After years of selling cloth-seat, stick-shift, diesel-powered E-class and C-class taxicabs and front-wheel-drive A-class hatchbacks in Western Europe and spending nine long years trying to run Chrysler as its commodity brand for North America, Mercedes-Benz is back in the affordable-luxury game. The new CLA-class, which is due in U.S. showrooms in September as the 208-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder CLA250, will start at $30,000.
We drove the CLA side by side with the gullwing SLS AMG Black Series that, at roughly $275,000, sits at the top of the Mercedes lineup, some quarter-million dollars more than the CLA. That vast price spread might seem surprising, but Mercedes has historically had a wide price range for its models. When the very first Gullwing went on sale in Max Hoffman's Manhattan showroom in 1955, it cost $7463. In the same showroom, you could buy a new "Ponton" Benz 180 for $3395, which was $582 less than the base price of a Cadillac Series 62 sedan and just a few dollars more than Buick's top-of-the-line sedan, the $3349 Roadmaster.
The 180 was not Mercedes' first attempt at a commodity model. The rear-engine 130 of 1934 was a "people's car," predating the Volkswagen Type 1 (Beetle). More recently, Americans could buy Baby Benz 190 sedans in the mid-1980s and the original black-bumper late-1990s M-class sport-utility.
Beginning this fall, you'll again be able to buy a Mercedes with cloth seats (on the CLA launch edition). The CLA250 is our first transverse-engine, front-wheel-drive Mercedes. The base price is $30,825, but stripping out the $925 destination charge means it can be advertised at just under the magic $30,000 bar. Mercedes calls the CLA-class its "baby CLS." It's based on the new A-class, a not-for-U.S. hatchback. With swoopy, aerodynamic, low-roof bodywork, the CLA is longer than the current C-class.
The 2015 Mercedes C-class launching next year, though, will grow by about four inches overall and will have a two-inch-longer wheelbase. The C-class remains rear-wheel drive and the sedan will be more upright, a Mercedes for families. The CLA's coupelike styling makes the rear seat an occasional place for adults, and so the car targets "prefamily" and "postfamily" buyers. Using the short dash-to-axle FWD layout on a compact car makes for better proportions than on a larger car.
The A-class platform and front-wheel-drive layout keep the costs down, and it's clear that Mercedes considered whether each component and feature fit the cost parameters. Forget about the long-abandoned Mercedes philosophy of building cars to a standard, not a price.
"We are not a welfare organization," says Daimler chairman and head of Mercedes cars Dieter Zetsche, answering a question about the U.S. market and its tighter profit margins. While Mercedes won't import the less-expensive A-class hatchback, which would have to reach down into the mid-$20,000s here, potentially the most pop-
ular model off the platform will be the up-coming GLA-class crossover, which will probably start in the mid-$30,000s.
CLA-class competitors include the Honda Civic–based Acura ILX and well-equipped versions of the Buick Verano. There's even some overlap with the Ford Focus Titanium. Closer competition will come from the new sedan version of the Audi A3, due early next year, and a front-wheel-drive BMW 1-series sedan. (The 1-series coupe will remain rear-wheel drive and will be rebadged as the 2-series.)
Mercedes-Benzes are heavily influenced by Ingolstadt, where Audi is based, and by Munich, home of BMW HQ, while Stuttgart, Mercedes-Benz territory, similarly shapes Audi and BMW products. Although it's hard to say which German brand started the rush to develop commodity-luxury fleets, it hasn't been long since Audi was a notch below Mercedes and BMW in prestige and price. Its B5-chassis A4 that debuted for 1996 became a favorite step-up from mainstream brands for consumers who wanted something nicer and more interesting, which is exactly what the new A3 sedan, 1-series, and CLA-class want to be.
From the $30,000 CLA-class to the 622-hp, $275,000 gull-wing SLS AMG Black Series, Mercedes-Benz has more product breadth than General Motors' Spark-to-ZR1 Chevrolet division. The SLS is the first Mercedes designed and built by the AMG performance arm, which has been wholly owned by Mercedes since 2005. AMG has undergone its own democratization, offering highly juiced, handbuilt engines and stiffened suspensions up and down the product lineup. The CLA45 AMG comes to the States about two months after the CLA250, with a 355-hp, twin-scroll-turbo 2.0-liter and standard all-wheel drive for $48,375. A single production engineer will hand-build each CLA45 engine, just like the V-8 in the SLS Black Series.
