published Saturday, October 5th, 2013

Test Drive: New baby-Benz aims for first-timers

The new Mercedes CLA-class sedan provides an entry point for a new generation of luxury car buyers.
The new Mercedes CLA-class sedan provides an entry point for a new generation of luxury car buyers.
Staff photo by Mark Kennedy

FAST FACTS

• Model: Mercedes-Benz CLA250

• Exterior color: Cirrus White

• Interior color: Sahara Beige

• Engine: 2.0 liter, four-cylinder, turbo-charged

• Horsepower: 208

• Transmission: seven-speed automatic

• Fuel economy: 38 mpg highway, 26 mpg city

• Dealer: Long of Chattanooga, Mercedes-Benz

• Price (as tested): $36,055

  • photo
    The interior of the Mercedes CLA 250 is composed of high-quality materials and highlighted by a distinctive LED display surrounded by a thick, piano-black frame.
    Staff Photo by Mark Kennedy

The television ad for the sexy new Mercedes-Benz CLA-class sedan features a 20-something young man seated at a diner -- with the devil.

Fountain pen in hand, the Dark One explains that the young man can sign away his soul for a Mercedes-Benz CLA-class sedan and "all that goes with it" -- a buxom blonde girlfriend, a cover story in Vanity Fair and a night clubbing with Usher.

"Thanks," the young man says confidently. "But I think I got this."

With its enticing base price of $29,900, the Mercedes CLA250 is

designed to attract a new generation of young buyers to the luxury brand -- a group who heretofore might not have envisioned themselves being able to afford payments on the more expensive Mercedes-Benz offerings.

Competing with such entry-level luxury cars as the BMW 1 Series and the Acura ILX, the new CLA250 has the sleek, coupe-like appearance of the much more expensive Mercedes-CLS, for my money the current standard-setter in luxury styling.

Alan Long, of the Long of Chattanooga/Mercedes-Benz dealership, said the CLA250s are selling almost as fast as they arrive at the dealership on International Drive. Luckily, we were able to snag a Cirrus White copy between customers for a short test drive earlier this week, accompanied by Long Mercedes product specialist Noi Yunyong.

STYLING AND FEATURES

The CLA250 is visually stunning. A three-point star grille badge the size of a pie plate announces the sedan as a Mercedes-Benz. The lines of the car sweep rearward in a low arc that insinuates speed and athleticism.

Inside, the same rich materials typical in a Mercedes costing tens of thousands more remind you that the luxury vibe is not just an illusion. Our test car came equipped with a Sahara Beige leather interior and a vast sunroof that bridges the front and back seats.

Controls are generally intuitive, although there are a few things to learn. The air vents in the dash can be turned on and aimed with a single hand motion, for instance. Shifting functions are stalk-mounted on the steering column.

Standard features on the CLA250 include power seats in front; a 5.8-inch infotainment display that integrates navigation, phone and sound system functions; automatic rain-sensing wipers; and a tilt steering wheel. The dash-mounted display has an attractive, piano-black frame.

The seats in the CLA250 are firm and supportive; true to the car's sporty nature. There are plenty of cup-holders big enough to satisfy the American obsession for Big Gulps. The back seats are comfortable but might be snug for passengers over six-feet tall.

PERFORMANCE

The CLA250 comes equipped with a 2.0 liter turbocharged, four-cylinder engine that makes 208 horsepower and has enough torque to create a bit of front wheel-spin on launch. (Yes, the CLA250 is a front-wheel-drive car, an experiment for Mercedes.)

A more powerful CLA45 AMG sedan making 355 horsepower is in the pipeline and should arrive in November, Long said. The buzz is that AMG is German for OMG! Motor Trend clocked the AMG45 0-60 mph in 4.5 seconds.

On my freeway test drive, the CLA250 was composed and responsive. Steering is firm and confident, as you would expect in a Mercedes, and nothing about the driving dynamics leads you to believe that corners were cut to make this price point.

BOTTOM LINE

Our test car stickers for $36,055, including freight and several modest options, such as the sun roof and leather. Highway fuel economy is 38 mpg highway, 26 mpg city.

Every luxury brand needs an entry-level head-turner to transform aspirants into customers. The CLA250 fills the niche superbly.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...

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