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.
The CLA250, however, is no slouch. It has quick throttle response off the line, with minimal turbo lag. If you disable the standard Eco stop-start system, zero to 60 miles an hour comes up in 6.9 seconds, according to Mercedes's specifications. That's not outstanding but is satisfactory.
More than that, it feels like a Mercedes, solidly planted with a heft to the electric steering and decent feedback. Handling is nearly neutral to the point where some drivers might not guess that it has front drive. The ride is sports sedan stiff instead of luxury car soft, the result of a suspension system biased toward accurate handling.
Inside, the CLA250 has a luxury car ambiance, with fine materials and workmanship. An outstanding design feature is the five vents for climate air flow. They are circular with infinite adjustments instead of the limited horizontal and vertical vanes on many cars. The vents are coated with a galvanized finish set in a piano black lacquer trim.
A panoramic motorized sunroof made of glass and polycarbonate is available as a stand-alone option. Unfortunately, following a current cliche among luxury cars, the sun shade is made of a cheesecloth-like fabric that admits sunlight. Sun shades should be opaque.
However, unlike many European luxury cars, including some from Mercedes itself, the CLA250's sun visors actually slide on their support rods to block sun from the sides.
The test car's $35,995 price tag gets the customer the entire suite of Mercedes's safety features: rear view camera, and adaptive brake, collision prevention and attention assist. Also included: the Mercedes COMAND communications system with navigation and voice control, high resolution seven-inch LCD screen with 3-D map views, Sirius XM satellite radio, dual zone climate control, 18-inch alloy wheels with performance tires, heated front seats, auto-dimming mirrors, rain sensing windshield wipers and a garage door opener.
However, the seats are covered in MB-Tex, a man-made leatherette. Though high quality and nearly indistinguishable from leather, a $1,500 option, it doesn't breathe well and is sticky in hot weather.
The front seats are generously sized, with good support. In back, despite the sharply sloping roofline that prompts Mercedes to refer to the CLA 250 as a four-door coupe, there's surprising room for two. Even the center passenger can survive, though there's no place to plant one's feet because of a large floor hump. The trunk is shallow but roomy.
Model: 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 four-door sedan.
Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged with direct fuel injection, 208 horsepower.
Transmission: Seven-speed dual clutch automatic with manual shift mode and front-wheel drive.
Overall length: 15 feet 2 inches.
EPA passenger/trunk volume: 88/13 cubic feet.
Weight: 3,264 pounds.
EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 26/38/30 mpg.
Base price, including destination charge: $30,915.
Price as tested: $35,995.