AMG allows Mercedes to avoid trying to convince enthusiast media and enthusiast buyers that its non-AMG models are sport sedans. Non-AMG Mercedes models are cushy luxury cars for people who want a comfortable, safe, and serene ride to work or cross-country. If it's true that roughly ten percent of the car-buying population are enthusiasts, and this statistic extends to young buyers, luxury and style are all the CLA250 needs.
Conversely, the C63 AMG Black Series, and now the SLS AMG Black Series, are track cars that can also easily be driven on the road. The minimum price you might pay to buy a CLA45 is almost equal to what it would cost to upgrade from an "ordinary" SLS to the Black Series, which has 39 more horses and 154 fewer pounds compared with the SLS AMG GT. Built to a standard and not a price, the SLS AMG Black Series keeps the three-pointed star in the CLA's grille real.
Since the Great Recession, credit has tightened, prices have risen, and it seems that the automobile is becoming a luxury item just like it was more than a century ago. A luxury line with the breadth of Chevrolet is rational under these conditions. Competition is boiling over among German luxury brands, even as Cadillac tries to get back in the game. At the end of the day, it's going to be easier for Mercedes to trickle down from SLS AMG Black Series through the new S-class, the E-class, and to the CLA than it will be for commodity brands like Ford and Hyundai to attract buyers in the $35,000-to-$60,000 aspirational-luxury segments.
First Drive: 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250
Is it a real Mercedes?
Before we answer that question, it must be noted that drivetrain smoothness is where the CLA's credibility most comes into question. The 208-hp, 258 lb-ft turbo 2.0-liter four-cylinder has significant lag at launch and some acceleration dead spots in the mid and upper rev ranges. The seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is of the wet-clutch variety, so it's relatively smooth, but it wants to stay in the upper gears as long as possible. The CLA250 has a column-mounted electronic shifter to save center-console space for cupholders, while the 355-hp CLA45 AMG, on sale in November -- two months after the front-wheel-drive CLA250 -- will come with a console shifter for its seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
Our test cars all had the sport package, which includes a lower-body trim kit and eighteen-inch AMG wheels. Mercedes figures the wheels will be popular, but they're responsible for a bit of ride-impact harshness. The front-wheel-drive model displays mild understeer on twisty roads. The car is reasonably quiet, and because the doors have frameless windows, you can open all of them without any annoying buffeting. At highway speeds, some wind noise comes off the mirrors and there is some road-and-tire noise.
All U.S. CLAs have the sport suspension; the comfort-oriented setup is reserved for Europeans. Mercedes says chassis tuning doesn't vary from FWD to 4Matic, and if the 4Matic mitigates understeer, it's subtle. You can feel the rear wheels pushing oh so slightly when exiting fast turns, but none of the turns on our drive were fast enough to really explore this. The FWD model had no perceptible torque steer.
With no sport-sedan pretensions, the CLA is a relaxed, comfortable four-door coupe, a "baby CLS" with the drive wheels switched. It's a much better prospect at $33,000 or $34,000 than one approaching the psychologically lofty $40,000 level, and Mercedes promises dealer lots will have more of the former than the latter. The Edition 1 launch package includes funky yellow-striped black seats and yellow interior stitching, including on the dashboard, where it glares onto the windshield. "Brushed chrome" plastic dash accents and the bright chrome-plastic vent rings are below par.
Collision Prevention Assist is standard, and standalone options include blind-spot assist, a panoramic sunroof, and leather seats. A Becker Map Pilot is the entry-level navigation system; a multimedia package upgrades the navi and its screen size and function sophistication and adds a backup camera. The camera should be standard as, like other four-door coupes, the CLA has poor rearward visibility.
Even though the CLA comes up short on drivetrain and ride-quality refinement, and even if you cover up the steering wheel's chrome-star emblem and ignore the seat-shaped power-seat controls on the driver's side, you won't mistake this for anything other than a Mercedes-Benz. Doors thunk closed with that certain authority, and the car takes to high speeds with the stableness and solidity of a much heavier tank of a car -- or simply, a tank. The CLA250 will not be the enthusiast's first choice, but he or she shouldn't hesitate to recommend it to that friend who always has wanted, but couldn't afford, a Mercedes.
ON SALE: September
PRICE: $30,825/$37,000 (base/est. as tested)
ENGINE: 2.0L turbo I-4, 208 hp, 258 lb-ft
DRIVE: Front- or 4-wheel
FUEL MILEAGE: 23/32 mpg (est.)
Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Black Series and SLS AMG Electric Drive
Is the electric SLS the ultimate in sports car prestige?
LE CASTELLET, FRANCE
Circuit Paul Ricard has miles of runoff. Who's afraid of 622 hp? Who's going to notice if you're the one to overcook it in a corner and spin into that runoff?
