2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA - A Game Changer

Gary Anderson
Greg Jarem
With the introduction of the 2014 CLA, a completely new model in all respects, Mercedes-Benz is finally offering a mid-priced sports coupe (albeit with four doors) with the traditional quality, safety, and styling for which the marque is known.

Let’s get this party started.
The all-new 2014 CLA is designed to bring Mercedes-Benz quality and performance to an entirely new audience.

Article – Gary Anderson  Photography Greg Jarem and Gary Anderson
 

With the introduction of the 2014 CLA, a completely new model in all respects, Mercedes-Benz is finally offering a mid-priced sports coupe (albeit with four doors) with the traditional quality, safety, and styling for which the marque is known. The fact that the $29,900 base price is $5,400 less than the base price of the C-Class, previously the entry-level model in the Mercedes lineup, is beside the point. Having just driven the car for a few days, we are certain this is not an economy car, except in fuel consumption.

This stylish new offering, the first for the U.S. market built on the New-Generation Compact Car (NGCC) chassis, is first and foremost intended to attract the attention of young professionals who may never have considered a Mercedes-Benz in the past. For these new customers, the attractive styling, exceptional performance, and excellent build quality have already created a backorder situation in the few weeks that the new model has been available at dealers.

Even more exciting, though sharing the same basic chassis and styling, the CLA is actually two different cars for two different segments of the younger-market niche. There is the CLA250, with its 208-horsepower engine and credible performance at the advertised base price, to be joined by a 4Matic variant next spring.

And there is also the CLA45 AMG, which at first glance is difficult to distinguish from its little brother. However, underneath its skin is an engine that produces 355 horsepower – the most powerful 4-cylinder production engine on the market – with a different transmission and suspension designed specifically for high-performance use. With the economies of scale in shared development and production, and at $47,450 MSRP, the CLA45 4Matic is the least expensive automobile in the high-performance AMG lineup.

And even more models on this chassis are coming behind these two game changers. One reason that these cars aren’t more expensive is because they were designed as part of a full lineup of new models to be built on the same chassis, with the same basic engine design, which will be sold worldwide with few regional differences and produced at a brand-new plant in Hungary built specifically for the model using the latest Mercedes Production System methods. Great design plus economies of scale equal fantastic value for the money.

2014 CLA250

When first seeing this new model, we were immediately struck with how Mercedes-Benz has translated its major styling cues – the faceted panels around the tri-star grille and the three sweeping feature lines on the sides – from the other new models of the company’s lineup into this new chassis design. Second, we were fascinated by how neatly the roofline of the CLS coupe has been interpreted in this new car. And third, we were impressed by the car’s very presence – there is nothing about it that suggests economy. Overall, this is a very attractive vehicle, with its own personality, but clearly displaying its familial ties.

Sliding into the driver’s seat, there was nothing that changed our initial impression. In fact, the contours of the standard seats, with their solid bolsters and integrated headrests – counterpointed by the five circular vents on the dashboard and the multifunction steering wheel – have more in common with the SLS and SL sports models than with current Mercedes-Benz sedans.

Don’t expect all the bling and sizzle of an S-Class or even E-Class interior on this car (no analog clock, for example), but it certainly matches or improves on anything else in this price range. Most of the press-drive cars seemed to be equipped with a textured aluminum trim on the dash, reminding me of older AMGs, but there is also a brushed metal finish available, and two upgrade options of wood finish for those who equate traditional materials with luxury. Similarly, upholstery is available in three colors of MB-Tex and three colors of leather.

The 5.8-inch free-standing display screen on the center of the dash catches the eye, conveying a sense of connectedness to the digital world, a design feature that should appeal to the millennial generation. With the cloud-based mbrace2 system linking seamlessly to the user’s smartphone both inside and outside the car, the impression of connectivity is completely justified. For owners who elect the Multimedia option package ($2,370), a 7-inch display is included, as well as COMAND with navigation, rearview camera, 10gb music storage, and SiriusXM traffic and weather.

Driving the car was an equal treat. Given that the CLA is the same size as the current C-Class, it isn’t surprising that it doesn’t feel small, though it is easy to maneuver in small spaces. Nevertheless, with the Mercedes sports suspension as standard, plus the new flexible decoupled rear axle subframe, the car displays smooth and competent handling with a sporty feeling to it. But like other sporty cars, it’s a little stiff over bad pavement.

The satisfying feeling of responsive handling is also due in part to the electromechanical power steering system that was first introduced in the E-Class. The system, which is on only when needed so it doesn’t drain power, provides variable assistance depending on speed, so that the steering wheel always feels solid. It also offers some neat new tricks where the system can counteract oversteer, and cope with varying grip under the steering wheel, torque steer and crosswinds just like a skilled racing driver would do, only more quickly and more accurately.

