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Auto review: Underwhelming Mercedes-Benz compact falls short on refinement

March 10, 2014 


The 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 is the brand's new entry-level model, with a starting price just below $30,000.

Based on the serving-platter-sized badge in the grille, Mercedes-Benz doesn’t want there to be any question about whether the 2014 CLA250 compact sedan is a "true" Mercedes.

But it takes more than a three-pointed star to make a luxury car. The new baby Benz comes up short on refinement and finish, despite offering a pretty shape, good fuel economy and responsive handling.

The CLA250 is the smallest and least expensive car Mercedes offers in the U.S. It’s about the same length as the Buick Verano, Volkswagen Jetta and Chevrolet Cruze.

Prices for the CLA250 start at $29,900 for a front-drive model with a 208-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The model line then takes a giant step in price and performance to the 355-horsepower all-wheel-drive CLA45 AMG at $47,750.

The CLA’s competitors include upscale compacts and subcompacts like the Audi A3, Verano, Cadillac ATS, Lexus IS, Mini Cooper Clubman and Volkswagen Jetta GLI. A front-wheel-drive BMW compact is coming soon.

I tested a front-drive CLA250 with Harman/Kardon audio, navigation, blind-spot alert and other options that raised its price to $35,620.

The CLA250’s sleek profile and tapered roof give it a sporty look. But what the swoopy design gives in style, it takes away in passenger space. The CLA250’s rear seat induced cries of "are we there yet?" in record time from my average-height niece, 14, and nephew, 12. Adding injury to insult, adults frequently banged their heads entering the rear seat. They could barely sit upright once they got in.

The front seat offers good head and legroom, plus storage for glasses, phones and cups.

The interior suffers from one almost inconceivably bad fit between parts. The space between the doors and the B-pillar — the vertical structure between front and rear doors — was so wide that the bright red bare metal of the car’s body was clearly visible. Exposed metal and panel gaps that wide should not occur in well-made cars, regardless of their price.

The gauges are clear. Most of the controls are easy to use, and the voice-recognition system works well, although it requires more steps than some competitors’ systems. The interior materials look fine, but many feel a bit cheap, particularly the air vents. The display screen for navigation, phone, audio and other systems is an odd duck. While most screens are carefully integrated into the control panel, it looks like an afterthought, a cheap GPS that somebody attached to the dash.

The CLA250’s dynamics are more impressive. The steering is sharp and responsive, with a clear on-center feel. The suspension is tuned more for handling than comfort. It keeps the CLA stable in quick maneuvers and doesn’t squat or dive during hard acceleration and braking.

The engine’s power trails the Verano turbo, but is in the same neighborhood as the others. The transmission shifts fast and smoothly during acceleration. It sometimes held its gears when decelerating, which led to noticeable vibration from the low-revving engine. The fuel-saving auto-stop is unobtrusive, but the restart is slow. While most systems restart the engine when the driver lifts off the brake, the CLA hesitated. You can disable the auto-stop, but that reduces fuel economy, one of the CLA’s key selling points.

The car’s EPA rating of 26 mpg in the city, 38 on the highway and 30 in combined driving is impressive. Only the smaller Mini Cooper Clubman John Works matches it, and several considerably less-powerful models don’t come close.

Low fuel costs are a slender reed to hang a luxury car’s hopes of success on, but they’re the only clear advantage the 2014 CLA250 offers versus competitors with more power, room and refinement.

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2014 MERCEDES-BENZ CLA250:

—Type of vehicle: Front-wheel drive five-passenger compact sedan

—Rating: Two out of four stars

—Reasons to buy: Fuel economy; trunk space; handling

—Shortcomings: Interior fit and finish; rear passenger space; poorly integrated display screen

—Engine: 2.0-liter, turbocharged 16-valve four-cylinder

—Power: 208 horsepower at 5,500 rpm; 258 pound-feet of torque at 1,250-4,000 rpm

—Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic

—EPA fuel economy rating: 26 mpg city/38 highway/30 combined. Premium gasoline

—Wheelbase: 106.3 inches

—Length: 182.3 inches

—Width: 70.0 inches

—Height: 56.6 inches

—Curb weight: 3,642 lbs.

—Base price: $29,900

—Price as tested: $35,620

Prices exclude destination charge.

 

 

   


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