Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Test Drive: 2014 Mercedes Benz CLA250

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to spend a weekend with the Mercedes Benz CLS55. This black bomber was a fist in a velvet glove. The sleek exterior combined with a comfortable interior, all on top of a chassis that delivered responsive handling and a motor with locomotive like pull. It was one of those amazingly fun experiences that you never want to come to an end. When the new CLA-class first made its appearance, I was hopeful that in copying the swoopy shape of the CLS, Mercedes had also deigned to deliver unto us a truly fun driving experience at a more affordable price point. There was some hope with the seemingly endless stream of accolades that Mercedes had garnered from the automotive press for the CLA45 that this new 4-door coupe would finally be more than just a well-groomed, but utterly soulless creature. Sadly, it appears that the AMG magic does not trickle down to the more pedestrian brethren.

Let me start by giving the CLA the praise that it deserves. It is a stunning looking car, especially in the more aggressive sport variant. The sleek profile, upright grille, and tapered roof line make this car look great from just about every angle. Add a set of big wheels and fat tires and this car will absolutely command attention anywhere it goes. Of course, as good as it looks, it is not perfect, as there are still a few exterior things that look more than a touch out of place. For instance the panoramic sunroof whose glass panel stops about three quarters of the way instead of running the whole length of the roof like those of other manufacturers. Then, there are the stock wheels, which do this shapely figure no favors.

But the good looks are where the positives end for this car. For starters, the interior is more than a bit of a letdown, primarily in terms of material quality. Matte silver plastics abound inside and the goofy pseudo-aftermarket looking display just looks out of place. Many of the plastics feel below grade for the class and those surfaces not covered in plastics were covered in something that was trying very hard, though not entirely successfully, for leather. The exception is the steering wheel, which feels good in hand and has just the right thickness to the rim. Another bright spot, regardless of however small, is the fact that despite the coupe-like profile, there is surprisingly adequate legroom in the rear seats. Headroom is obviously limited and the entry and egress to the rear seats now not only encourages the flexibility of a contortionist, it just about requires it for any normal sized adult.

There are a number of other interior issues that I dislike. The decision to use a column shifter, for instance, just feels anachronistic in what is an otherwise very modern cabin. Mercedes continues to insist on using their homegrown infotainment system, COMAND, which is honestly one of the least intuitive systems on the market. Mercedes would do wonders to partner with a proper UI designer to create a system that is easier to use, has a more modern look, and just generally feels less clumsy. It also would not kill them to cover up the cup holders in some way to make the interior look a bit classier. On whole, the effort is not bad and is certainly well-suited to the target demographic, but needs a touch of class to feel like a genuine product from the three-pointed star. At least the doors shut with the same vault-like thud that is a hallmark of the brand.

Speaking of vaults, the body structure certainly feels as solid as one. This translates into excellent body rigidity, which is noticeable in the ride and handling. There is a solidity to the ride, almost as though it is flattening any road imperfections rather than riding over them. The suspension is set up in much the same manner, absorbing and cushioning away the bumps extraordinarily well, especially for such a small car with a relatively short wheelbase. Of course, all this solidity and gentle ride spells trouble for the handling. Considering that this is a FWD car, a form that is less common for the Mercedes brand, the overall balance is extremely conservative, which is to say that this car understeers rather severely in tight corners and even offers up a bit of push in broad, sweeping corners. That makes it hard to put much power down on corner exit and compromises any semblance of sporting character that might have been possible.

The engine certainly does not help things either. This is the same basic motor as the in the C250, which we tested about a year ago, that makes modest power, but offers absolutely not sense of urgency in how it goes about it. I have not been terribly impressed with this motor, which provides decent torque in the lower rev range, but seems to run out of steam quickly and seems to be totally out of breath by the time it reaches the upper end of the rev band. Combine this with rather soft throttle response and a transmission that seems to allow shifts to languish, even in the sportiest setting, and it is a recipe for sucking any last possible bit of fun out of the car all together.

And sadly, this pretty much sums up the CLA250. It offers up so much potential in its eye-catching looks, but fails to back that style up with any substance. It is a pretty face with an empty head behind it. There is so much that Mercedes could have done to make this a great car, especially since they are targeting a younger audience, who are driving less and less, and thus really want more from their cars to make the most of the limited time behind the wheel. Mercedes seems to think that we younger buyers are a bit vapid, favoring style over substance. However, the sales numbers seem to paint a different picture, with anecdotal evidence pointing to most early buyers of the CLA being traditional Mercedes buyers looking for a lower entry price or down-sizing from larger cars as they enter retirement.

If Merc really wants the CLA250 to succeed, they should study cars like the Audi A3, which seems to be able to balance that lower cost of entry with a driving experience that is more connected and authentic, as opposed to the rather artificial experience it is able to offer now. My hope is that the upcoming CLA45, with its AMG tuned motor and chassis, will continue to live up to the high bar set by previous AMG cars I have had the chance to experience. If not, this could spell trouble for the Mercedes bid to try to appeal to younger buyers, who realize that they now have a lot more options and can opt to be more discerning than ever with the money that they make.