September 28, 2013
Bill Howard

Mercedes-Benz CLA reviewed: The best 2+2 sports car for $30,000, or $40k with tech

The sleek and compact $30,000 Mercedes-Benz CLA you saw in the Super Bowl commercial is real. The CLA is fabulously good-looking at the cost of rear-seat comfort. At the same time, it’s a genuine Mercedes with a lot of safety tech in the base model. Equipped for comfortable long-distance cruising, you’re closer to $40,000 than $30,000. Why? To make a serious tech car, you need three packages, each $2,300-$2,500, to get an iPod adapter; navigation; and adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and blind spot detection. Add shipping, you’re at $38,000, and you’re still sitting on vinyl seats.

In their quests to be the world’s largest luxury automaker, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz added subcompact models at base prices around $30,000. These replace certified pre-owned (used) as the entry to the brand. The Audi A3 is $27,000 but it’s a wagon with a sedan coming in 2015. The BMW 1 Series is $31,000 as a coupe or convertible. They look more like their next larger siblings, the A4 and 3 Series. The CLA presents itself as a four-fifths version of the stunning $71,000 CLS four-door coupe. CLA marketing is more or less, “OMG, a real Benz for thirty grand.” They’re on to something.

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A competent, safe car even without the options

Assuming you don’t mind putting your music on an MP3 CD or streaming it over Bluetooth, the base $30K CLA250 is a solid vehicle with zero significant flaws. Bluetooth and HD radio are standard, as is CD. The 208-hp turbo four engine rockets to 60 mph in seven seconds. You get six airbags. Forward collision warning comes standard and it uses radar instead of a camera. Attention Assist can tell if you’re losing concentration on a long trip. Even without navigation, there’s a low-res 5.8-inch color LCD display, mounted atop the dash like an iPad Mini. The Mbrace2 telematics system is about as good as it gets and updates itself over the air with no need to download a patch onto a USB key or go see the dealer. The five-star alloy wheels are gorgeous. The steering wheel has generous thumb cutouts and paddle shifters.

The cockpit fit and finish is average-to-good. Nothing feels cheap, but lots of automakers without less cachet also have good cockpit trim, such as Hyundai and Kia. Mostly what makes this feel like a Mercedes-Benz is how the CLA drives: the strong turbocharged engine, the crisp shifts of the double-clutch gearbox, the sporty suspension, the exhaust note, the handling of this front- or all-wheel-drive drivetrain on back-country roads. You will enjoy definitely enjoy driving the CLA. The DNA is there, now in a small, front-drive car.

Next page: Curious infotainment choices, but a sensible driver assistance package

Curious infotainment choices

Buyers build the CLA around a half-dozen options packages and about as many standalone options. The infotainment system is the weakest point of the CLA because you’re stuck taking options you didn’t want even five years ago. Standard equipment includes a CD player, line-in jack, and Bluetooth. Want to connect via USB so the device charges at the same time? That’s $2,300 for the premium package: USB, Harman/Kardon Logic 7 audio, satellite radio, heated front seats, and the media interface. The USB connection is a proprietary cable; one cable is a USB jack, one is a 30-pin Apple plug. Lightning connector for iPhones of the past year? Sorry, not available yet. The classic Apple plug does charge an iPad as well an iPhone except the iPad won’t fit in the center console where the plug lives.

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Infotainment spills over to the $2,370 multimedia package: navigation with map data on an 80GB hard drive (10GB set aside for music), a 7-inch LCD display bumped to 800×480 resolution, SD card reader, a rear view camera, Gracenote, satellite radio and a six-disc CD/DVD changer. The nav system seems little different in effectiveness from, say, the $595 Bosch navigation system on the Nissan Altima, which includes the backup camera standard. The CLA display doesn’t do split screen (map and audio info) except to show turn details.

Turbocharge your iPhone

Mercedes offers several infotainment options. The Drive Kit Plus for iPhone ($600) provides additional features access to Facebook, Twitter, Google Places, internet radio, Aupeo Personal Radio, and Siri voice control. Aupeo is like Pandora but Mercedes’ supplier, Harman, likes Aupeo because it’s offered in dozens of countries worldwide, unlike Pandora. You can see some of the Drive Kit Plus features on the center stand display as you’re driving. Your ability to respond is constrained because of distraction concerns.

You can also order up a suite of Mercedes-Benz apps for $14 per month, the most useful of which is an in-car WiFi hotspot, along with a web browser, weather info, Google Local Search and Street View. That’s in addition to Mbrace, $280 a year, and Mbrace Plus with concierge services for an additional $240 a year.

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If you don’t get factory navigation, you can order Becker Map Pilot that works through the base 5.8-inch display. It’s $600 plus $200 for a factory-installed wiring harness and it beats smartphone navigation or standalone navigation only because the cockpit is already cramped. Plus, you’re only $1,500 or so shy of the real navigation system with the rear view camera and the bonus CD changer.

If Mercedes-Benz takes customer feedback to heart, you’d likely see an options package tailored to the car’s design. The virtually standard premium package would include a rear camera and rear sonar because of the blind spots. Dual USB jacks would be standard, the CD player would be optional, and the adapter cable would be history. The navigation option would be just that, nothing else.

