Comparison: Entry-level luxury sedans
BMW 320i vs. Buick Regal vs. Mercedes-Benz CLA250 vs. Volkswagen CC
The initial idea suggested to yours truly was to line up the Mercedes-Benz CLA250 against the Volkswagen CC R-Line, but the proposal was compelling for all of two minutes. Apart from vaguely sharing body shapes and having turbocharged engines with similar outputs, the bigger, $35K, entry-level luxury question asked was, "Would anybody care?"
With its big-money Super Bowl commercial, Mercedes' hot, new people-pleaser and its alluring starting price has garnered major public attention. In contrast, the CC is perhaps the most visually attractive VW on sale, but it's no contest when competing for market relevance. Despite dropping into customer clutches for the first time in September 2013, the CLA-Class was just 1560 units shy of besting CC sales for all of 2013 by December's end, year for year. Of course, sales totals never singly determine a Motor Trend comparison matchup. Nevertheless, a more inclusive rethink was needed.
Because we wouldn't have access to an MQB-underpinned Audi A3 until a month after our prospective itinerary, we turned to the other natural Germanic competitor. The MPV-like, front-drive BMW 2 Series Active Tourer is tentatively due in 2015, so a suitably priced 320i was chosen. The least expensive BMW sedan you can lease right this instant also, shockingly, starts at $4550 less than a no-frills 328i.
You're questioning the rear drive? Hey, nobody ever specified the entry-luxe formula's drive wheels.
With three buckaroos saddled up, we looked for a fourth compadre.
The Buick Verano was the logical choice, having smote the Acura ILX in a preceding entry-luxe shootout ("Forever Young," January 2013). But to keep the as-tested prices as tight as possible, a one-size-up Regal was selected. Heavily refreshed for 2014, it arrived equipped with a more powerful (39 more horsepower, 35 more lb-ft of torque), now standard 2.0-liter turbo-four and a more smartly designed interior. With a thriftiest-in-comparison cost of $34,685, the Buick brought the "entry" in our entry-level luxury rodeo.
And there we have it. Four cars, close in price, each with room for five and asserting better than average luxury, ready to go. We devised a plan to stay as far away from the Motor Trend offices in El Segundo, California, as we sensibly could, settling on a short tour of western Arizona to help figure which player was best.
Being unable to resist side trips, once we left the greater Los Angeles region we shook off Interstate 40 and landed on Route 66 after turning eastward out of Barstow. Unfortunately, the original Mother Road has some severely broken pavement, and that's where it all went wrong for one of our party. We parked for a few glamour shots near Pisgah Crater and photo intern Robin Trajano earned a stripe by pointing out that the CLA's driver-side front tire had a sidewall bubble, indicating that the internal construction had been compromised.
That the CLA250 was the only one to show an external stress marker wasn't totally surprising. Before leaving on the road trip, each car had been sent down a quiet but beat-up-in-sections road at 65 mph to judge ride quality. The CC and Regal were plush all around, able to float over dips and bumps, with the Buick heaving up and down a little more than the Volkswagen. Even though the 320i came fitted with the passive M sport suspension — unique springs, shock absorbers, and bushings, with 0.2/1mm thicker front/rear anti-roll bars — as part of the $1300 Sport Package, it rode confidently on its staggered 18-inch wheels. The BMW suspension delivers a reassuring ride that's more adept than those of the Regal or CC at snuffing motions after the wheel impact, rather than letting the car oscillate on its own. The purest of BMW purists have harangued that the current F30 3-Series isn't as laser-focused on handling and as rewarding a driver's driver as the E30, E36, E46, and E90. We counter the F30 is still an admirable all-around vehicle.
The CLA250 is way different. On an unblemished road, all is right. Take it out of its element — such as out on the wild remnants of Route 66 — and the cabin sounds like all hell has broken loose. The front end is too tight, sending loud, sharp thwacks through the air where the other three broadcast softer thumps. The body control is good, even if you feel a lot of the road. We started holding our breath any time the surface took a turn for the worse, scowling until the cracks and divots disappeared. The little Merc had optional, $500 18-inch wheels. We'd like to believe the standard 17s with slightly taller-profile tires would offer enough cushioning to alter the ride, but the harshness seems more serious than a set of tires could fix.
Since the sidewall bulge swelled onto part of the outer shoulder (we could really feel it through the newly standard footwell vibration), we limped back to Barstow to find a replacement tire. With a bunch of time on our hands, it was as good a moment as any to check out our luxury cars' interiors.
First, the BMW. The 320i's cabin is minimalist and easy to embrace, and the back seat is the most accommodating of the four, with gobs of head- and legroom and trouble-free ingress and egress.
The Regal is much improved over the pre-refresh model. The rejuvenated center stack uses only seven buttons for the sound system (the old one had 17), the climate control and cluster display systems have been improved, and the 8-inch center screen is filled with the vibrant IntelliLink infotainment interface. Leave it to Buick to rate highly on noise control, as the car capably blocks wind and road noise when it is moving. Passengers could catch a few Zs without a passing big rig disturbing their siesta.
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Keep in mind these are entry-level luxury sedans. The CLA-250 seems to be stripped of all the typical accoutrements befitting the Mercedes-Benz prestige. It seems as if MB is playing down to its competition, seeking volume over exclusivity. MB is taking a big risk by going en masse. I agree with M, it does cheapen the AMG aura, and the results here speak for themselves.
VW's gutsy move of using an iron block with aluminum heads is a bold throwback reminiscent of the E36 era, and much kudos to their engineers for deriving impressive numbers with this platform! A very nice ride, indeed!
Buick's numbers are impressive here, but I'm not entirely sold on this car considering the stigma attached with domestic products, and Government Motor's latest fiasco. The Buick, though much improved, still has much to prove in the reliability department. It may be a good car, but the reputation of the brand name is its own worst enemy. Sorry, still not sold on this vehicle.
Of course, I save the best for last -- the BMW 320i! Not as solid as its ancestors (E28, E30, E36, etc), but it comes from a lineage of proven winners in performance, quality, efficiency, and reliability! BMW did invent the sports sedan, after all! These testers have it perfectly right! Which is why I love my superior BMW! :-D
Lastly, not to nit-pik, but does the Buick, with low compression ratio relative to the others, really require premium fuel?
No Hyundai or Kia entries? I know that Hyundai CERTAINLY has an entry level luxury sedan - and why not a Cadillac or even a Mercury-Lincoln entry, besides the obviously missing Jaguar.