ST. TROPEZ, FRANCE – To visit this part of the world on a budget, come during the off-season when the beaches are empty and the temperature runs in the sub-60s. The Cote d’Azur, pre-Geneva show, is the perfect setting to launch Mercedes-Benz’s new entry-level four-door coupe.
The CLA250 will be Benz’s first volume front-wheel-drive car sold in the U.S., and its rakish, low-aero bodywork makes it longer than the C-Class sedan, which will grow larger when a new model is unveiled in a year. With the new CLA250, Mercedes has a small car that befits the three-pointed star and can be had for about $30,000 to $35,000. It comes standard with cloth seats instead of the brand’s own grade of vinyl, called MB-Tex, or with leather.
First-drive test cars all had the Sport package, which includes a lower-body trim kit and 18-inch AMG wheels. Mercedes figures the wheels will be popular in the U.S., although they’re responsible for a bit of ride-impact harshness, at least as far as can be extrapolated from driving on the smooth roads of southern France. The front-wheel-drive model displays rather mild understeer on the region’s twisty roads.
The engine, a new 2.0-liter turbocharged gas direct-injection four, has an adequate 208 horsepower, although there’s turbo lag and poor throttle tip-in. The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission downshifts crisply and intuitively around tight corners but often holds gears too long under acceleration or when slaloming through a series of esses. It’s not easy to shift it yourself. You’d have to upgrade to the 355-hp AWD CLA45 AMG -- expected to hit the $45,000-to-$50,000 range when it launches in the U.S. two months after the CLA250 goes on sale in September -- to get a comfort/sport/manual mode control allowing full use of the paddle-shifters all the time. Because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is cracking down, Mercedes fears cars could be mpg-tested partially in the manual mode, hurting efficiency. Yes, you can paddle up or down through the gears in the CLA250, but if you go more than 30 seconds without a shift, the car reverts to full-automatic mode, which makes it hard to keep track of the gear you’re in.
Fortunately, the transmission has a wet clutch, so it’s far smoother than the dry-clutch Dodge and Ford systems, for example. The exhaust note is not particularly raspy or sporty or, fortunately, loud. You can hear it better with all the windows down, a nostalgic, old-fashioned notion, and because the four doors are unframed, you don’t get the annoying buffeting you find in most modern cars. There’s some wind noise coming off the mirrors and road/tire noise at-speed.
The 4Matic version felt slightly smoother and quieter on these roads, but that probably was a function of being on a different part of the drive than with the FWD model. All U.S. CLAs, imported from Hungary, come with the “sport” suspension; Europeans can choose a “comfort” suspension. Mercedes says the 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 exiting fast turns, but none of the turns on our drive were fast enough to fully sort this out. The FWD model had no perceptible torque steer.
American consumers will want the 18-inch wheel option, especially the younger customers Mercedes seeks, but to get the best of this bargain Benz, the base 17-inch wheels -- which we didn’t sample -- likely are the better choice. This is not a sport sedan, and Mercedes made no noise about that subject. It’s a relaxed, comfortable little four-door coupe, a “baby CLS” with the drive wheels switched. It’s a credible first premium car for younger buyers and for empty-nesters.
Although Mercedes figures that the 4Matic take rate in the Northeast could approach that of its rear-wheel-drive models, that notion flies in the face of the targeted price-sensitive customers. Mercedes hasn’t announced options pricing or fuel economy numbers yet, but has announced a $30,825 base price. The 4Matic option, which comes in early ’14, could add another $1,500 to $2,000. The CLA250 is a much better entry-luxury car at $34,000 typically optioned than one approaching the psychologically lofty $40,000 level.
Mercedes’ MFA platform also will provide a BMW X1–like FWD/AWD crossover, which probably will have a base price in the mid-$30s, just like the popular, late-’90s M-Class. The CLA also launches with the Edition 1 value package, which includes funky yellow-striped seats and yellow interior stitching. You won’t find the interior below Mercedes level if you’re familiar with the C-Class, although the “brushed chrome” plastic dash accent and bright chrome-plastic vent rings are under-par.
Other than the big star on the grille, the base price gets you Collision Prevention Assist. Standalone options include blind-spot assist, a panoramic sunroof, and, of course, leather seats. A Becker Map Pilot will be 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 because, like other four-door coupes, the CLA has poor rear-outward visibility.
The Mercedes CLA250 and CLA250 4Matic will compete with the upcoming Audi A3 and BMW 1-Series sedans, nominally with the Buick Verano and the Acura ILX. It also competes with well-equipped Hyundais, Fords, Chevys, and Toyotas, so you have to ask: is this a real Benz? The answer is yes, so long as you remember that mainstream Mercedes models have always been about über-safety and exceptional engineering, with its prestige emanating from the hood ornament.
2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250/CLA250 4Matic
Base price: $30,825
As-tested price: $35,500 – $37,000 (est.)
Engine: 2.0-liter DOHC 16-valve turbocharged I-4
Horsepower: 208 hp @ 5500 rpm
Torque: 258 lb-ft @ 1250-4000 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Drive: Front- or all-wheel
L x W x H: 182.3 x 70 x 56.6 in
Cargo capacity (rear seat up): 16.6 cu ft
Curb weight: 3263 lb (FWD)