Capsule Review: 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 4Matic

capsule review 2014 mercedes benz cla250 4matic

If it looks like a Benz and goes like a Benz, it’s probably a Benz.

And if it’s missing some of the trademark Benz-like qualities you noticed in your friend’s well-off uncle’s W124 300E in the late 80s, it’s still a Benz.

So much a Benz, in fact, that numerous neighbours refused to believe that the bright red CLA250 4Matic that visited us in mid-August was Mercedes-Benz’s entry-level car. None of those neighbours visited the inside of the car.

When told that it’s a lesser car than the CLS or E or S or even C, those neighbours warm to a notion created over time, both by marketing and in their own aspirational minds, which says they could have all that inherent Mercedes-Benz goodness with an affordable price tag.

It sounds so easy: big brand, little car, the loss of some frivolous luxuries, the removal of a few horsepower, and a deep discount.

It’s not so easy.

Many a luxury item has been removed, and I’m alright with that, but then again, many such features have been added back into this particular Mercedes-Benz Canada car, which would cost slightly more than $40,000 in the U.S. if it could be equipped identically.

But with the loss of luxury features like massaging seats and air suspension from high-end models, and even with the re-insertion of premium features like navigation and Bi-Xenons and a big glass roof, the attractive CLA250 interior is let down by a large amount of cheap plastic through the centre console and a screen that’s unconvincingly tacked on.

The best aspect of the CLA’s interior is the look of it, from the vents to the seatbacks to the simple but elegant layout of the controls. As much as the centre-mounted screen isn’t attractively placed, it is functional, requiring very little removal of the driver’s eyes from the road. I’ll always prefer a control knob mounted between the front seats, as in the CLA, compared with a long reach forward to touch a screen.

There’s even room in the rear of the CLA. It’s not abundant, but we crammed three adult males back there for a short back road jaunt. Something about the shape of the seats also makes the installation of a rear-facing car seat surprisingly easy, too, so long as you remember to watch your head (and the baby’s) when loading through the narrow rear door aperture.

With five adult males aboard and with the heavier all-wheel-drive configuration, the CLA250’s 258 lb-ft of torque still comes on strong. Soon enough. Whether you blame the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission or the turbo’s lag or Mercedes-Benz’s traditional lack of immediate throttle response, there’s a distinct pause at first. It’s easy enough to become accustomed to the engine, as it seems to punch above its weight once up to speed.

The DCT, however, is easily confused in Sport mode and overly interested in fuel economy when left in Eco, racing through the gears like it’s, well, a race. “What’s wrong with the car?”, my brother asked from the back seat when we accelerated away from an intersection in Sport and the CLA groaned under the weight of first gear as though I was unwilling to perform an upshift in Manual mode. He also chuckled when the CLA shot up to seventh under light acceleration in ECO, almost in an immature panic, although the rate with which the DCT can snap off shifts is oddly impressive.

Odd is also how you’d describe the CLA’s mixed bag of suspension movements. The CLA has the ability to eliminate road imperfections, but it struggles to maintain composure when the surface is full of small elevation changes. At the same time, there’s a sense of initial agility, but it’s followed by a surprisingly early onset of understeer when you’re encouraging the CLA to impress your teenage nephews, and the CLA then becomes too uncommunicative.

It’s difficult to say when they’re not driven back-to-back – my time with the CLA250 4Matic came nine months after a week I spent with the front-wheel-drive CLA – but the AWD CLA250 seems to ride better, handle worse, and draw more attention to the DCT’s deficiencies. We also saw no fuel economy penalties with the all-wheel-drive, a 29.4 mpg car in our mostly urban driving, compared with the 28.7 mpg we saw on similar drive routes when the temperature was admittedly cooler last November.

The CLA250 is therefore a relatively quick and efficient car with a premium badge and decent interior space. Although I’m personally not convinced that the stylistic themes work on a product with the CLA’s dimensional limitations, it’s an obviously design-oriented car. Thus, for those who love the car’s appearance and the fact that it screams, “I’m expensive!”, the appeal of a CLA is not difficult to comprehend.

CLA pricing begins at $30,825 including destination; 4Matic adds $2000. Is Audi’s A3 the CLA’s key rival? Or is the un-optioned $41,325 C300 4Matic, a dramatically improved car for the 2015 model year, a competitor for properly-equipped entry-level Benzes, CLAs with 18-inch wheels, heated seats, a rear view camera, and dual zone automatic climate control?

Regardless, Mercedes-Benz has carved out a space for the CLA in America. U.S. sales have slowed noticeably since the car’s arrival late last year, but that’s due in large part to the CLA’s global successes. Yet with 2378 July sales ( its best month since January), the CLA accounted for 13% of Mercedes-Benz’s passenger car sales last month. It’s not a rare car. On the other hand, it’s no C-Class, which even in this transition year has averaged 5500 monthly sales.

Yes, more consumers prefer the more costly C-Class, even the old, outgoing C-Class. And though the CLA is appealing in theory, it’s not hard to see why the C-Class is more appealing in practice.

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2 of 171 comments
  • 05lgt 05lgt on Aug 28, 2014

    Day late, but is it just me or do Mercedes Fanbois make more declarative unsubstantiated claims per gallon than any other? Let me say this; just because you say it with certainty doesn't lend it credibility any more. You used that up. It's gone.

  • Tankinbeans Tankinbeans on Aug 29, 2014

    I saw one of these in person yesterday and YIKES! The front is okay, but that thing takes droopy butt syndrome to an all new low. I've never really been a fan of Mercedes' styling, but this is exceptional in its eye-gouging horridness.

  • Pmirp1 Simple. Electrics are not yet prime time. In time, they may become the norm. For now, they are still the new kid on the block. A curosity. A status symbol. They are not the work horse of American life. Everyone knows that. You buy it because it is fast. It makes you feel like, you know, Prius like 10-15 years ago.Electrics have improved. Tesla is without a doubt the standard bearer. Still, long way to go before they can be your ONE vehicle. So companies charge more because these things are coooool. Not real.
  • Rich Benkwitt I’ll take that red and white 2 door and I guess the 4 banger so I can have the manual tranny just like my 1969 Bronco. I have my Wildtrak on order now waiting impatiently!
  • Theflyersfan I was living in one part of the world when China and Russia were completing their 21st century scramble of Africa. They were pumping billions into the economies of these countries building new dams, bridges, skyscrapers, freeways/toll roads, utilities, power plants, you know - projects that would benefit the average resident of said location. All they wanted in exchange were the mineral, mining, fishing, timber, etc., rights of said location. And they got them. So during that era when they were looking at global expansion, we were fighting unwinnable wars and our "leaders" on the left were yelling at the "leaders" on the right and vice versa, and what happens when all you do is stare and focus on one thing like DC is known to do? The world moves on around you. And that's what happened here.We had the same opportunity to build Africa up and to make the same deals as other countries, but our "nation building" tends to take place via the conversion from something solid and standing to something in pieces and in rubble. So it looks like we'll continue to have to deal with hostile nations holding our feet into the fire and working through their many geopolitical issues just so we can continue to get cheap electronics and necessary materials in our manufacturing just because we decided around 40+ years ago to ship it all overseas because we wanted to save 50 cents on a pack of socks and the CEOs needed their next quarterly statement to look even better to the shareholders so they could increase their pay and bonuses, consequences be damned.
  • DweezilSFV I didn't think GM could make a worse looking truck than their full-sizers.Success.
  • DweezilSFV GM. Still trying to make OnStar happen.And still the answer to a question no one ever asked.