When I got into the driver's seat of the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250, I found the luxury feel and quality materials I expected from this vaunted luxury brand, despite this new model sitting at the low end of the line-up. Perched on the dashboard was a 7-inch LCD showing Mercedes-Benz's highly refined navigation system, and Harmon Kardon speakers around the cabin emitted crisp, distinct sound.
On the road, however, the CLA250 felt less like the Mercedes-Benz models to which I was accustomed. The ride, in particular, lacked the dreamy glide of the new S550, or even the competent comfort of the GLK250.
The CLA250 marks a direction toward compact luxury for Mercedes-Benz, something it hasn't previously explored in the US market. Luxury competitors have successfully marketed cars such as the Lexus CT 200h and the Audi A3, practically forcing Mercedes-Benz's hand.
Rather than bring its existing A-class compact car to the US, Mercedes-Benz chose to maintain its brand identity here with the attractive CLA250. Although a four-door, Mercedes-Benz classifies it as a coupe, putting it out there as the baby brother of the CLS-Class. The CLA250 exhibits a similarly curved roofline as the CLS-Class.
Strong contour lines cut into the sides, and an overlarge Mercedes-Benz badge adorns the unique pin-cushion grille. That badge hides the radar enabling the car's adaptive cruise control. The trailing edge of the CLA250 kicks up to reveal two rectangular exhaust ports, with fake vents on either side.
Good-looking and unmistakably a Mercedes-Benz, the CLA250 comes in at a little over 15 feet long, while offering good legroom in front and decent headroom all around. The dashboard features five vents with Mercedes-Benz's retro air flow guides. The gauges in particular show off classic Mercedes-Benz refinement.
As Mercedes-Benz's new economy leader, the CLA250 features a 2-liter four cylinder engine, with direct injection and a turbocharger. Output rates at 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Mated to a seven-speed automatic transmission, the CLA250 earns EPA milage of 26 mpg city and 38 mpg highway. Those estimates proved realistic in my driving, as the car turned in an average of 28.9 mpg.
As in every Mercedes-Benz model I've driven over the past eight years, the CLA250's shifter sat on the steering column, leaving the console free for cup holders and the minimal COMAND cabin tech interface controller. The COMAND system was present due to this model's included Multimedia package. The car's sticker also listed the Sport package, Premium package, and Driver Assistance package, running the total price up over $45,000 from the base $29,900.
A button on the center stack let me cycle the transmission between Eco, Sport, and Manual modes, while another button labeled Eco engaged the car's idle-stop feature.
At the first stoplight I came to, the engine aggressively shut down in response to my braking, the tach needle jumping down to zero. Good, I thought, no gas wasted while I wait for the green. Lifting off the brake, the engine bucked the car as it cranked up, not exactly the smooth experience I expected from Mercedes-Benz.
The accelerator response also proved difficult to predict, as the engine was prone to surging when the turbo kicked up. With the transmission in Eco mode, flooring the accelerator for a passing maneuver resulted in a lengthy bit of hesitation before the car decided to wind itself up and go. The transmission, programmed to seek higher gears in this mode, spent a lot of time jockeying between gears in city driving, making it difficult to maintain steady speed.
In stop-and-go traffic or just a series of stop signs, the idle-stop feature proved so aggressive that I had to turn it off.
Rough pavement also proved challenging for the CLA250's suspension and my own comfort. Relatively minor gaps in the road lead to a hard jolt in the car, and the follow-up tended toward more gut-churning movement. On pavement with a gravelly surface, the car made me feel like I was being dragged over it rather than carried above the road, and all this was accompanied by a grinding noise.
It almost seemed like Mercedes-Benz was using this car to push me up the product line to something more expensive, with a better ride.
An air suspension isn't available for the CLA250, and the base specs show that it uses wishbone suspension architecture both front and rear, as opposed to the multilink architecture on larger Mercedes-Benz models. Also, the Sport package on this model meant a more rigidly tuned suspension, and 18-inch AMG alloy wheels wrapped in low-profile run-flat tires. Run-flats have often been called out as culprits in poor ride quality.
However, the CLA250 showed more worth when I tested that Sport package on a winding road. Powering through a succession of turns, I was pleased with the car's manners. The suspension kept the car feeling even and balanced, limiting understeer to a good degree. The electric power steering remained fairly numb and did not exhibit sharp turn-in, but it was easy to control and felt precise.
In Sport mode, the transmission became very aggressive when I drove hard. It held the revs at 5,000 through the turns and proactively downshifted when I got on the brakes. But driving normally with Sport mode engaged proved very annoying. In Eco mode, the engine seemed prone to surge, but Sport mode made it much worse. Maintaining any kind of steady, slow speed was a challenge.