2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA First Drive

Is the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA a game-changer or will it confuse buyers? We drive the CLA250 and CLA45 AMG to find out.

What It Is
The CLA is an all-new stylish sedan that looks to lure a new demographic to the Mercedes brand.
Best Thing
Price and styling. The CLA250 and CLA45 AMG look great and offer accessible luxury.
Worst Thing
Tick off enough option boxes, and the CLA is in pricey territory.
Snap Judgment
With alluring styling and an accessible entry price, the CLA could be an exciting winner for Mercedes-Benz.


The 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 and CLA45 AMG represent a radical departure from the Mercedes-Benz brand's usual offerings. For one, the new luxury sedan is--relatively--cheap to get in to. Advertisements during last year's Super Bowl famously touted a starting price of $29,900, and even after you add on the $925 delivery fee, the $30,825 starting price undercuts the next-cheapest Benz, the bread-and-butter C-Class, by more than $5,000. It's also the first Mercedes in America to use front-wheel drive, which changes the driving dynamics. But much like the popular front-wheel drive Audi A4 which offers Audi's quattro all-wheel drive system, Mercedes-Benz will offer a 4Matic all-wheel drive model that will go on sale in spring 2014. And the performance inspired CLA45 AMG, with its starting price of $48,375 also makes an AMG model a consideration for those whose budgets cowered at the $60k entry-level price of the C63 AMG.

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But does this dilute the Mercedes-Benz image of luxury? Isn't Mercedes concerned that buyers will be confused with the CLA's relatively similar size to the all-important C-Class? Not really, says Mercedes. If the $5,000 price gap wasn't reason enough--and here's where we strongly agree--the sportier, distinctive styling of the CLA will clearly differentiate the two. With the CLA, the styling is paramount. At our morning press briefing, Mercedes-Benz USA CEO Steve Canon said the CLA is "a design-driven product in a design-driven society."

If you're familiar with Mercedes-Benz's C-Class, then just a quick glance at the CLA250 and CLA45 AMG will suffice. The strong aesthetic departure from the C's relatively conservative styling is immediately apparent. With Audi gaining momentum by the day, and BMW always offering fierce competition, Mercedes needs to be thinking two steps ahead. To capture younger buyers in droves, you're going to have to make that car desirable, and accessible. The new Audi A3 will soon arrive in the U.S., and will be at the heart of entry-level luxury. But will those buyers consider a Benz? What about those looking at an Acura ILX or BMW 1 Series? We got to drive both the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 and the CLA45 AMG. What did we think? Read on to get our first drive impressions.

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Walkaround

The CLA250 quickly grabs your attention, and while technically a sedan, it has sleek, coupe-like styling; the automaker continuously refers to the CLA as a "coupe" or "4-door coupe." We're seeing more and more of this out of German automakers (BMW, you've been naughty with nomenclature) and although we're not particularly fond of the trend, the CLA does have that raked back, elongated coupe feel. It looks sporty, with large air vents, an in-your-face grille with a huge, prominent Mercedes logo that avoids gaudiness despite its size. Dramatic character lines running along the long hood and sculpted side complement the CLA's tidy rear-end. The CLA45 AMG adds larger air vents for additional engine cooling, larger wheels, and generally looks like the CLA250's jock cousin. Regardless of which model you opt for, you're going to get a car that turns heads.

Sitting Down

Once inside, the CLA250's cabin looks instantly recognizable as a Mercedes, and considering it's the automaker's least expensive model, that's a very good thing. The materials are surprisingly nice, and the build quality is very good. We did notice however, that while driving there was audible road noise and a good deal of wind noise, usually not present on other Mercedes models.

A 5.8-inch display screen comes standard, and looks modern. The sport seats are comfortable, despite looking as if they value form over function. Mercedes said it believed that many mid-size sedan buyers looking at or currently in the Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, and Nissan Altima, were a potential market for the CLA, despite the size difference. That could be the case, but if back seat room plays in to those larger midsize sedan buyer's equations, the CLA will offer comparatively cramped quarters, with headroom especially limited on account of the sedan's attractive, raked back roofline. Overall however, we came away impressed with the premium feeling cabin, one on par with the pricier C-Class. The CLA45 AMG really dials things up with the usual bag of tricks: fine leather, attractive stitching, and a healthy dose of AMG badges featured throughout the cabin.

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Driving

The 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA begins the era of front-wheel drive models for the automaker in the U.S., but after having logged some wheel time, we're pretty sure most drivers will be pleased with how the CLA250 handles. Ultra enthusiasts can wait a few months and spring for the CLA250 4Matic, and of course the CLA45 AMG's excellent performance is in part due to its standard all-wheel drive. But for the majority of drivers, the CLA will delight. Steering is precise and linear, and the suspension--again midsize sedan buyers take note--leans towards a firmer, sportier side. It's important to note that our time was spent in a model with the sport package, and we drove in the sport mode much of the time. The standard 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is capable of 208 hp, and it even feels like the car is slightly more powerful than that. But make no mistake, the CLA250 is not a sports car, despite its very sporty looks. It is a sporty-looking, fun to drive sedan, but for those wanting a little more oomph, the CLA's jock brother is there to help.

The 2014 CLA45 AMG features the most powerful four-cylinder engine in the world, with its 2.0-liter twin-turbo mill capable of producing 355 hp. That engine will also push the AMG model to 60 mph in just 4.5 seconds. Our favorite part? The CLA45 AMG sounds excellent. Especially when you opt to use the automatic seven-speed dual clutch transmission's paddles. We even tinkered with the launch control which--if in an appropriate and safe environment to do so--provides an extra element to the most muscular CLA. Gear shifts are quick and smooth, and when kept in the lower gears, wholly satisfying.

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Summary

The 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 and CLA45 AMG represent a deviation from the German automaker's current offerings; The CLA is the first to arrive on Mercedes-Benz's compact architecture, one that will eventually serve as the foundation for three models. The CLA is meant to attract younger buyers, and based on the luxury sedan's alluring styling and affordable entry price, we think it will have great success doing so. The CLA45 AMG builds upon the CLA's good looks, and its more aggressive styling is justified as it sports the world's most powerful, production four-cylinder engine. It also sounds fantastic. Both models also allow new buyers the ability to consider Mercedes and AMG respectively, as both are entering the market priced considerably less than other Mercedes-Benz and AMG models. For those looking at entry-level luxury, the CLA is a must consider.

Basic Specs

2.0-liter four-cylinder, seven-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive with 4Matic to follow, CLA45 AMG is all-wheel drive, 208-hp/355-hp, starting at $30,825/$48,375. 26 mpg city/38 mpg hwy, CLA45 AMG fuel economy TBD

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