Timing isn't everything, but in the case of the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA, it's one more big tactical advantage. The company's first compact four-door luxury sedan--its first front-drive car in America, ever--the grippy and gripping CLA goes on sale this fall at least a half-year before its German rivals can summon up a true four-door competitor.
Until then, the CLA lines up across the luxury field from the likes of the handsome, supple and quiet Buick Verano, and the well-meaning Acura ILX, and with the hotter CLA45 AMG version, BMW's 1-Series.
The Verano and ILX have sub-$30,000 base price tags and lots of luxury features like the newest Benz. But neither has anything like the prestige of the Mercedes badge. The BMW does, but its M edition is gone, on an untimely time-out.
The CLA is a scaled-down imitation of the prettiest Mercedes on sale today, the CLS, and that's its biggest ace. It may be as short as a Civic, but its elegant profile and frameless glass counter the compact-car blahs, and chip away visually at the front end's height.
The sporty cockpit lifts its inspiration from the SLK, not the C-Class, and the mix-and-match aesthetic works extremely well. That is, until you scan the LCD screen planted awkwardly on the dash, instead of integrated into the center stack.
The CLA 250's drivetrain pairs a 2.0-liter turbo four with 208 horsepower to a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission. It's a combination with 0-60 mph times of 6.7 seconds and a 149-mph top speed in its portfolio, underpinned with some grunty four-cylinder noises.
The transmission needs quicker shift responses, though: even with paddle controls, it gets caught off-guard. Gas mileage numbers aren't in, but 30 mpg highway is an easy bet thanks to standard stop/start tech; 33 or even 35 mpg may be a stretch, with the available all-wheel-drive system sure to shave a mile per gallon off those numbers.
The CLA45 AMG recasts that engine in myriad ways, from block to pistons to turbocharger to its 26.1 psi of boost.
Output shoots to 355 horsepower, 0-60 mph times fall to 4.5 seconds, and top speed rises to 155 mph.
All-wheel drive is standard, and a reprogrammed dual-clutch with three driving modes suits up to harness the power much more effectively than in the CLA 250.
Unlike any other mainstream Mercedes before it, the CLA's tightly tuned steering and ride break from tradition. The variable-effort, variable-ratio electric steering is full of weight and quick to respond, and largely without feedback. Two out of three is good, by electric-steering standards.
The CLA's independent suspension gets a standard "sport" setting in the U.S. and likely rare 17-inch run-flat tires, since 18-inch wheels will be a $500 option. With the CLA 250 and 18-inch wheels, the very firm ride and occasionally jarring impacts of French roads would trigger a test drive of the standard setup, if it were our money.
The CLA45 AMG? It's another proposition entirely, and we're not sure its ride isn't a touch more refined, even with optional 19-inch wheels and tires and an available AMG sport suspension. It corners ruthlessly flat, dials out most of the CLA's native understeer, and if it suffers in comparison with the wild-hair, rear-drive, V-8 AMGs of recent vintage...well, what doesn't?
Compact dimensions place the CLA in a vast class of cars that ranges from the Ford Focus to the Honda Civic, or to more upscale machinery like the BMW 1-Series, Acura ILX, and Buick Verano. It's 182.3 inches long, with a wheelbase of 106.3 inches.
As with most of those cars, back-seat room is tight, with minimal headroom for medium-sized adults and somewhat difficult entry and exit in through the rear doors. Trunk space is good, with a flat load floor, and the CLA has a few useful storage bins in the cabin for small items.
Among its standard safety features, the 2014 CLA carries a new Collision Prevention Assist function; using radar, the CLA can alert the driver of upcoming obstacles when it's traveling at more than 4 mph, and can calculate the amount of brake force needed to avoid an impact.
Also standard are Attention Assist and its coffee-cup reminder to pull over and avoid drowsy driving, and a driver knee airbag. Safety options include adaptive cruise control; blind-spot monitors; lane-keeping assistance; and parking sensors with parking assist. Visibility isn't great to the rear--we hope the rearview camera gets liberated into an inexpensive, stand-alone option in the near future.
Dollars to rubber doughnuts, the $30,825 2014 CLA comes comparably equipped to the high-trim versions of its contemporaries. It comes with standard Bluetooth, cruise control, a power driver seat, and MB-Tex upholstery.
Smartphone connectivity comes via Mercedes-Benz's mbrace2 and a 5.8-inch screen, while three navigation options will be offered--the most expensive, with voice commands, the rearview camera and real-time traffic.
With the Premium package--it bundles an iPod interface with satellite radio, surround sound, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, and a garage door opener--the CLA should retail for about $33,500. It will be impossible to option the CLA 250 past $40,000.
The CLA45 AMG is configured much the same, save for its drivetrain. The base price of $48,375 leaves room for option packages that include Recaro performance seats, carbon trim for the outside and the inside, a black-out trim package, and uprated tires, before it hits an expected average out-the-door price of about $55,000.
A panoramic sunroof is a stand-alone option on any CLA, as are leather seats, summer tires, parking assist, blind-spot monitors, and heated front seats.
The CLA 250 goes on sale in September, the CLA45 AMG by November. The all-wheel-drive CLA 250 arrives early next year.