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Entering “Near-Luxury” with Style

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Mercedes-Benz’s CLA250 is a home run for the venerable automaker

It’s relatively easy for an established luxury brand to move downscale to attract new, younger buyers. The strategy is simple. For the same price as a well-equipped, mainstream midsize sedan, the base price of a small German luxury car looks pretty attractive. A big drawback to this tactic is the real possibility of diluting a brand stature that took decades to develop.

 

Compact Roots

For quite some time, Mercedes-Benz has built small, front-wheel-drive cars that are popular in Europe and Asia. But American executives resisted bringing the little A-Class Mercedes to our market. Its practical packaging, fuel-efficient four-cylinder engine, and front wheel drive were the staple of mainstream compact cars, not what many considered luxury attributes to yearn for.

From the focused three-pointed star back, the CLA has classic sport coupe design cues
From the focused three-pointed star back, the CLA has classic sport coupe design cues

The new CLA250 shatters the common wisdom that a relatively small, affordable sedan cannot beckon buyers without tarnishing Mercedes’ three-pointed star. To create the right image, the model launch began with a devilish Willem Dafoe attempting to seduce a young man with a big-ticket, stylish luxury car. But when the victim of the devil’s charm sees a new CLA on a billboard for just $29,995, Dafoe vanishes in a puff of smoke. It’s a brilliant advertising strategy that works because the CLA’s style is so stunning.

 

Style Still Sells

For decades, Mercedes-Benz styling was predictably Teutonic. Despite a proud history that included the 300SL Gullwing, at one point Mercedes’ car design was simply a part of “body engineering.” But today’s offerings are clearly and carefully designed with style and verve that speak to buyer emotions. So even though the new CLA250 has modest sounding underpinnings, the car has the same road presence and curb appeal as its far more expensive siblings.

 

Rear seat and trunk access may not be family size, but that’s the price of style
Rear seat and trunk access may not be family size, but that’s the price of style

High style is a great start, but substance is required to close the deal. In that department, the new Mercedes delivers ride and handling characteristics that luxury buyers expect. The chassis is rigid with plenty of noise isolation for a quiet cabin and while the driving experience is sporty, it’s not harsh.

 

A Few Quibbles

Four-door coupe styling has become a popular trend, but when the style is properly low-slung, rear seat access and headroom suffer. The CLA clearly falls into the rear-seat-challenge category, so if you’re bringing tall or older passengers along, expect a comment or two. And while the interior is nicely turned out, the little flat screen looks a lot like an Apple iPad was attached above the center vents.

 

The interior is nicely turned out, although the center screen looks a bit like an afterthought
The interior is nicely turned out, although the center screen looks a bit like an afterthought

Those are small quibbles for a Mercedes-Benz with a starting price in Camry and Accord territory. Of course our test CLA retailed for $43,245 and I’m unaware that any have been sold for $30,000, or that you would really want the “base” model. But this new Mercedes-Benz looks like a $50,000 car, and it’s doing its job-selling like hotcakes without tarnishing the three-pointed star.   Brian Douglas

 

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250

ENGINE: 2.0-liter Turbo I-4

HORSEPOWER: 208 @ 5,500 rpm

TORQUE: 258 lb-ft. @ 1250-4000 rpm

FUEL CONSUMPTION: 26-city/38-highway/30 Combined

BASE PRICE: $29,900

AS TESTED: $43,245

 

Photography courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

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