2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250: A sheep in wolves’ clothing

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250
When one purchases a vehicle with the three-pointed star on the hood and the signature of Carl Benz in the lower right corner of the windshield, there are expectations. Those expectations include luxury, unique features, and lots of style. For the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250, the expectations fall short. We understand that Mercedes is trying to broaden its customer base by offering lower-priced models to the public. It started this with the C-Class, and the family has spread to include the CLA, the lowest entry price for a Mercedes-Benz ever, starting at just under $30,000.

This strategy, in theory, makes sense, mostly because there are a lot of manufacturers who traditionally have only played in the lower price stratosphere, but now are encroaching on the luxury territory, and are doing it successfully. We assume that, under Mercedes-Benz reasoning, if they are taking away some of our market share, we can do the same to them. But this plan isn’t always a winning one.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250Many years ago, BMW tried this approach; unfortunately, it went a bit too far downscale, with the 318ti, a darling little hatchback that was about as much a BMW as a chicken is to a dinosaur. It lingered for a few years (the BMW, not the dinosaur) and then — much like the dinosaurs — disappeared, with BMW learning a lesson about what customers are willing to put up with for a non-luxury “luxury” product.

But that was then and this is now. While the CLA doesn’t fall into the Honda Civic class, it is going head to head with a lot of great cars in that price range. The CLA comes either as a 250, starting at $29,990 without destination or a 45 AMG version, starting at $47,450. With a handful of options, our tester topped at just over $33,000. If we added the features it would take to make it a true Mercedes-Benz luxury vehicle, it would be over $40,000. In every price range, there are great vehicles that compete here. But since Mercedes is touting the starting price at $30K, let’s review some of the competition. We picked two of our favorites: the Hyundai Azera and the Buick Verano. Comparably equipped, the Azera checks in at $4,000 less, while the Verano comes in about $10K less expensive.

The Hyundai and Buick both make considerably more horsepower (293 and 250 versus 208, respectively), have virtually equal torque numbers, have larger trunks, leather seats, standard automatic climate control, and more front seat head and leg room. Also, Hyundai has a better warranty, while Buick’s is the same as Mercedes-Benz.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250One might argue, though, that the Mercedes-Benz looks better than the Hyundai and Verano; no argument there, although we like the styling on the other two competitors. The CLA easily will fool many people into thinking it’s the much-more-expensive CL-Class at first glance. Good for CLA owners, maybe not so much for the CL owner who spent about $80K more for his vehicle. CLA design elements include a low sloping nose, cool diamond-block grille (for an extra $2,200 in the Sport Package) sweeping roofline and tapered taillamps.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250Inside, however, is a different story. If you’ve never been in a Mercedes-Benz before, you probably would be delighted. The MB-Tex might pass for real leather, the seat stitching is attractive, and the steering wheel has the typical Benz substantial feel. However, if you’ve ever spent time in a higher-end Benz, then the CLA looks like a strippo rental car. The biggest offender, without question, is the tacked on screen that’s stuck in the middle of the dash. It can’t be removed, and there’s no secret button that tucks it away neatly like in an Audi. It’s just there. Okay, so it’s there. What can it do with it? Apparently, without spending money, not much. You can pair your phone for Bluetooth call making, you can tune the radio using the lower console controller or steering wheel controls, and you can adjust some system settings. That’s it. No rearview camera, no satellite radio, no navigation, nada, unless you want to shell out more cash.

Once again, we must visit the Azera and Verano. On the Hyundai, the standard audio includes SiriusXM and a rearview camera; on the Limited top-end model, you also get an 8-inch color LCD touch screen with album art, Logic7 surround sound, and HD radio. To get Logic7 on the Benz, and the rear camera, you have to add over $4,500 worth of options. The Base Verano, which starts at $23K, comes with standard SiriusXM, a rearview camera, remote start, and a 7” touchscreen with Bluetooth and other features. The Premium Verano, that we said earlier was $10K less, has everything: Bose audio, pushbutton start (not on CLA250), rear cross traffic alert, leather seats, Blind Zone Alert, humidity sensor, and more.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250So why buy the CLA250? Did we like anything about the vehicle? Absolutely. We think the 2.0-liter turbocharged direct-injection I4 is quick, and the handling from the front MacPherson strut / rear wishbone suspension does a good job of keeping the vehicle planted around corners and providing a sports-car feel. For daily driving, though, the ride is a bit harsh. The steering is responsive and linear, and the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission with paddle shifters is smooth and well spaced. Considering this is Mercedes’ first front-wheel-drive vehicle sold in the U.S, some might also think that’s another strike against the supposed luxury moniker. For those who need more control, a 4Matic all-wheel-drive model is also offered.

Although the cabin is tight in dimensions, we did like the sliding armrest and the USB port in the center console. We also liked that we got 25 mpg on average during our time with the baby Benz. We probably could have made better numbers here, but we immediately turned off the ECO start/stop system when we drove because it was incredibly obtrusive. To be fair to the CLA, it is rated higher in mpg versus the other two, at 38 mpg highway. The Verano’s turbo four is rated at 30 mpg highway, while the Azera is at 29 mpg with its 3.3-liter V6.

The CLA also benefits from some of Mercedes-Benz’ top-notch safety features, such as Collision Prevention Assist, adaptive brakes, and Attention Assist. But both the Azera and Verano got Good ratings from the IIHS, and the Verano received a quadruple 5-star rating from NHTSA, while the Azera has not yet been tested by NHTSA. The CLA also has not been rated yet by any of these safety organizations.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250So what’s the compelling reason to buy the CLA? To have the three-pointed star on the hood and steering wheel? To tell your friends that you own a Mercedes, omitting the model when you wave the keys about?

Don’t get me wrong; I like Mercedes-Benz vehicles, but if this is the brand’s first foray into the lower end of the market, they might be better off following BMW’s lead and walking away. Last year, the CLA sold a tad over 14,000 units, and through April of 2014 it’s done about half that. Once the newness wears off, we’ll revisit the sales numbers. As far as the Verano, it had its best year in 2013, with sales of over 45,000. The Azera has been around for over a decade, and has sold north of 150,000 units in that period. From our heart, we think customers might be better off saving up just a little bit more and choose the C-Class Benz. They will thank us later.

All photos courtesy of Mercedes-Benz USA