Mercedes-Benz introduces the 2014 CLA at the North American International...

Mercedes-Benz introduces the 2014 CLA at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. (Jan. 13, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

Last year Mercedes-Benz beat BMW as the top-selling U.S. luxury brand. The company’s not-so-secret weapon? The brand-new CLA, a $30,000-plus, entry-level sedan that’s being called the Baby Benz.

I put both models, the CLA250 and the CLA45 AMG, through their paces over pitted roads in Michigan and smooth asphalt in California. All those miles put a sharp focus on the reasons why the CLA is such a formidable weapon in the luxury wars among Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s BMW, Volkswagen AG’s Audi and Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus. It’s the most approachable and charming Mercedes I’ve tested in recent memory.

Mercedes, a Daimler AG brand, says that 75 percent of CLA buyers are new to the brand, and you too might be attracted by the price. Here are 10 points to consider.

Price. The Mercedes website shows an enticing manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $29,900. Consider that a new, lightly optioned Chevrolet Impala starts at $30,085, and the CLA250 looks like a striking deal. (General Motors Co.’s latest Impala is a very nice car, by the way.)

Go on the site and build your own CLA, however, and you’ll see most Mercedes niceties are not included on the base. There’s the inescapable $925 destination charge. Metallic paints run $720. If you want leather, you’ll have to select the $1,500 interior package. The CLA I drove in Michigan came to $43,000.

That sexy nose. If you’ve opted for a Mercedes, chances are you’d like your neighbors or boss to actually notice. The front is a fabulous design, with an oversized Mercedes star nestled in a pebbly, techno-looking grille. Even the front of the SLS supercar doesn’t look this good.

The dynamic, youthful shape. Unlike the other cars that Mercedes sells in the U.S., the CLA is front-wheel drive. (Or, in the case of the CLA45, all-wheel drive with a tendency to send more bias to the front wheels.)

But you won’t mistake it for Honda Motor Co.’s Civic. The long, sloping roof and tapered trunk help disguise the front-wheel-drive architecture while giving the silhouette drama. The very real downside is compromised headroom in the rear. I’m 6 feet tall, and was cranky after 10 minutes stuck in the back.

It still looks and feels like a Mercedes. The rear doors thunk when you close them. The paint is well done and there are no unsightly gaps between body panels.

It’s a younger person’s car, and it drives like one. Unlike cushioned gliders such as the executive-aimed S-Class, you still get a good sense of the road underneath you, with a taut but not punishing suspension. The 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine isn’t exactly power-mad, with 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. But since the car only weighs some 3,200 pounds (1,450 kilograms), it scoots around town with a full head of steam. At speeds of more than 100 miles per hour, it is solid and planted.

It’s sporty, but won’t let you get in over your head. Many buyers may not be ready for, or want, the tail-happy antics of a hard-core sports car. Push the CLA250 too hard in tight corners and the car will gently push wide, a condition easily rectified by coming off the gas. Safety technology such as Collision Prevention Assist, which alerts the driver in a likely collision, is standard.

It makes an easier entry to AMG, Mercedes’s sports-tuning division. If you are looking for a more hard-core sports car, the CLA45 is by far the cheapest entry point to AMG. Pricing starts at $47,450 and the more aggressively tuned four-cylinder makes 355 horsepower. The car will reach 60 mph in 4.4 seconds.

I took the CLA45 on a closed racetrack outside of Los Angeles and hurled it through bends so hard that the tires screamed. While it doesn’t handle as well as a rear-wheel-drive sports car, I could still slide the CLA45 as I positioned it into turns.

The engine is a delight, delivering power promptly. And even with 332 pound-feet of torque, it had no torque steer -- that feeling of the front wheels wrenching sideways when you step hard on the gas from a standstill.

Buyer beware: The suspension is much more tightly strung, and you feel the chop on broken pavement.

The interior is modern and uncluttered. Mercedes kept it relatively simple, with analog gauges and a clean dashboard. (You can opt for wood, but it looks best in aluminum.) The AMG’s dash is coated in leather with red stitching.

There is plastic throughout, and some will think that the navigation screen, which floats in space to the driver’s right, just looks stuck on.

Efficiency. Once upon a time the idea that you could get 355 horsepower out of a 2-liter four-cylinder was madness. The CLA45 manages that and still gets 31 miles per gallon highway. The CLA250 has even better mileage, with 26 mpg around town and a fantastic 38 mpg on the open road.

It allows the C-Class to grow. The C250 used to be the cheapest Mercedes sedan on sale in the U.S., but the CLA’s release allows it to become more mature. The new generation debuted this week at the Detroit auto show with advanced technologies and a more sophisticated exterior.

Ultimately, that means luxury buyers have more options, and that’s good for everyone.

The 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 and CLA45 at a Glance

Engines: Turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder with 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque; 355 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Seven-speed automatic.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds; 4.4 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 26 city, 38 highway; 23, 31.

Price as tested: $43,245; $57,165.

Best features: Great design, entertaining drives.

Worst features: Cramped rear; pricey option packages.

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