In a clear pitch to millennials, Mercedes has loaded its second-generation CLA coupe unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week with new digital technology, including the its first semiautonomous driving system.
With a starting price tag at under $30,000, the CLA's launch in 2013 brought in a wave of young, first-time luxury buyers Mercedes hopes will move up to more expensive models in the years to come. A visually striking coupe-like sedan, the CLA quickly became the fastest-growing model in the Daimler subsidiary's history.
The 2020 CLA is slightly bigger than the original coupe and will have the ability to operate hands-free under specific conditions, primarily on divided highways. It even can make a pass automatically; the driver simply tapping on the turn signal when operating in semiautonomous mode.
"The new edition of the CLA has been developed further in an intelligent way and is even more emotional and sportier than its predecessor," said Britta Seeger, global head of Mercedes-Benz cars marketing and sales.
The coupe-like sedan also becomes just the second Mercedes model to offer the automaker's new voice-control system, MBUX, short for the Mercedes-Benz User Experience. Unveiled at the 2018 CES, it works much like the Amazon Alexa voice assistant — which can also be accessed from inside the cabin. Speak the system's wake words, "Hey, Mercedes," and it comes to life. It can be used to set a destination, play music and do a variety of other functions that go well beyond the more basic voice-control technology found in most of today's new cars.
The system was first rolled out last year on the new A-class sedan. It is being updated this year, Mercedes announced at CES this week, for the 2020 CLA. Among other things, it now can answer more complex questions, and it can recognize who, in a crowded car, was the one who called for its help.
Visually, the 2020 remake doesn't stray far from the design of the original CLA, though it has a more sporty feel, with "power bulges" on the hood and the cabin moved slightly rearward. The interior has been upgraded, as well, to be more in line with what customers would expect of a vehicle badged with the familiar Mercedes tri-star. The original model was faulted for its comparatively Spartan interior.
Buyers will have a wide range of options, including many of the high-tech features, such as LED headlamps. Mercedes is still aiming to bring in first-time luxury buyers with a relatively low base price. The original 2013 CLA began at just under $30,000. The outgoing version now starts at $33,100. The automaker won't release pricing on the 2020 model until closer to its on-sale date late this year.
Two versions of the new CLA were announced in Las Vegas, the front-wheel-drive CLA 250 and all-wheel-drive CLA 250 4Matic. They will share the same turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four making 221 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. The engine is paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. As with the outgoing model, a more powerful version developed by the Mercedes-AMG subsidiary, will follow.
The CLA shares the same underlying platform as several other new Mercedes products, a list that includes the 2019 A-class, a more boxy sedan that was introduced to the U.S. market for the first time last year. An updated version of the brand's crossover utility vehicle, the GLA, is expected to debut in the near future. With the ongoing shift from passenger cars to light trucks, the GLA has been gaining momentum at the expense of the sedans.
But Mercedes is trying to cover as many bases as it can in the small-car segment, eventually planning to have seven different models available globally.
It's by no means the only luxury automaker stretching down to attract youthful buyers on a budget. BMW, for one, has added 1- and 2-series models, as well as X1 and X2 crossovers, beneath what had once been its entry model, the 3-series.
For its part, Mercedes is hoping that, by luring in new entry-level buyers, it can give more momentum to its North American and global sales. Worldwide, the automaker scored just a 0.9 percent increase in demand last year, to 2.31 million vehicles, with most of that modest gain driven by the Chinese market. As a result, it slipped into second place among global luxury brands for the second consecutive year behind BMW.
Disclosure: Paul Eisenstein is a freelancer for CNBC. His travel and accommodations for this article were paid by an automaker.