustment and plenty of legroom and headroom. Combined with the tilt/telescopic steering wheel and sliding center armrest, the driver’s seat accommodates a variety of people who, aside from the high beltline, aren’t likely to feel restricted by the car’s compact exterior, especially if they’ve opted for the panoramic sunroof. Plus, the standard MB-Tex leatherette is just as nice as what qualifies as real leather in some vehicles.
Expectedly, the rear seat is snug for larger adults, but I fit, and I’m not the smallest dude on my block. People with longer torsos than mine, however, will complain about headroom. The hard plastic front seatback trim is also a problem for knees and shins, making it hard to understand this choice of material in this location.
Note, however, that I carried my pre-schooler and first-grader around in this car without much trouble. If you buy a CLA when you’re young and single, and then a few years later you decide to start a family, that doesn’t automatically mean you need to get a different set of wheels. My compact folding stroller fit lengthwise in the trunk with minimal effort, accompanied by two full-size suitcases. Speaking of the trunk, it measures a generous 13.1 cubic feet, a few gallons of milk shy of what you can stuff into a Subaru Legacy.
Out of 10
Although my test car’s price tag came to nearly $38,000, once I peered past the stylish interior’s surfaces, forms and décor, there really wasn’t much to be found in the way of substance. My car had manual climate control, a Becker MapPilot navigation system that looks just like the kind you suction cup to your windshield, Bluetooth hands-free calling with text-message support and a USB port inside the center console for connecting my smartphone and streaming music.
Though I didn’t need to crack open the owner’s manual to pair my phone to the system, Mercedes sure doesn’t make it easy. In some cars, everything magically happens with minimal input from the owner. In the CLA250, there are numerous steps involved, and the car’s COMAND interface isn’t always intuitive to use. Also, if you switch from running Pandora or iTunes on your device to a standard HD radio station, and then you want to get back to the phone, you push the button on the dashboard marked “DISC.”
The dealer-installed Becker MapPilot navigation system is easy enough to use and provides appreciably robust features, but is rather slow to respond to inputs. Graphically, it is not the most sophisticated system available today, and while using it I was wishing for the giant Uconnect 8.4 touchscreen infotainment system that’s available in a Dodge Dart for almost half the price of my CLA250 test car.
Out of 10
Beyond the lack of infotainment technologies in my test car, it was missing two key safety features: a reversing camera and a blind-spot assist system. They are available as options, but at a significant cost. For example, to get a reversing camera on the sleek CLA250, which definitely poses visibility challenges due to its swept roofline and small windows, you must spend $4,370 extra for a piece of equipment that comes standard on a Honda Fit. Say what now?
First you need to buy the Premium Package, and then you can buy the Multimedia Package, the latter of which contains the reversing camera. Along with improved visibility these option packages also supply a premium audio system, a navigation system, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats and a bunch of other stuff you might not really want. If you’d then like to have a blind-spot assist system, a lane-keeping assist system, an adaptive cruise control system with stop-and-go capability and Collision Prevention Assist Plus technology, which is a fancy way of saying automatic braking, you’ve gotta dig another $2,500 out of your pocket.
Before you know it, you’re up to nearly $38,000, and you haven’t even got leather seats. Yikes. At least the CLA250’s standard equipment list does include rain-sensing wipers, an Attention Assist system and a basic Collision Prevention Assist system.
What happens if you get in a wreck while driving, or riding in, a CLA250? Nobody knows just yet, because neither the NHTSA nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has performed crash tests on this model. The good news is that despite its diminutive dimensions, the CLA250 weighs 3,262 pounds, which definitely gives the little luxury car some extra heft.
Out of 10
The Mercedes-Benz CLA250 is a brand-new car, the first front-wheel-drive vehicle the automaker has sold in the U.S., and it's equipped with a new drivetrain. Therefore, it's impossible to establish how reliable it might be over time. However, the CLA-Class did not perform well in the J.D. Power 2014 Initial Quality Study, earning the lowest quality rating from the market research firm.
The bad news continues in terms of cost of ownership. According to Consumer Reports, the CLA is more expensive than average to own. This blow is somewhat softened by a 4-star depreciation rating from ALG, and based on my experience, the fuel economy ratings appear to be accurate, but the CLA250 requires premium fuel.
I’m not even sure the CLA250 lease deal is a good one. With no money down, the monthly payment equates to $430 per month before factoring in taxes or any options beyond the Premium Package and the Becker MapPilot navigation system. Compare that to vehicles in the next class above from competing luxury automakers, and you quickly realize that’s not really a deal.
Besides, if you’re willing to consider a slightly used luxury car, any number of certified pre-owned models can be had for the same price as my CLA250 test car, like the 2012 Mercedes E350 sitting on a lot 3 miles from my house with fewer than 20,000 miles on the odometer.
With that said, the CLA250 is not at all about getting a great value in a new car. Plus, it is roomier, more practical, more stylish and more capable than I ever expected, and if the car has that sort of impact on me, imagine how excited Gen-Yers must be about leasing their first brand-new car… and a Mercedes-Benz, no less.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.