WASHINGTON, D.C. — Is it really possible to buy a new Mercedes-Benz for less than $30,000? Nope.
The new-for-2014 CLA compact sedan is closer to $31,000 with the inescapable $925 shipping charge added to the heavily promoted base price of $29,900. Average transaction price is expected to be $35,000 or so, with the difference being about the price of an optional sunroof, bigger wheels, navigation and other tech.
M-B insists it cut no corners, cheapened nothing to hit a price that's some $5,400 less to start than its longtime entry sedan, the C-Class (due for redesign next year).
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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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Some journalists found it cheap-looking, Test Drive and others liked the look and function. Mounting it away from the dash puts the screen closer to line-of-sight, and tucks it further into the car's interior to shade it against sun glare.
Overall, the CLA is disappointing. Yes, it has a lot of features and stature for the price. And the styling's nonpareil. But, no, it's not all the way there in refinement and premium persona, which largely are what make a luxury brand worthwhile.
Mercedes-Benz CLA details
What? Small, sleek four-door sedan meant to be a new entry model in U.S.
When? Basic CLA 250 FWD on sale since Sept. 20. CLA 250 AWD next spring.
High-performance CLA 45 AMG, (AWD standard) due in November.
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Where? Made at Kecskemet, Hungary, which also makes M-B B-Class subcompact (not sold in the U.S.) on which CLA is loosely based.
Why? Lower-price, stylish model to attract new, younger buyers. It presumes they will remain loyal to the brand as they age.
How much? CLA 250 FWD starts at $30,825 including shipping, about $2,600 less than rival BMW 320i. CLA 45 AMG to start at $48,375, comes close to $60,000 loaded. CLA 250 AWD isn't priced yet.
How big? Slightly bigger outside than Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan, similar to BMW 3 Series.
Weighs 3,264 to 3,494 lbs.
Trunk is 16.6 cubic feet.
Turning circle diameter, 36.1 ft.
What makes it go? CLA 250 has 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder rated 208 hp at 5,500 rpm, 258 lbs.-ft. of torque at 1,250 rpm.
CLA 45 AMG has 2-liter turbo four rated 335 hp at 6,000, 332 lbs.-ft. at 2,250.
Both use seven-speed automatic with comfort, sport and manual-shift modes, and driver-selected "eco" setting that triggers the automatic stop/start.
How thirsty? CLA 250 FWD rated 26 mpg in the city, 38 on the highway, 30 in combined city/highway use. Other models not yet rated.
One CLA 250 test car registered 31.7 mpg (3.15 gallons per 100 miles) in 126 miles of slow, hilly two-lane, higher-speed two- and four-lane, and freeway.
Another CLA 250 test car notched 22 mpg (4.55 gal./100 mi.) in stop/go crawling through Washington, D.C., and environs, rising to 32.7 mpg (3.06 gal./100 mi.) when highway distance was rolled in.
Overall, that car showed 29.7 mpg (3.37 gal./100 mi.) after 99-mile jaunt.
CLA 45 AMG registered 25 mpg (4 gal./100 mi.) in 114 mi. of suburban and highway driving.
CLA 250 tank holds 13.2 gal. AMG holds 14.8. Both require premium. M-B says short-term use of regular won't damage engine but will cut power and mileage.
Overall: Good looking, hard riding, lacks the Mercedes-Benz "rich" feel.
—By James R. Healey of USA Today