It might be hard to believe, but it appears as though Mercedes-Benz has caught the rest of the automotive world napping.
This fall, the automaker will introduce a front-wheel-drive sedan to North America that almost anyone pining for a loaded-up Honda Accord, Ford Fusion or Toyota Camry can afford.
But wait, as TV infomercial hawkers are fond of saying, there's more. The 2014 CLA's sporty body cladding and other trim makes it appear far from stripped-down basic-transportation, although with a sticker price that's a few ticks above 30 grand, it's priced like one.
Other than being pulled by the front wheels (with all-wheel-drive optional), what's most unusual about the CLA is that it doesn't offer the kind of roomy practicality that's a given when it comes to nearly every mid-size sedan. That's because Mercedes stylists drew their inspiration from the larger CLS-class faux coupe, a low-slung, wind-cheating luxury ride that remains one of the most imitated models on the planet (see Aston Martin Rapide, Volkswagen CC, Audi A7 and Ford Fusion).
So, to say the CLA's aero design looks pencil-sharp is beyond doubt, but you should think twice if transporting four or more adults is on your agenda. Even though the CLA is physically larger than the previously base C-class sedan, function follows form and the form in this case is a lowered roofline that restricts rear headroom.
Fortunately, both the driver and front-seat passenger are treated to greater comfort, but the one discordant note is an infotainment/nav screen that protrudes above the fresh-air vents as if it were an afterthought. You also get plenty of tiny push-button controls to play with that will require a fair bit of practice to master.
Things get much simpler when it comes to powertrain offerings. The first-to-arrive CLA250 that heads here this September from its home base in Hungary comes with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque at an engine speed that's just above idle. This helps propel the car to 60 mph from rest in quick 6.5 seconds, as recorded by Mercedes-Benz.
To assist in the fuel-economy department, the CLA250 uses technology that shuts off the engine when the car comes to a stop, such as at a red light. Once the brake pedal is released, the CLA starts right back up.
Once the launch party has concluded, M-B will ship the CLA45 AMG to North America. This performance model also features a 2.0-liter turbo-four, only the block has been strengthened and a higher-output turbocharger produces nearly twice the boost of the CLA250's. The result is 355 horsepower and 322 pound-feet of torque. The AMG is expected to shorten the CLA's zero-60-mph times by about two seconds.
Both models use a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission with paddle shifters, but the AMG adds 4MATIC all-wheel-drive that sends up to 50 percent of the torque to the rear wheels, as needed. 4MATIC will be included on the CLA250's options list later in the model year.
Already that list is a long one, even though base CLA250 models will arrive with plenty of content, including "Attention Assist" that warns the driver should he or she start to nod off at the wheel. "Collision Prevention Assist" warns when a forward collision appears probable and will apply the brakes if the driver doesn't.
Of the various equipment groupings available, the Premium Package is expected to be one of the most popular since it adds dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, auto dimming mirrors, garage door opener and a premium Harmon-Kardon surround-sound system.
Much of this equipment and then some will be added to the CLA45 AMG, but will also be reflected in the car's list price that's expected to nudge the $50,000 mark.
For those with thinner wallets, the Mercedes-Benz CLA250 should do just fine. Its show-stealing shape is practical enough for singles, empty nesters or families with smaller children. It might even turn competing sedan marketers into copycats.
What you should know: 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class
Type: Four-door, front- /all-wheel-drive mid-size sedan
Engines (hp): 2.0-liter DOHC I4, turbocharged (208, 355 CLA45 AMG)
Transmissions: Seven-speed automatic with paddle-shift controls.
Market position: Mercedes-Benz has devised a unique approach for its entry-level sedan by borrowing the platform and drivetrain from its A- and B-Class small wagons and installing a sporty coupe-like body.
Points: CLA styling is nothing less than dramatic; Four-cylinder engine generates decent torque numbers, especially AMG version; Mercedes-Benz has shied away from manual transmissions, giving Audi and BMW exclusivity; Alluring base price could rapidly escalate unless you're careful with the options; Expect CLA-Class to sell in big numbers.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG (city/hwy) 24/34 (base 2.0, est.)
Base price (incl. destination) $30,800
Base price: $31,400
Good match for the CLS in terms of price and performance.
Base price: $34,000
Compact entry-level sedan is the CLA250's more direct competitor.
Base price: $36,800
All-new 2013 model offers gas engine or gas-electric hybrid for the same price.