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Sensible driver assistance package

The package that makes thematic sense is the driver assistance package, $2,500 for stop-and-go adaptive cruise control (“Distronic Plus”), blind spot detection (blind spot assist), lane keep assist, and a plus version of collision prevention assist that comes standard. They’re all about improving driver safety on highways. Not everyone wants adaptive cruise control, so Mercedes partially unbundles the package. You can order blind spot detection for $550 separately but not lane departure warning.

Collision prevention assist is effective. If you come up too quickly or the car in front slows suddenly, LEDs on the dash light up and a warning chirp sounds. It is impossible to miss the combination even if you were, say, glancing down at an incoming text on a phone held low so cops didn’t see you. It also helps provide additional braking for drivers (most of us) who don’t brake hard enough.

Next page: The Mercedes-Benz CLA, on the road

On the road

Riding around in the CLA is fun, especially for new owners who catch the envious double-takes of Mercedes-savvy pedestrians. The back seat is quite compact; it’s okay for a half-hour or full time for kids not yet in middle school. (The trunk is big enough for a weekend trip.) The driver area feels a little snug, too, and some drivers will find the center console rubs your knee. The Comand control wheel on the console is more slippery than BMW iDrive and lacks adjacent direct access buttons for navigation, phone, radio and media. Voice control works well once you’ve gotten used to the commands.

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The 7-inch center display was always readable, even in direct sunlight. Few cars do that. It would have been better as an 8- or even 10-inch display and Mercedes notes the freestanding mount means other sizes could be swapped in. The instrument panel behind the steering wheel is less readable because you get reflections off the plastic faceplates. The small multi-information display LCD between speedometer and tachometer can show you basic navigation, phone, entertainment or trip information, which is a help since the main LCD can’t display multiple functions.

I had no problem pairing phones and connecting an iPod and iPad. Music played through the SD reader but not through a USB key since that cable wasn’t in the car. Adaptive cruise control worked superbly, including slowing to a stop and restarting, as did collision warning and lane departure warning. Other cars have better blind spot detection than the two CLAs I drove.

In spirited driving, mostly highly, we got mileage in the high 30s, so the EPA rating of 26 mpg city, 38 mpg highway, 30 mpg combined seems reasonable, giving you a 450-mile highway range. In spirited driving with the all-wheel drive version (add $2,000), there was still a hint of torque steer, the term for when a front-drive car or all-wheel-drive car biased toward front drive, wants to grab the wheel away when you turn the corner and step on the throttle. Some, not a lot. This is not the nearly self-driving Mercedes-Benz S-Class or E-Class because lane keep assist here will move the car away from lane markings but it won’t auto-center the car. ACC works the same as on the bigger cars. The blind spot detection warning was a lighted indicator and a chime, rather than a steering wheel vibration that doesn’t rat you out to the passengers.

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I also drove the 355-hp CLA45 AMG ($48,000 and up) that takes the car into Porsche performance territory. It’s a blast to drive, especially the exhaust note, but it’s almost too much car for people who don’t do track days with their cars. Anyway, you can buy enough AMG options on the base CLA250 to create confusion over what car you own.

Next page: Should you buy the Mercedes-Benz CLA, and which model should you buy?

Should you buy?

The Mercedes-Benz CLA is the best car in the segment. It’s also the only car in its segment, if the segment is a narrowly defined as a compact 2+2 sports sedan/sports coupe with gorgeous styling and serious performance chops at a list price under $30,000. A lot of the CLA’s attraction depends on the residual value (not firmed up yet), which determines what the lease rate is. Mercedes hopes to get it close to $300 per month, at which point it would be cost-competitive with not just entry Audi and BMW but also a Honda Accord or Ford Fusion.

There are three buying prospects: The most obvious is the Audi-BMW-Lexus-Mercedes fan who loves performance, technology and style. The second is the boy racer who needs to grow up now that he has a reasonable job and a partner who takes a mixed view of his Subaru WRX or Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, and who wants more cachet than the Ford Focus STI or Volkswagen Golf GTI. That’s an easy upsell. The third is the older buyer who’s moving to a smaller vehicle and wants to carry over the tech he or she grew accustomed to in, say, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

Should you buy, then? If style is your main interest, sign on now. If you love tech but don’t want to pay for a six-disc changer you’ll never use, dislike beeping driver aids, or have a Lightning-connector iPhone, you’ll have to come to grips with the fact that automakers are still struggling with the demise of the CD player and evolving tech. The CLA250 is a good deal, relatively speaking for luxury-sport cars, as long as you know the price is more likely $35,000, $40,000 with the right tech. The CLA45 AMG 4Matic that starts near $50,000 is more car than most people need but it throws a halo over the entire CLA line.

My recommendations: The base model, if you can find it, looks and drives as well as the $48,000 model with all the options and the $2,500 Designo (pronounced deZINyo) Northern Lights Violet metallic paint. You’ll find few cars without the premium package, so that and a sunroof put you at $34,000-$35,000. If you like tech, order the three main options packages above, $38,000 total. Xenon headlamps, leather seats, and the big sunroof, will have you in the low forties. All of sudden, it’s a $400-$500 lease payment. If you live in serious snow country or you cherish sporty driving, get all-wheel-drive (available early 2014), otherwise front-drive is fine. The A3 and 1 Series are solid competitors for handling and performance, but the design of the CLA puts Mercedes out front at the entry level.

Now read: Mercedes shows off fully autonomous self-driving S-Class, production cars coming by 2020