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Mercedes Goes After Millennials with CLA

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA:  Mercedes-Benz has been in a slow launch mode for the new front wheel drive 2014 CLA sedan since the beginning of 2013.  The car has just gone on sale and advertising is blanketing the airwaves.  So, what’s the story?

Target – Millennials – Does it Have Enough Rear Seat Room?  The CLA is Mercedes’ price leader in the USA.  Mercedes proudly touts its $29,990 base price and admits its attempt to intercept drivers under 35 before they buy their first premium brand car from BMW or Audi.  Most CLAs will be priced in the $35,000 range when you get the $2,300 premium package (garage door opener, premium sound w/iPod interface, heated front seats, dual zone climate control) and the $2,370 multimedia package (rear view camera and navigation system).  For that mid-thirties price you get a fully featured front wheel drive 4-cylinder four door sedan and the Mercedes three-pointed star.

2014 Mercedes CLA250 F34

2014 Mercedes CLA45 R34

CLA adopts Mercedes’ new styling theme presently shared with the just introduced top of the line S-Class.  The styling of the CLA clearly is Mercedes from the front view.  The side view takes contour cues from the S-Class and greenhouse shape from the CLS sedan.  From certain angles the car appears to have a droopy butt, but overall, the CLA is pretty good looking.   By adopting the CLS sporty roof styling with the extremely fast backlite, rising beltline and narrowing rear door windows, the rear seat is marginal at best for adult sized folks.  Since this is targeted at Millennials who travel in groups this may dampen sales.  AutoPacific research has shown even younger buyers want their rear seat passengers to be as comfortable as those in the front seat.  Since they like to socialize in groups it is important that the rear seat be comfortable and spacious.  This is not the case with the CLA.

2014 Mercedes CLA250 CockpitThe interior is straightforward Mercedes with a free-standing navigation screen mounted above air conditioning vents in the center of the instrument panel.  Ergonomics are good with controls reasonably easy to see and understand.  Even though the CLA is the bottom of the Mercedes USA lineup, it does not lack for features.  Most of the high technology features found on more upscale  Mercedes products are also available on the CLA so you will not suffer from feature withdrawal in this car.

What is a Small Mercedes:? The CLA is the same size as a BMW 3-Series sedan – about 182-inches long, 70-inches wide, 57-inches high with a 106-inch wheelbase.  For reference, the Ford Focus sedan is only 4-inches shorter overall with a 2-inch shorter wheelbase.  The “large” Honda Accord is about a foot longer with a 4-inch longer wheelbase.  So, the small Merc is a pretty reasonably sized car.  It’s not a Kia Rio or Toyota Yaris.  It is comfortable for reasonably sized people in the front seats.

The cockpit is spacious for a “small car”.  It is easy to get into and out of the CLA’s front seats, but the rear seats are another matter.  The sharply slanted C-pillar cuts into the door opening space and it is easy to bump your head when getting into the rear.  The trunk is very spacious – flat and long, mostly hidden under the long sloping backlite.  The CLA feels larger than the BMW 3-Series, but BMWs usually are about half a size too small for their class.

How is it Dynamically?  Pretty Darn Good:  The CLA delivers good driving performance with its base 2.0L Turbo 4-cylinder engine teamed with a 7-speed DSG transmission.  The 208 horsepower output provides effortless cruising around town and is adequate on the open road.  If you stomp on it from a low speed you can get a bit of wheel spin and torque steer, but not objectionably so.  The wart on the CLA performance is low speed shift quality.  There is a slight shudder that is a combination of the engine stop-start feature and transmission calibration.  (Ford had a similar problem with the new Focus that has been corrected for the 2014 model year via software adjustments and a new first gear ratio – now the Focus is almost silky smooth like a real automatic transmission.

The CLA45 AMG has 355 horsepower from its 2.0L turbo 4-cylinder.  This should be a rocket ship, but its not until it gets up to speed – its great from 50 to 70mph, but lumping around town at low speeds not as much fun as it should be.  But there is a reason… the AMG defaults to ECON mode (to maximize fuel economy ratings) for engine, throttle and transmission mapping every time the car is started.  By selecting SPORT mode the car transforms itself into a truly fun to drive sport sedan.  The stumble in the DSG is practically absent in the CLA45 AMG.

CLA is a front wheel drive car in base form and has 4-Matic all wheel drive in the CLA45 AMG.  The front wheel drive car feels like a front wheel drive car.  Its ride is firm but not harsh.  Wheel travel is well-controlled the way most German cars are set up.  But the car does not feel as nimble as a rear wheel drive BMW 3-series or even the front wheel drive Audi A4.  The CLA45 AMG feels solid and purposeful with its 4-Matic system and higher output engine.  Very Mercedes-like.  Day-to-day, the CLA250 will be the easier car to live with and about 90% of the people buying or leasing a CLA will likely choose the front wheel drive 208-horsepower version.  Those wanting something really special will go with the AMG.

Will CLA Succeed?  Mercedes says that the CLA sweet spot in the USA will be about 75,000 units a year but it will take several years to achieve that level.  One reason is that the worldwide demand for CLA is higher than supply at the moment.  That shortfall may be eliminated over time.  Also, conquesting buyers who are naturally attracted to BMW and Audi and maybe future Cadillacs and Infinitis and even Lexus IS, will take time.  CLA cannot be top of mind immediately.  There is too much good stuff competing with it.  But having sales in the 36,000 to 42,000 units per year would not be unexpected in year one and two.

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