Mercedes-Benz can no longer rest comfortably as one of the top brands in the luxury market. Acura, Audi, Cadillac, Infiniti, Jaguar and Lexus are all pushing hard to grab customers. And the other German stalwart, BMW, remains an unrelenting archrival increasing its efforts to better compete globally.

Still, Mercedes is trucking along at a record pace. Sales for 2012 were up nearly 12 percent in the United States, where it sold almost a quarter of a million vehicles — the most ever in its history.

New cars unveiled in Detroit make it clear Mercedes is bent on maintaining momentum by improving one of its mainstays, the midsize E-Class, and moving down-market with a new entry-level CLA-Class designed to attract younger buyers. It's built on a new front-wheel-drive architecture that is lighter and, in theory, more efficient than Mercedes' rear-wheel-drive setup on the C-Class.

Meanwhile an elaborate new safety system debuting on the 2014 E-Class brings us one step closer to autonomous driving and points the way to the future for all cars.


2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class

What is it? An all-new entry-level 4-door with the sleek styling of a coupe.

What's hot? For starters, the styling. Mercedes calls this a "four-door coupe," with styling inspired by the sleek CLS-Class. But the term is an oxymoron. Coupes have two doors, not four. Mercedes is trying to make a point here: that it created a beauty that has the svelte lines of a coupe with the practicality of a sedan. And so it did.

The front-wheel-drive CLA250 has a taut suspension for a sporty ride, and a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine with a little more displacement and power than the engine in the C250. A new all-wheel-drive systems optional. Like everything else on this car, its 7-speed dual-clutch transmission was designed to be compact and light.

Mercedes says the CLA250 has the most aerodynamically efficient body of any car currently in production, which helps to save fuel by reducing wind resistance. It accomplished this feat through subtle details like smoothing out the roof pillars, contouring the wheel arches, and adding panels and louvers under the car to promote airflow. Even the muffler is sculpted to this end.

Electronic goodies like smartphone integration come standard to appeal to the affluent, young, tech-savvy crowd for whom this car was made.

What's not? As we know from the CLS-Class, that sexy styling requires some compromises in headroom, visibility and ease of ingress/egress.

How much and when? The starting price for the CLA250 will be right around $30,000 when it goes on sale in September. All-wheel-drive fans will have to wait until the spring of 2014 for the CLA250 4Matic.

MSN Autos' verdict: The CLA-Class is a hit, with its appealing design that blends old-world elegance and progressive styling. The specs are impressive and the price point is appealing. Unless it drives terribly, which is highly doubtful, the CLA250 looks like a winner all the way around.

2014 Mercedes-Benz E-Class

What is it? A mildly updated version of Mercedes' midsize sedan, coupe, convertible and wagon.

What's hot? Changes to the front and rear styling spice up this conservative car. Two distinct looks are now available: hood-ornamented, old-school Luxury, and sexy, in-your-face Sport. Full-LED headlights are optional for the first time. Inside, the dashboard is spiffed up with higher-quality materials and a fancy analog clock. Seats and center console have also been redesigned.

The big news in the engine compartment is a new turbocharged 4-cylinder diesel that replaces last year's 6-cylinder. It generates 190 horsepower and an impressive 369 pound-feet of torque. The diesel version is now called the E250 BlueTEC and can be had with all-wheel drive, which is a first for the E-Class diesel.

Like before, the E350 comes with a V6 and the E550 a V8. Both engines now have direct injection and stop-start functionality to save fuel. All trims get an improved 7-speed transmission. All-wheel drive is optional on the E350 Sedan, standard on the E350 Wagon, and not offered on the E550 Sedan. The E400 Hybrid continues with the same setup as before: an electric motor paired with the 302-horsepower V6 from the E350.

E-Class vehicles get extensive safety enhancements, some of which seem to be straight from a fighter jet. A new 2-camera system embedded in the windshield replaces the previous single camera and combines with radar to more accurately detect objects ahead and automatically apply the brakes if sensing a collision is imminent.

What's not? We've seen Mercedes mess up the E-Class before with newfangled gizmos that weren't quite ready for production, such as electronic brakes it brought out in the early 2000s. They proved to be nothing but trouble and were quickly shelved. Let's hope the 2014 E-Class doesn't suffer from similar technology overload, what with all the new crash-avoidance gadgetry onboard. Fortunately, some of it is optional.

How much and when? The gas-powered E350 Sedan, E350 Wagon and E550 Sedan go on sale in the spring. The E-Class coupe and convertible hit showrooms in the summer. The diesel comes out in the fall. Pricing is to be announced.

MSN Autos' verdict: The new Mercedes E-Class is sexier and, at first glance, looks to be better than the outgoing model in just about every way. The changes prove Mercedes is bent on dominating the midsize luxury category — no easy task these days. Something to watch closely will be just how well it integrates the various new automated safety systems, which now can steer the car to avoid collisions, not just stop it. Hopefully, they won't be intrusive or glitchy.

2014 E63 AMG 4Matic Sedan and Wagon

What is it? The high-performance version of the new E-Class Sedan and Wagon.

What's hot? Every flipping thing about it. The previous E63 AMG was already one of the best performance sedans in the world. Now it gets even better, with more power and hotter looks. Future AMG models will share its shapely new design cues.

The twin-turbo 5.5-liter V8 cranks out 550 horsepower and 531 pound-feet of torque — up 6 percent and 3 percent, respectively. Zero to 60 mph whizzes by in 3.6 seconds. Top speed is limited to 155 mph.

Wait until you hear about the new S-Model. Enhancements to the 5.5-liter V8 boost output to 577 horsepower and 590 pound-feet of torque. That's good for zero to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds and a top speed of 186 mph for the sedan. The wagon is a tenth of a second slower sprinting to 60 mph. Oh, and the wagon will only be available as an S-Model. How brilliantly incongruous.

To better handle all the extra power, every E63 AMG will now come with performance-oriented all-wheel drive, which sends two-thirds of the power to the rear wheels for sporty driving dynamics. The S-Model also gets a limited-slip rear differential, special wheels and unique trim.

What's not? We can't afford one, that's what. And the alphabet soup of a name is just getting ridiculous: E63 AMG 4Matic S-Model doesn't roll off the tongue quite like Quattroporte does.

How much and when? On sale this summer with pricing to be announced.

MSN Autos' verdict: This car makes us drool and puts lust in our heart. Think about it: It's a big, luxurious sedan that weighs well over two tons yet is almost twice as fast as super cars were 25 years ago. There aren't enough superlatives to describe it. Or expletives.

Matthew de Paula wanted to be an automotive journalist ever since reading his first car magazine in grade school. After a brief stint writing about finance, he helped launch and became the site's editor in 2006. Matthew now freelances for various outlets.