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The Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class is a brand-new line of premium compact sedans that abandon the brand’s classic rear-wheel drive for less expensive front-wheel drive. Rear-wheel drive is generally considered superior for sporty performance, and indeed we found the front-wheel-drive configuration in the CLA250 makes for a comfortable, if not entirely competitive, driving experience. CLA250 models are priced in the low $30,000s.
Built on an all-new platform, the 2014 CLA-Class comes in two main variants: CLA250 and CLA45 AMG. CLA250 comes standard with front-wheel drive; 4MATIC all-wheel drive will be available spring 2014. CLA45 AMG comes standard with 4MATIC.
We expect the majority of cars on the road will be the CLA250, with a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine good for 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. It’s paired with a new 7-speed dual-clutch transmission and steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles. Standard features include an ECO engine start/stop system, designed to improve gas mileage. Fuel economy estimates from the EPA for the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 are an admirable 26/38 mpg City/Highway.
The hotrod is the CLA45 AMG, with a hand-built version of the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine good for 355 hp and 332 lb.-ft. of torque, a sport-tuned suspension, bigger brakes, more aggressive shift points and more direct steering, as well as unique exterior and interior styling.
The styling is unique but in some views looks overdone. Mercedes-Benz wants customers to consider the CLA-Class a baby version of the expensive CL-Class coupe, and the CLA-Class does bear some resemblance, especially in the sloping roofline and in its curved rear decklid. Lines are a combination of sharp and curvy. In the rear, the swoopy tail lamps create almost a sideways teardrop shape, with outer corners that appear almost as if they’re dripping down into the rear bumper, a la a Salvador Dali painting.
The CLA-Class has four doors and back seats to accommodate a total of four people, but the cramped back seats are best used for small packages, not people.
Interior materials for the most part live up to Mercedes-Benz’s reputation, with soft-touch materials on the dash and doors. Wood trim looks authentic and classy. Color combinations are tasteful. However, the CLA-Class does fall short in some places, like in the placement and layout of the climate control buttons, which are far too low and are made of hard plastic. The housing for the standard color display also looks rather stuck-on. Still, we feel the interior is more luxurious than many similarly priced cars.
Performance is adequate in the CLA250, and most won’t notice the difference between the CLA’s front-wheel-drive setup and a sportier rear-wheel-drive vehicle. The CLA45 AMG has plenty of pep and sounds tough. It handles winding roads much better with its all-wheel-drive setup, but comes in at much pricier territory.
There aren’t many vehicles that go head-to-head with the CLA-Class. One close competitor would be the BMW 1 Series, which is on hiatus for the 2014 model year and is rumored to return soon, fully redesigned. Those considering the 2014 CLA-Class should also look at the BMW 320i, which offers superior driving dynamics and slightly more space, although it doesn’t measure up when it comes to interior materials quality. Another excellent alternative is the Cadillac ATS, which offers track-worthy performance and a luxe cabin. At a slightly lower price is the new Acura ILX, which is available in a hybrid model, but it lacks the CLA’s performance. Those considering the near-$50,000 CLA45 AMG should also look at the racy Audi S4 sedan, though it’s an older product.