The Situation: You've got a $30,000 budget and want to make a statement. Here are three undeniable ways to do so.
The Obvious Choice: 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA
Pros: Stunning styling, premium interior, prestigious nameplate
Cons: Firm ride quality, limited passenger headroom
Mercedes' CLA250 sedan began turning heads when it debuted in a 2013 Super Bowl commercial starring the devil. No harm was done. When it hit dealers last fall it quickly became one of the most attention-grabbing cars of the year. The little Benz is among the most attractive offerings in the burgeoning premium compact segment for several reasons. It offers a 208-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder linked to the front wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission: a combo that yields 30 mpg combined, according to the EPA.
Ever better, the CLA is every bit a premium vehicle inside. It comes standard with MBTex seating, which is the best leather knock-off in the business. Other standard features include 17-inch wheels, eight-way power-adjustable front seats, automatic wipers and lights and Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity. Options include bigger wheels, navigation, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and a blind-spot warning. But let's face it: You're buying the CLA for its premium look and driving experience at a reasonable price — and that's what you'll get.
Downsides are few. The CLA's sloping rear roof line compromises rear-seat headroom, making that seat less than ideal for tall passengers. And its automated-manual transmission isn't always as quick or as decisive as we'd like. Still, at this price, it doesn't get much nicer.
Starting Price: $30,825 (CLA250 sedan)
Configuration: Front-engine, front-drive, five-passenger sedan
Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder: 208 hp, 258 pound-feet of torque; seven-speed automated manual
EPA Fuel Economy: 30 mpg combined (26 city/38 highway)
See Edmunds' rating of the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 sedan here.
The Unlikely Contender: 2014 Jeep Wrangler
Pros: Go-anywhere utility, equally fun around town, standard soft top
Cons: Rough ride, tight rear seats, standard soft top
There's no denying the Jeep Wrangler's ability to make a statement. Though it's one of the most capable stock off-roaders you can buy today, it's also a relatively versatile machine in the city thanks to a tight turning radius and good visibility. Sure, the Wrangler isn't as comfortable as your standard crossover SUV, but how many of those let you drop the roof, doors and windshield?
Despite being genuinely modernized in many ways, the Spartan ethos of the original remains. Under the hood is a 3.6-liter, 285-hp V6 paired with a standard six-speed manual transmission. Four-wheel drive is standard. It's also available as a four-door, though that will press our $30,000 limit a bit.
Don't expect an abundance of amenities. Crank windows are standard on the base model, but you do get a CD player with six speakers, an auxiliary audio jack and steering wheel controls for the audio system. You'll need to add the Connectivity Group to any trim to get Bluetooth, however.
There are downsides. Both ride quality and fuel economy fall dramatically short of most current crossover SUVs in this price range. Side-impact crash test ratings are poor and braking distances are longer than average. This isn't an SUV for softies, but no one will say it doesn't make a statement.
Starting Price: $23,390 (Sport)
Configuration: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, four-passenger SUV
Powertrain: 3.6-liter V6: 285 hp, 260 lb-ft; six-speed manual transmission
EPA Fuel Economy: 18 mpg combined (17 city/21 highway)
The Value Option: 2014 Nissan Juke
Pros: Can't-ignore-it styling, sharp handling, ample power
Cons: Sacrifices utility for style, less space than other compact crossovers, thirsty when driven hard
We remember being pleasantly surprised the first time we got behind the wheel of our long-term Juke back in 2011. Here was a small crossover that had both style and personality. The base Juke's 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder pumps out 188 hp, which (in all-wheel-drive models) is routed to the ground through a continuously variable transmission (CVT). A six-speed manual is available only in front-drive Jukes.
Though its styling inside and out is polarizing, we like it. And it's more fun to drive — with some more unusual handling tricks up its sleeve — than anything else in the segment. Apparently we aren't alone, because Nissan recently introduced two higher-performance models: the 197-hp Juke Nismo and the 211-hp Juke Nismo RS.
Standard options on base Jukes include 17-inch wheels, Bluetooth phone connectivity, a 60/40-split folding rear seat, keyless entry and full power accessories. Opt up to the SV model and you'll get tunable throttle, steering and transmission response. Navigation, leather and heated seats are also available.
Nitpicks include the fact that the Juke simply isn't as usable as some compact SUVs, but that's the price you pay for personality, and we'd argue that the Juke is still practical for those with needs satisfied by a sedan. Also, if you drive it hard, fuel economy suffers. The EPA says the Juke is good for 27 mpg combined. We averaged 22.4 mpg over 18,000 hard-charging miles.
Starting Price: $21,800 (S AWD)
Configuration: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger compact SUV
Powertrain: 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder: 188 hp, 177 lb-ft; CVT; all-wheel drive
EPA Fuel Economy: 27 mpg combined (25 city/30 highway)
See Edmunds' rating of the 2014 Nissan Juke Nismo here.