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.
Cruising down the freeway, where the transmission could just hold seventh gear, was a more comfortable experience, especially with the Distronic Plus system. Mercedes-Benz pioneered this adaptive cruise control, and I was pleased to see the availability of it at the low end of the model line. The system maintained my set speed until it detected slower traffic ahead, slowing to match the slower speed. This system is very competent, able to bring the car to a complete stop.
Adding to the driver assistance features were a blind-spot monitor and a lane-departure warning system. The blind spot system only worked at speeds above about 20 mph, leaving its side mirror icons lit up in yellow at slower speeds. The lane-departure warning, always a fun feature to test, seemed a little subtle, until I realized the vibration in the steering wheel wasn't actually from the road. The system effectively simulates the feel of a rumble strip in the steering wheel.
Another carryover from Mercedes-Benz's more expensive models was the full-featured cabin tech system. Mercedes-Benz calls the interface COMAND, and it works easily enough once you get used to it. An upper menu bar shows the major functions, such as navigation, phone, and stereo, while a menu bar at the bottom of the screen shows options for whichever function is currently active. I could select menus and items using the jog-dial on the console.
In addition, I could control just about any function with the advanced voice command system. It let me enter addresses as a single string, place phone calls by contact name, and select music from a USB drive or iOS device by specific album, artist, or track.
Stored on an onboard hard drive, the CLA250's maps show excellent detail, including topographic features for terrain and rendered buildings in metropolitan areas. The route guidance employs rich graphics and clear voice prompts. The system also takes into account traffic, not only rerouting around bad traffic but also reading out traffic alerts, a setting that can be turned off.
Among the destination entry options is a shortcut to Mercedes-Benz apps, which include Google search and Yelp. I would like to see these apps better integrated with navigation instead of tucked away in the apps bucket, but the shortcut is convenient. What makes these apps basically useless is the lengthy amount of time the car takes to make its data connection then to load the apps. I suspect Mercedes-Benz did not negotiate an always-on data connection with its provider -- using them is kind of like if you had to reboot your smartphone every time you wanted to launch an app.
Similarly, online music apps are found, not in the audio sources menu, but tucked away in the online services menu. These apps take an equally long time to load, making them fairly useless for the average driver.
Mercedes-Benz includes its usual array of broadcast and stored audio sources in the CLA250, including HD radio and an onboard hard drive. I was baffled to find a proprietary port in the console with a Y-adapter cable splitting into an auxiliary input and a 30-pin iPhone connector. The inclusion of the proprietary port is relatively new for Mercedes-Benz, and seemed like a step backward from just providing a simple USB port for plugging in an iOS device. There was a USB port in the console, but it did not work with an iOS Lightning cable, and Mercedes-Benz did not include a Lightning cable for its proprietary port. I could have used Apple's Lightning adapter, but I have found the audio quality when using it atrocious.
Bluetooth audio streaming is the easiest option for any smartphone user. However, the CLA250 does not have the Bluetooth Host Controller Interface stack, so all music selection has to be done on the phone.
For other onboard audio sources, I could select music using voice command or through the music library interface on the CLA250's LCD. Along with the usual lists of artists and albums, I could also view my music library by album cover, which I found to be an excellent and less distracting means of choosing music.
One of this car's tech highlights was the Harman Kardon audio system, included as part of the Premium package. Its nine speakers did an extraordinary job of reproducing music, in particularly imbuing mids and highs with extremely crisp clarity. I could clearly hear the reverberating clash of cymbals, for example, and vocals came through with incredible nuance. Bass was unfortunately lacking in this system, as deeper notes barely made an impression in the cabin.
Mercedes-Benz doesn't hold back, much, on the available tech for the 2014 CLA250. Its driver assistance systems, especially adaptive cruise control, are very good, and these are included in the driver assistance package. The cabin tech features and the COMAND interface are also carried over from the larger, more expensive models.
I like that this car has a native Internet connection for its built-in apps, but Mercedes-Benz really has to do something about the connection time. The inclusion of a new media connector with a 30-pin iOS adapter also seemed like a step backward.
Mercedes-Benz models usually exhibit advanced drivetrain tech, and, on the surface, the CLA250 seems to support this trend. Direct injection and turbocharging are recent trends across the industry to get more power and efficiency from smaller engines. The CLA250's fuel economy numbers reflect this drivetrain tech. However, the drive tuning needs work. Rather than a solid, steady driving feel I would expect from Mercedes-Benz, the CLA250 was rather messy.
Worst of all was the ride quality, which was not only far from my expectations, but did not measure up to that from typical economy cars such as the Chevy Cruze or Mazda3. Dropping the Sport package, with its run-flats, might change the picture, but from what I've seen, the CLA250 does not support Mercedes-Benz's brand reputation.
|Model||2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250|
|Powertrain||Turbocharged direct-injection 2-liter four-cylinder engine, seven-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||26 mpg city/38 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||28.9 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional, with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Internet streaming, Bluetooth streaming, onboard hard drive, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio, HD radio|
|Audio system||Harmon Kardon 450-watt system|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitor, lane-departure warning, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$45,245|