If my few laps in the SLS AMG Black Series were spirited, they were far from the quickest for the day. Here's what I learned: the Black Series is no high-strung Lamborghini, in that it's easy to drive. You quickly and intuitively perceive the handling dynamics. The car willingly rotates its tail, but the invisible hand of stability control is ready to keep you from embarrassing yourself. The car feels light on its gummy Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s.
AMG shortened the engine's runner rings and optimized cam timing, ignition angle, and the connecting rods for higher cylinder pressure. The special tuning cuts maximum torque by 11 lb-ft, to just 468. Horsepower now peaks at 7400 rpm, versus 6800, and the engine redlines at eight grand, up from 7200 rpm.
A carbon-fiber torque tube, a titanium exhaust, and a lithium-ion starter battery help shave 154 pounds off the SLS GT, saving 0.1 second for a 3.5-second 0-to-60-mph run, although the top speed is 1 mph slower, at 196 mph. Must be the downforce from that rear wing. Only about 100 Black Series cars will come to America.
A few laps reveal how light the nose and tail can get. This handling quality encourages early and abrupt braking. The sheer power of the engine and the car's relatively large size prompt a conservative approach to learning the circuit's line.
How to explain, then, the heavier, more powerful SLS AMG Electric Drive? Its battery pack powers the four wheels through four electric motors that in total produce 740 hp and 738 lb-ft of torque. Top speed is limited to 155 mph, and with more than 900 extra pounds over the standard SLS GT, the 0-to-62-mph time is about 0.2 second slower, at 3.9 seconds.
In Comfort mode, the SLS ED yaws and understeers like an S-class. Switch to Sport plus, and the four electric-powered wheels "torque-vector" the car through turns. Balance the car correctly, and you can steer it quite effectively with the accelerator. Paddle shifters control the level of brake regeneration. An electric "exhaust" note plays a synthetic hum that sounds like a low key on an electric piano, but I prefer the natural whirr. A high-speed, 22-kW home charger needs just three hours to fully juice it up; a conventional charge takes twenty hours.
AMG says the car has a 150-mile range; much less if you flog it. It won't come to the United States because its special structure won't meet our crash standards. The SLS AMG Electric Drive easily matches the Black Series in power, handling, and driving enjoyment. This car, and not the V-8-powered SLS, is the true flagship of the quickly expanding Mercedes-Benz line.
SLS AMG Black Series
ON SALE: July
PRICE: $275,000 (est.)
ENGINE: 6.2L V-8, 622 hp, 468 lb-ft
FUEL MILEAGE: 13/19 mpg (est.)
SLS AMG Electric Drive
ON SALE: June (in Europe)
PRICE: $535,000 (in Europe, est.)
MOTORS: Four permanent-magnet, 740 hp, 738 lb-ft
RANGE: 150 miles
Mercedes claims for its CLA the lowest drag coefficient (as low as 0.22, or 0.23 for U.S. imports) of any car in production today, a feat accomplished without any outlandish shape complications. This handsome four-door is quite conservative in overall presentation, which is in perfect accord with the desires of the firm's traditional clientele. Yet a close examination of the car gives little reason to doubt its low-drag qualities, despite very large openings on the lower front corners -- openings that are for the most part closed to air flowing through. Compare this "real-looking" design to some past exercises such as Pininfarina's 1978 CNR "banana" concept. Very impressive. - Robert Cumberford
1 Twinkly grille buttons recall both late-1950s Buicks and the A-class concep car from two years ago, really the only flashy aspect of the total design.
2 High, rounded centerline profile of the hood meets pedestrian safety standards while disturbing the air as little as possible.
3 Windshield is considerably inset, letting the A-pillars act as flow straighteners to force maximum air mass over the roof.
4 The profile of the roof is an elegant arc, rather like the never-developed Nissan "Arc" concept cars a couple of decades back.
5 This subtle rib indicates a separate rear fender and helps keep air flowing linearly, likely reducing wake turbulence.
6 Rear wheel openings are perfectly circular, quite tight to the tires to reduce potential turbulence.
7 Attention to the bottom perimeter of the body reduces the visual height of the body sides and avoids bar-of-soap simplicity often used to reduce drag.
8 These two sharp surface breaks outline an incomplete cove loop, the upper line trailing from the headlamps, the lower ending in the wheelhouse perimeter.
9 Wheels are bigger for this Sport model, but the tire diameter remains the same on all versions to keep the opening filled.
10 Separate blade at the bottom of the nose also recalls racing practice, this time as used on sports racers.
11 Pushing the grille forward gives a sense of the central nacelle of a traditional racing car.