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.