It says manufacturing efficiencies cut costs. Specifically, the CLA is made in Hungary, alongside M-B's B-Class subcompact. CLA's chassis is borrowed from the B car and modified for sexy-sedan duty.
That means CLA also is a front-drive car, the first front-drive Mercedes-Benz in the U.S., save for about 80 hydrogen fuel-cell test cars leased to Californians. An all-wheel-drive CLA 250 (4Matic in M-B speak) is due early next year.
Sharing the B chassis and making the car in Hungary might make some shoppers wary that CLA isn't a real Mercedes-Benz. Certainly it lacks the rich feel of M-B's other models.
The maker handed over some of the first-built CLA 250 sedans, and the high-performance CLA 45 AMG version on sale in November, to pixel-stained journalists this week, and if comments among themselves are an indication, you won't read a lot of the "no compromises" articles the company would like.
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Apart from whether it's a full-blooded Mercedes, points to consider are whether it's a good car: pleasant overall, satisfying to drive, practical to use, handy to operate. It does not pass those tests.
Impressions, good and bad, from two days of driving plain and fancy CLAs, including the AMG version.
• Gorgeous. Striking from every angle. Looks alone should sell a ton of CLAs.
• Back seat. Decent knee and legroom, but the swooping roofline that looks so good shrinks the back-door openings mercilessly and chops off headroom for anyone over about 5-foot-6.
M-B says it's a deliberate compromise. It believes the mid-30s and younger Gen Y target audience will be more excited by the styling than aggravated by its rear doors.
• Dynamics. Steering and braking feel first-rate. The front-drive 250 lacks the sprightly feel it likely would have if it were rear-drive. The AMG version has AWD standard, giving it a more-balanced feel.
• Fuel-efficient. CLA models use modest amounts of premium gasoline, with mileage in the low 30s in mostly highway driving and the low 20s crawling in Washington, D.C.'s stop-and-lunge snake dance.
• Cumbersome connectivity with benefits. After fumbling through menus presented by Mercedes-Benz's aggravating Comand electronics system, the car eventually paired with, and faithfully retained connections to, both a Windows Phone and an iPhone.
It wasn't necessary to identify one as the default or priority phone. Whichever phone was making or receiving a call was the one the car routed to a hands-free system.
The system was quick to pick up where it left off, without any instructions or switch-flipping, on whatever Bluetooth programming a phone was piping in when the car was shut off. That's exceptional, in our experience.
• Hard ride. Slams over potholes and tar strips. The AMG version, even allowing for its extra-sporty suspension, was dreadful. Made your teeth chatter and your speech vibrate on only mildly uneven paving.
The CLA 250, which should have been far more comfortable, wasn't. Fine on smooth roads, but nearly as bun-slamming as the AMG over the slightest texture.
M-B disagrees, saying the chassis tuning is as intended.
• Noise. Unexpected in a Mercedes-Benz, tires whined over some concrete, roared over coarse asphalt.
Outside the 250, the engine sounded rackety, unrefined. Inside, not so bad. Any bothersome engine sounds in the AMG were delightfully masked by its provocative exhaust note.
Optional on the AMG version is a switch that lets the driver select how loud to make the exhaust. Not tested, but a goodie worth considering if you're already spending 50% to 100% more than the 250 to get the AMG.
• Interior. Lots of talk among the auto writers about the inside being "cheap" or "cheesy." M-B says it hasn't heard those comments, even though the CLA's been on sale overseas long enough for such feedback.
A couple of the test cars had embarrassing misfits of trim, which M-B says shouldn't have been there and aren't present in showroom vehicles.
Screen for the optional navigation system sticks up and out from the dashboard. It's supposed to resemble an electronic tablet, like those that M-B believes are beloved by Gen Y.
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