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November 23, 2013

Mercedes-Benz ventures afar with 2014 CLA250

The 2014 CLA250 is Mercedes-Benz’s way of saying nobody is safe.

It’s the first time the company has ventured beneath its entry-level luxury C-Class in the United States, and it’s also the first Mercedes here with front-wheel drive.

It comes in a compact package with a transaction price, well equipped, of about $36,000. That means it’s in the reach of many middle class buyers who might otherwise be shopping for a Chevrolet, Honda, Chrysler, Toyota, Ford or Volkswagen.

A luxury brand motoring into a lower price bracket has been tried before without success. The most storied flop in recent years was when Jaguar introduced its X-Type compact. It was at a time when the company was owned by Ford, and the sedan was based on the European Ford Mondeo.

Critics denounced Jaguar for cheapening its brand and the X-Type soon was bundled off to automotive exile.

That doesn’t seem likely to happen to the CLA250, partly because Mercedes simultaneously introduced a pricey high-performance model, the CLA45 AMG, which flexes 355 horsepower and 332 pounds-feet of torque, or twisting force. It starts at more than $48,000 and can easily climb to nearly $60,000.

Moreover, the CLA is a fully developed car, not a warmed-over version of something else.

In keeping with the current trend toward smaller, more powerful and economical engines, the CLA250 arrives with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Turbocharged with direct gasoline injection, it delivers 208 horsepower to the front wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission with a manual shift mode. It delivers 26/38/30 mpg on the EPA’s city/highway/combined fuel economy cycle.

That same basic motor powers the CLA45 AMG. It is the first four-cylinder to be hopped up by the AMG performance arm of Mercedes, which builds engines by hand in its own image and likeness of brute force. Because front drive likely would not be able to handle the power, the CLA45 AMG comes only with all-wheel drive. With a zero to 60 time of 4.5 seconds, it is scary fast.

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