Rating: 9.0
Bottom Line:
The new CLA is a big departure for Mercedes in the U.S., not only because it’s priced lower than any previous offering from the German company but because it is the automaker’s first and only front-wheel drive offering in the States. While some devotees may see this as dilution of the brand, the CLA should be quite effective at bringing in a younger clientele looking for an affordable, quality, spirited European sedan.
  • Sexy styling
  • Impressive handling
  • Low price
  • Tight rear seat
  • Nav placement seems like an afterthought
  • No diesel for America

View Pictures:  2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA

A big departure for Mercedes in the U.S., the brand-new CLA is the German automaker's first and only front-wheel-drive offering stateside. The compact sedan, which will go on sale later this year, also will be the first new vehicle in America from Mercedes with a starting price less than $30,000.

But the CLA is not merely a more affordable Mercedes. Well equipped with the latest safety features, this 4-door coupe stands out in a crowded entry-luxury vehicle segment. Designed as a smaller sibling of the CLS, the CLA definitely feels like a Mercedes. And its sleek lines are not only sexy, they're functional. Mercedes claims that the CLA's coefficient of drag of just 0.23 makes it the most aerodynamic of any mass-produced vehicle in the world.

Clearly Mercedes is hoping to bring a younger clientele to the brand, and the CLA has the capabilities to deliver on that.

Model lineup
Eventually there will be three versions of the CLA for the U.S. market. The CLA250 will arrive in the fall of 2013 with front-wheel drive and a price tag of $29,900. Even at the low base price, the CLA250 comes with a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission, start-stop, rain-sensing wipers, Bluetooth connectivity, a power driver's seat and 17-inch wheels. In addition, all CLAs get Collision Prevention Assist, which can slow or stop the vehicle to prevent or lessen the effects of an accident; Attention Assist, which detects if a driver is drowsy; and multiple airbags.

A number of packages and standalone features will also be offered. The CLA looks best with a Sport package that features 18-inch AMG wheels and a "diamond-look" grille.

A 5.8-inch display comes standard on CLA, but the multimedia package upgrades to a 7-inch display with navigation, a rearview camera and 10 GB of music storage.

In spring 2014 the CLA250 4Matic will join the lineup, offering full-time all-wheel drive. Sporting a new generation of Mercedes' 4Matic permanent AWD system, it features fully variable torque distribution for increased traction in both wet and slippery conditions and to push the car on twisty, challenging roads.

Although Mercedes builds versions of the CLA with sport or luxury suspensions, only the sport suspension will be coming to the U.S.

Mercedes also plans to come to market with the CLA45 AMG. Sporting the latest 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, the CLA45 features the first 4-cylinder engine from AMG, the sporting and performance arm of Mercedes. The CLA45 engine will put out an estimated 360 horsepower. Details of CLA45 AMG will follow its debut at the 2013 New York Auto Show.

Under the hood
The new CLA will be launched with a single engine choice: a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder that produces 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. It is teamed with a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission that shifts quickly for great performance. Shifts can be actuated via paddles on the steering wheel or the transmission can be left to shift on its own. There are no plans for a manual transmission for the U.S. market.

The CLA also features Mercedes' ECO start-stop technology that shuts the engine off when at idle, starting it up again automatically when the brake is released. The system works well in the CLA with almost no delay before engine start-up.

Fuel economy numbers have not yet been announced, but mileage estimates in the mid-20s to low-30s should be in the ball park.

Inner space
It may be the least expensive model in the German automaker's lineup, but the CLA still feels like a Mercedes inside. We drove European-spec cars, so final U.S. equipment availability is pending, but materials do not feel cheap and the standard sport seats are well appointed and quite comfortable, even for extended drives.

MB-Tex is the standard seat covering, but available leather seats add additional refinement. Stitching on doors and dashboard are part of the leather package and provide the CLA with a more premium feel.

The 7-inch display is nice but its placement at the top of the dash almost looks like an afterthought; it doesn't really integrate with the rest of the interior.

As expected from a compact car, the rear seat is a little tight, but two adults can easily fit. Adding a third rear passenger would be possible, but only for short trips. The surprisingly spacious trunk fits two large pieces of luggage with room to spare.

On the road
We had the opportunity to drive the CLA on some twisty roads in the south of France and were not disappointed. The 208 horses are well matched with the dual-clutch transmission, providing more than adequate oomph to get the small CLA moving quickly. Unlike many 4-cylinder engines, the CLA's 2.0-liter actually sounds good at full throttle. The car tracks confidently and is extremely stable at 80 mph on the freeway, and while road noise will vary depending on the tires, the car remains quiet even at high speed.

In tight corners the CLA feels solid with no noticeable understeer or body roll. On dry pavement there is no discernible difference between the front-wheel drive and 4Matic models; however, the 4Matic naturally feels more planted when driving on slick surfaces. The all-wheel-drive system in the CLA is the lightest Mercedes has made to date, and is unlikely to affect fuel economy significantly.

Right for you?
If you've always wanted to experience a sporty European sedan, this may be your chance. While full pricing hasn't been released, a well-equipped CLA should sticker for around $35,000 — about the price of a topline Honda Accord.

Even though many enthusiasts won't consider a front-wheel-drive car — even if it is a Mercedes — the CLA is an enjoyable front-driver; owners may find themselves looking for reasons to make extra runs to the grocery store.

With its good looks, commendable road manners and solid feel, the CLA represents an excellent option in the crowded premium sedan segment.

(As part of a sponsored press event, the automaker provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)

Perry Stern's automotive career began over 20 years ago as an advisor at a vehicle consulting firm. One of the original staff members of CarPoint, Microsoft's automotive Web site that launched in 1995, he became editor of the site in 2002, which is now known as MSN Autos. Stern has also contributed to MSNBC and various MSN properties in Canada, Japan and Europe.