The CLA is a new addition to the Mercedes lineup for 2014. It debuts in CLA250 form as the most accessible (read: cheapest) Mercedes you can buy and is aimed at attracting young, urban dwellers to the brand. A sister model, the CLA45 AMG, packs a performance wallop far beyond its size. It, too, is intended to reel in new buyers, in this case to the AMG brand...
The CLA-Class is a true entry-level model for Mercedes-Benz, with a price that starts right around $30,000. This is the first Mercedes with what has historically been an economy-car powertrain layout: a transverse-mounted four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive (all-wheel drive is optional, although not at launch). In addition to the price-leader CLA250, Mercedes is simultaneously bringing out a high-performance AMG version, the CLA45. It has a much higher-output turbocharged four-cylinder and standard all-wheel drive, among other changes.
The all-new CLA is a compact offering, although its overall length is a smidge beyond that of the C-Class. Inside, however, the model order is clear, with the CLA's swoopy sheetmetal offering nowhere near the rear-seat space of the upright C-Class. Furthermore, the CLA's high beltline and small windows constrict the view. Notably, Mercedes refers to this four-door as a "coupe." At an advertised price of just a smidge less than $30,000 (before destination), don't expect leather upholstery or a navigation system—they're both optional. Consider whether you really need leather, because it's part of an interior upgrade package that further requires the premium package, upping your total tab by $3700. A basic Becker Map Pilot can be had for a few hundred bucks; a more expensive multimedia package upgrades the navigation system, increases the screen size, and adds a much-needed backup camera.
The CLA250 uses a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that makes 208 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, which is less than similar engines from Ford and Hyundai. It's mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission with the shifter on the steering column, and it suffers some turbo lag and a nonlinear throttle. Torque steer isn't an issue, so that's not a reason to upgrade to the optional all-wheel drive, although greater traction might be. Unusually, the standard U.S. suspension setup for the CLA250 is firmer than the setup for European cars, and it may be harsh over particularly bad pavement.
For a truly sporty driving experience, look no further than the CLA45 AMG, which distills the AMG formula into a pint-sized package. Proving that the high-performance sub-brand can do more than just V-8 engines, AMG manages to extract an incredible 355 horses from the CLA45's 2.0-liter four. All-wheel drive is, necessarily, standard here, as any attempt to send this engine's 322 lb-ft of torque through the front wheels would lead to unmanageable torque steer. Packing that much power into the flyweight CLA45 makes for a true pocket rocket. Backing up the powertrain are robust brakes with cross-drilled rotors, a stiffer suspension (with the performance suspension as an option), and a characterful exhaust that provides aural confirmation that this is not just an appearance package.
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