Cars that are designed for maximum aerodynamic efficiency rarely end up looking like the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250. That's because wind tunnels typically produce fragile-looking, teardrop-shaped things with three wheels. Or worse yet, they make everything look like a Prius.
It's surprising, then, that the engineers behind the CLA250 told us that class-leading aerodynamics was one of their top priorities during the car's development. The goal not only led to the CLA's unique styling, it also resulted in a final drag coefficient of 0.23, which in English means that the CLA slices through the wind more easily than the Prius (0.25 Cd).
That alone is not enough to allow the CLA250 to get better mileage than Toyota's superstar hybrid, but it does help the new Mercedes sedan make the most out of its standard four-cylinder engine. Figure around 30 miles per gallon on the highway and a 0-60-mph time of 6.7 seconds. So the CLA250 is not only efficient, it's still reasonably quick, too.
The New Face of Mercedes
Apart from its impressive aerodynamic efficiency, the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 is also notable for what it isn't, namely rear-wheel drive. Yes, unlike virtually every other Mercedes-Benz that came to the United States before it, the CLA puts power down through the front wheels.
It's a setup that has been used for Mercedes' smaller A- and B-Class cars in Europe, but the CLA is considerably bigger than those cars. In fact, the CLA is actually longer and wider than the current C-Class sedan. The size overlap is an odd circumstance that will be resolved when a new, slightly larger C-Class arrives in 2014.
Until then, the CLA will be differentiated by its styling, its four-cylinder-only power plant and a base price that starts just under $30K. That's roughly $5 grand less than the base C-Class sedan. An all-wheel-drive version of the CLA250 will be added early next year.
Will Anybody Notice the Difference?
The biggest hurdle facing the CLA is whether it feels like a Mercedes-Benz, or at least what Americans think a Mercedes-Benz should feel like anyway. After driving a CLA250 on a combination of tight back roads, crowded city streets and fast highways, we doubt many people will notice that the front wheels are doing all the work.
Much of the credit goes to the fact that there's very little tugging at the steering wheel during acceleration. So-called torque steer is typically a dead giveaway that a car is having trouble steering and propelling itself with the same wheels. We tried to get the CLA to squirm with big doses of throttle, but the steering wheel barely quivered, even when pulling away from a stop.
Mercedes says this is a result of its Direct Steer system, which is the company's name for its latest electric power steering setup. It not only helps to control torque steer, it makes the CLA more efficient by not drawing power when it's driving in a straight line. More importantly, the engineers were able to tune the feel of the CLA's steering to the point where it provides solid road feel and precise control without the artificial lightness that often comes with electric assistance.
All U.S.-bound CLA250s will have a standard sport suspension that yields a lower ride height and firmer ride quality than the "luxury" model that will be standard in Europe. The ride quality isn't overly stiff and tire noise isn't bad, especially considering how little wind noise there is because of the sleek body.
What You Will Notice About the CLA250
Keeping the price down on the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA means there's no six-cylinder engine option as with the C-Class sedan. The only power plant available is a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder. Sounds meager, but with 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, it's hardly a meek little fuel sipper.
It gets considerable help from the standard seven-speed dual-clutch transmission and its three driver-adjustable shift programs. With all those gears, and the ability to swap between them quickly using paddle shifters, the CLA's engine stays squarely in the meat of its power band. It has a firm push from a stop and spins smoothly to its redline, too. Catch it between gears and it'll suddenly feel weak, but it doesn't happen often.
If there's any disappointment from under the hood, it's the engine's sound. There are times when the direct-injection fuel system clatters like a diesel and others when the exhaust is just plain wheezy, mostly at high rpm. Neither of the sounds is particularly refined, and both are occasional reminders that you're behind the wheel of the base-model Benz.
No Cost Cutting in the Cabin
If the noises from under the hood don't bother you, then the cabin isn't likely to either. Nothing about the design or materials inside the CLA looks the least bit cheap. From the big analog gauges to the clean center stack design, it all looks tidy, well built and about what you would expect in a Mercedes.
At first glance the navigation system looks a bit like an aftermarket unit the way it's perched high on the dash, but it blends in after awhile and the positioning makes it easy to read. It takes some time to get used to shifting with the small stalk on the steering wheel column, too, but the space that's opened up in the center console makes the CLA that much more livable.
Livable isn't the best word to describe the backseat, though, as the sloping roof line that makes the CLA so distinctive-looking on the outside makes the rear seats claustrophobic on the inside. Head- and knee room are both tight for anyone over 6 feet, although toe room is plentiful and the seats themselves have a nice shape to them. Add in the small rear doors and the CLA won't make a very good baby hauler.
Who Is the Mercedes CLA for, Then?
Mercedes thinks the $30K barrier is where the luxury line can be drawn. Below that and you're competing with too many mainstream models. At $35K, the C-Class is a bit out of reach for anyone who isn't willing to consider at least $40K for the options they want.
With the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250, $32K will get you a nicely equipped sedan with a couple options. There are some packages, of course, along with a nice list of stand-alone features like a panorama sunroof, blind spot assist and 18-inch wheels. And most importantly, at least to some, the Mercedes name.
Brand recognition aside, the CLA is a uniquely styled sedan that attracts attention even before people know what it is. Not many of the competitors in this price range can do the same. Add in the sharp interior and solid performance and the CLA is an interesting option at its price point. About the only thing missing is a real backseat, something the young people Mercedes is hoping to attract might want to think twice about.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.