There certainly isn’t any clue at the steering wheel that this is a front-wheel drive car. In fact, the steering response didn’t feel any different than my C-Class. But for those who would like greater reliability in challenging rain or snow conditions, a 4Matic version of the CLA250 arrives on the market next spring. Given the backorders that are already increasing, I’d put in my order now for 2014 delivery of a 4Matic. Responsiveness under the accelerator is definitely satisfying. The high level of torque that’s available at any speed above idle means that the car can get on the highway easily and safely, and then accelerate rapidly to move in and out of traffic at freeway speeds.

The 7-speed dual-clutch transmission is also a first for Mercedes (unless you want to count the dual-clutch transaxle on the SLS), with the advantage of direct positive gear engagement similar to a manual, but with a smooth, rapid gear change that improves on a typical automatic. Even with this amount of oomph, the window sticker is still promising combined fuel efficiency of 30 mpg or better.

When we opened the small trunk lid, we were surprised to find a good amount of trunk space. We were able to easily load two regular suitcases and two large camera bags for our trip to the airport; the rear seats will fold down for even longer objects.

What there isn’t is a lot of rear seat space. But the window label and spec sheet, after all, say “coupe.” So think of this as a typical coupe, where the back seats are useful for small children in car seats, or for adults when trips are less than 30 minutes or so. But at least three successive yoga positions aren’t necessary to get in through the front door and over the front seats before settling into the rear as in a normal coupe. With the rear doors, all that’s necessary is a brief head tuck under the low-cut rear roofline.

After our day of driving the car all over western Virginia’s horse country, we’re pleased to say that this is a real Mercedes – just in the slightly smaller package with the slightly sportier performance that the young (and the young at heart, according to MBUSA) seem to crave.
 

CLA45 AMG 4Matic

What’s not to like about allowing the AMG folks access to the body-in-white plans for the CLA early in the design cycle so that they can work their magic on the suspension and drive train, and then invent a new engine within the constraints of the dimensions of the 1.9-liter 4-cylinder engine being developed for the CLA250? Absolutely nothing – at least far as we could tell after a day driving the new CLA45 AMG 4Matic (to identify its full official name provided in the briefing notes). Clearly we will need at least another month with the car, including time on a few different road circuits, so that we can be absolutely sure.

To learn as much as possible in our one day, The Star spent an hour with Will Vetter, AMG’s product communications specialist. Here are the basics: AMG started with only a few constraints when designing this all-new engine. It had to be the same capacity as the standard engine developed for the new A-Class, which would be used across the entire NGCC line, it had to line up with that powertrain’s dual-clutch transmission, and it had to mount to the same mounts on the chassis. All of that was necessary so that the CLA45 wouldn’t have to be crash tested as a separate model, and so that it could be assembled on the same line with the CLA250 and other cars in the NGCC lineup. Those aspects were critical to the business plan designed to keep costs as low as possible for this new model.

Beyond that, AMG was on its own. Obviously, the block would be re-engineered to accept a stronger crankshaft, high-performance pistons and connecting rods – all critical to sustaining higher rpm. The head, turbocharger, headers, and exhaust could also be re-engineered – simple stuff for any good engine tuner. With AMG benefitting from potentially higher demand than aftermarket tuners, this car could enter the market with a fully equipped price that wouldn’t exceed $60,000.

Vetter described the turbocharger as twin-scroll technology designed to provide boost pressure that is maintained at a constant 26.1 psi – the highest boost pressure of any production automobile engine – that is blown off when not needed, so there’s no turbo lag. But with high boost comes high intake air temps. No problem: AMG simply adapted the water-to-air intercooler technology from the $200,000 SLS. There’s a definite reason for all those operational front vents that handle the needed heat exchange.

On the other end of the combustion equation, the tuner book says to optimize exhaust flow. Headers specifically matched to the engine, plus exhaust pipes that are larger in cross-section, are the obvious answer. For tractability (and a polite tone in urban settings), the car has a butterfly valve in the exhaust system that opens only for acceleration (or exhilaration, perhaps). The ancillary benefit, of course, is a marvelous exhaust note – or so we are promised – when cracking off those sub-five-second times that the spec sheet estimates.

