When we found out the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA ($29,900 Base) wouldn’t be available stateside till September, we were willing to do anything to get our hands on it early; we even pondered selling our souls to the devil. Fortunately, we didn’t have to go quite that far. All we had to do was fly to the South of France for a day and half of driving. Yes, we spent 26 hours in the air to get 13 hours behind the wheel of this sub-$30,000 German ride — and nous avons aimé every minute of it.
From Marseille to Saint Tropez and back, everywhere we traveled, people asked “Quelle voiture est-ce?” (What car is that?) Simply put, the CLA is a brand new car; it’s a younger sibling to the CLS — the pioneering four-door coupe that began the trend of modern sportbacks. The more complicated answer involves market placement, global conquest and pre-existing A-Class (Klasse) platforms, blah, blah, blah. On to what matters: price and performance.
At $29,900, its looks belie the price tag. Spotting the diamond grill, dinner-plate-sized star emblem, large openings under the LEDs and those aggressive power domes (raised lines) on the hood approaching in the rearview mirror is intimidating. And just try not to stare as the swept roofline, low profile rear end, sport package vents and outline taillights pass you. This car is beautiful. Unlike a casting call for the CW, however, looks will only take you so far in the auto world. We were handed the keys to a Jupiter Red 250 with optional sport package and had a go on the tight roads of quaint villages, through the hilly countryside and even found room to set the Distronic Plus (adaptive cruise control) on the freeway. Possibly because we were in another country, possibly because of jet lag and possibly because we love to drive hard, we absolutely wrung this car out — and we were shocked how well it performed.
72 Hours from LA to St. Tropez: The Stats
Hours in flight: 26
Hours behind the wheel: 13
Espresso shots: 10
Hours in airport lounges: 9
Pain au chocolats: 4
Bottles of Bordeaux (not while driving): 2
Wheels of cheese: 1
Normally, a 2.0 4-cylinder turbo with 208 horsepower is the perfect car for a manual transmission — providing the ability to wind out all the gears and eek out engine performance — so it was a little disappointing to learn that in America the CLA will only be sold as an automatic (boo) with a seven-speed dual clutch transmission (DCT) that borrows software from the SLS AMG (yeah). Even so, we were pleased when we switched it into sport mode and the car seemed to hunker down and tighten up. Raising the shift threshold to redline gave a decent note from the engine and kept the car on its toes and ready for more input. Flying into turns, the car’s brakes grabbed hard, and cornering was wonderfully flat.
You’ll find paddle shifters on the steering wheel, but for us they were a distraction as the DCT led the charge from town to town. Along the way, we’re sure the mountains and 200-year-old vineyard barns were fantastic; unfortunately, we were too afraid to take our eyes off the sidewalks the French call roads for fear anything wider than a Mini would cause us to test the seven airbags or standard Collision Prevention Assist (which uses radar to sense an impending fender-bending, insurance-premium-spiking crash and readies the brakes).
So there you go. It’s a dream come true — mostly. Yes, it’s under $30,000, with some great standard features, like start-stop engine for better MPGs, leather and a sport suspension, but checking the boxes we wanted (Drive Kit Plus for Siri integration and blacked-out “Night Package”) left us closer to $40,000. As for the interior, with its short rear headroom, plastic console, manual adjusting seats and what feels like a lower grade of leather: it won’t leave you thinking they robbed an S-Class. Overall the 2014 CLA 250 has positively stellar looks and solid performance, but it’s truly exciting because it’s affordable… though the AMG might make pushing your boss for a promotion worth it.