Since the "Baby Benz" 190E of 1982-93, Mercedes has been trying to get back into the small, relatively affordable segment -- call it entry-luxury or semi-premium -- in the United States. Now, the builder of everything from Western European taxicabs and semi-trucks to S-Classes and AMGs finally has the right product. It was saved for a pre-Detroit auto show reveal Sunday night, although Benz was not planning to display the car on the North American International Auto Show floor during press or public days following the reveal. The 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class has neither the Bauhaus minimalism of the 190 nor the creased conservatism of the more expensive C-Class. It's a baby CLS.
The CLA looks sportier and sleeker than the prosaic, though somewhat over-designed, C- and E-Class sedans. The interior's standout feature is the set of five air vents on the instrument panel, with galvanized outer rings and insert controls. Standard interior trim is anthracite, with burl walnut, black ash wood, and aluminum optional. Outside, the power dome hood and "diamond-look" grille distinguish the CLA. The production car is very faithful to the concept version.
The CLA250 will have a base price of about $30,000 when it goes on sale here in September. That's about $5000 less than a base C-Class and barely north of a nicely equipped Buick Verano or Ford Focus Titanium, while it overlaps high-spec versions of the Acura ILX. The CLA250 4Matic will cost a bit more -- a $3000 premium is a good guess.
Besides the vaunted three-pointed star on the hood, that $30,000-$33,000 gets you a gas direct-injection turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. No other drivetrains for the U.S. were announced, although in Europe and elsewhere, the A- and B-Class with which the CLA shares componentry offer manual and automatic transmissions along with 1.6-, 1.8- and 2.0-liter gasoline and diesel fours.
The CLA's all-wheel-drive option may call to mind the ill-conceived Jaguar X-Type of a decade ago, though that Jag used a base AWD U.S. spec to cover its humble front-wheel-drive Ford Mondeo origins. Even with its transverse-mounted engine, the CLA is all Mercedes, and front-wheel-drive A-Classes (with underfloor sandwich engines until the latest model) have been buzzing around Europe since 1997. Only 49 of the slightly larger front-wheel-drive B-Classes have been sold in the United States through the end of 2012, all of them hydrogen fuel-cell models and all in Southern California.
Thanks to its swoopy, "four-door coupe" bodywork, the AWD CLA250 is nearly as long as a rear-wheel-drive C-Class sedan. It's 70.0 inches wide, 56.6 inches tall, and 182.3 inches long on a 106.3-inch wheelbase. That's 1.4 inches narrower and 1.6 inches shorter in overall length than the Buick Verano, although tellingly with a 0.6-inch-longer wheelbase and 1.5-inch-lower height. With its sporty roofline, the CLA250 clearly is targeting young, childless professionals. Maybe a few with young, short kids, but probably not.
It's also targeting the new-car customer who is either tired of commodity brands or simply wants to skip them. Think of young customers who have never owned anything but a Mac and their empty-nester parents who have converted to the high-style premium computer brand.
Mercedes claims an ultra-low drag coefficient of just 0.23. The turbo four is rated at 208 hp and 258 lb-ft and, at 3264 pounds (Mercedes' early estimate), the CLA250 weighs about the same as many competitive compacts, so performance should be better than average. The horsepower figure doesn't appear to be converted from its European rating, so the final number in the U.S. may be 205 hp.
Base equipment on the CLA includes mbrace2, with a range of online and concierge services and apps that use cloud technology to link to your smartphone, in and out of the car. A 5.8-inch display and Bluetooth connectivity also come standard, and you can upgrade to a seven-inch display with Mercedes' Multimedia package, which includes the COMAND hard-drive navigation system, voice control, SD card slot, in-dash six-disc CD/DVD changer, 10-gig music register, rearview camera, and SiriusXM traffic and weather. A large panorama sunroof will be a standalone option.
The CLA250 and CLA250 4Matic's optional Premium package adds iPod/MP3 interface, SiriusXM satellite radio, a Harman/Kardon LOGIC 7 surround-sound hi-fi, heated front seats, auto dimming mirrors, integrated garage door opener, dual-zone climate control, and a compass. Like all other modern luxury cars, the base price is merely a way to describe its entry point. For the CLA250 and CLA250 4Matic, an out-the-door price in the $35,000-to-$45,000 range should be more typical.
After its pre-Detroit show reveal, the CLA250 was whisked off to Berlin, where it makes its official world premier at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.
Along with the aforementioned Acura, Buick, and Ford competitors will be the upcoming Audi A3 sedan and its crossover variant, the BMW 1-Series, and X1, and the Mini Coopers. Mercedes plans to sell a small CUV based on its small, transverse-engine A-/B-Class architecture in the United States. We should see it some time in 2014.