As for the block, internal coatings minimize friction, another tuner trick, but AMG went one better by applying another proprietary SLS technology, called Nanoslide, to coat the cylinder walls. With all this going on inside the engine, even modern machining isn’t sufficient to provide the smooth surfaces required anywhere two metals are rubbing against one another, so the new engine has to be run in, just like any racing engine, in order to micromachine the metal surfaces. Owners will have to drive the car for at least 1,000 miles at varying engine speeds below critical levels so that the engine can perform at its maximum capability.

One change will be made from normal AMG procedures: This engine will be built in a new production facility within the same engine plant as the standard CLA engine, though following the same AMG approach of “one person, one engine,” with the builder’s signature on a plate on top of the engine enclosure as now used at the AMG plant in Affalterbach.

The results: A mind-blowing 355 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and neck-snapping 332 pound feet of torque, more than produced in any other 4-cylinder engine on the market. But one still has to get that power to the wheels, so in addition to optimizing the gear ratios in the 7-speed transmission, with its dual-clutch speedshift design, the CLA45 is only available with 4Matic drive that uses a multi-plate clutch in the differential to channel power to the rear wheels as necessary.

Of course, when you apply all that power through the powertrain, it has to be accompanied by good suspension and good brakes, or what’s the point? That wasn’t a problem either because AMG began designing its suspension as soon as basic body and weight dimensions were established. Front and rear axles and suspension were designed specifically for high performance, and the brakes are exceptional.

We can’t wait to take this car out on a track, and expect that a lot of soon-to-be-former owners of WRXs and other high-performance sedans will be standing in line to do exactly the same. Make mine a Northern Lights Violet with black multispoke wheels, please.
 
Captions: The CLA250 is clearly inspired by the sleek lines of the top-of-the-line CLS four-door sports coupe, redesigned and introduced last year. Sharing the faceted panel design, LED lights, vent opening, and single-bar star logo in the grille with the E- and S-Class, it is unmistakably a Mercedes-Benz, but with a distinctive grille mesh design carried over from the Concept Coupe. This page: At first glance, the CLA45 AMG 4Matic is almost indistinguishable from its less powerful sibling. The only clues to the high-performance powertrain and suspension under the skin are the two-bar grille with mesh inserts, slight detail differences in the functional front fender vents, and the rocker panel trim. Below: The tony Georgetown enclave at the edge of the District of Columbia is the habitat of the target consumer for this car – the accomplished young professional who appreciates the finer things in life, but wants them to have a sporty edge.
 
Captions: Though a pasture isn’t the natural habitat for this automobile, it does show off the best angle of the car, with the primary feature line from headlamp to rear wheel well balanced by the secondary lines from corner of grille and front wheel back to the rear tail light and top of rear wheel well. The complexity of the front panels and openings is shared with all vehicles in the new lineup. In the panels, details of the intricate grille on the CLA250, the clean, well-thought-out interior, free-standing 7-inch display with new nav graphics over the vents that are the same as on the SLS, optional AMG-style wheels, and simple gear selector. The new transverse-mounted inline 4-cylinder engine, at 208 horsepower, is more powerful in the class. From the rear, the resemblance to the CLS is unmistakable. We definitely had a great time touring around the D.C. and Virginia area. 

Captions: This was the dessert we were served after our winery luncheon at the press launch. Just pick a color, sign the sheet and go. Opposite page top to bottom: External distinguishing features are minimal – just the two-bar grille logo backed by plain black mesh and “Turbo AMG” on the rear deck above quad tailpipes. The engine plumbing is impressive with the intercooler piping, and of course, each engine sports a plate above the tri-star, personally signed by its builder. Inside, the optional performance sports seats are just the thing for track days, with the distinctive AMG gear selector and speedometer, and big red brakes.
 

SPECIFICATIONS

 
2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250
TYPE: Four-door five-passenger coupe   CHASSIS: Steel unibody
ENGINE: Aluminum 1.991cc inline 4-cylinder turbocharged with ECO stop/start
TRANSMISSION: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
HORSEPOWER: 208 at 5,500 rpm  TORQUE: 258 lb-ft at 1,250-4,000 rpm
PERFORMANCE 0-60: 6.9 sec   TOP SPEED: 149 mph   FUEL ECONOMY: 26/38/30
 
2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG 4MATIC
TYPE: Four-door five-passenger coupe CHASSIS: Steel unibody
ENGINE: Aluminum 1,991cc inline 4-cylinder turbocharged with ECO Stop/Start
TRANSMISSION: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
HORSEPOWER: 355 at 6,000 rpm   TORQUE: 332 lb-ft at 2,250-5,000 rpm
PERFORMANCE 0-60: 4.4 sec (est)  TOP SPEED: 155 mph  FUEL ECONOMY: TBA

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