April 22, 2013 10:15 AM | By Michael Bettencourt for MSN Autos

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA first drive

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 (© Photo: Michael Bettencourt)

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Downsized four-door coupe plays the emotion card
Marseilles, France – Could it actually be true that Mercedes-Benz’s most dramatically styled vehicle is also one of its least expensive? That’s certainly not the case now, but it arguably will be come September, when the 2014 CLA-Class goes on sale in Canada.

Fans of Mercedes-Benz’s SLKs and SLS AMG models may beg to differ, but I think the their classic long-hood sports car lines, while tasteful and modern don’t have the same visual panache as the swooping CLA. And where the sports cars have decades of history, the same can’t be true of Benz’s newest.

Granted, the CLA does use a similar formula to Mercedes-Benz’s successful CLS, the market’s first four-door “coupe,” which gives up a little rear seat room and practicality compared to the staid E-Class it’s based on, but makes up for this with a sexier body. This mimics how the CLA is closely related to a B-Class under the skin, using the same platform and engine, but loses the stodgy people-carrier body for a lower and surprisingly outlandish overall shape, especially for a Mercedes.

New CLA will be entry-level Mercedes-Benz model in the U.S.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 (© Photo: Mercedes-Benz)

The CLA’s bodywork swoops and curves all over the place, an aggressive mishmash of sharp contours delineating the hood, bodysides, and its rear haunches, the trailing sharp edge running right into the taillights. The flaring air intake nostrils are larger than the LED-accented headlights just above them, giving it an angry look, the power domed hood continuing the CLA’s visual brashness in a way foreign to any other four-door non-AMG Mercedes.

“The face is key: you either like it, or you don’t,” said Jörg Prigl, vice president of Mercedes-Benz’s compact car development. “It’s for folks who haven’t considered a Mercedes before.”

This is especially true in the U.S., which doesn’t offer the B-Class hatchback, and so the CLA will be the luxury brand’s new entry-level compact there. Perhaps this is why it was priced at US$29,900, the same price as Canada’s entry-level B-Class, and four grand lower than the CLA 250’s $33,900 starting price here.

Mercedes-Benz has long been nervous about diluting its brand image in the U.S. with a small and less expensive car, as seen with the cautious launch of the Smart brand in the States. That came years after the Smart’s Canadian debut, while there’s still a continued reluctance to make the B-Class available there. Nevertheless, Prigl said Mercedes must expand into lower-priced segments across North America.

Big question: will buyers pay for more styling brashness, but less practicality?

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 engine (© Photo: Mercedes-Benz)

Both the B-Class and the CLA are considerably attractive, the B in a less flamboyant, luxury hot hatch/shrunken-crossover sort of way. But really, how many people will pay more money for less room, especially given the new B’s more fetching lines?

The answer is that the CLA calls out more to your heart than the analytical side of the brain. Its aggressive design is the emotional hook that will get folks interested, as with most coupes – or fall flat if Canadian buyers turn up their noses and head for cheaper models. Yet its driving experience is subtly but undeniably more rewarding than in the B-Class, and upstages many of its rivals as well. Plus it will likely be even more entertaining to drive when the CLA 45 AMG version arrives a few months later in November.

The CLA AMG will come standard with 4Matic all-wheel drive, with the AWD system trickling down into the 250 model in spring. In the meantime, the drivetrain under the hood of the CLA 250 is the exact same as that powering the B 250, its turbocharged 2.0-litre four making 208 hp and a juicy 258 lb.-ft. of torque, that power headed to the front wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. The CLA clocks in a 6.7 second 0-100 km/h dash, 0.1 seconds faster than the B 250, according to Mercedes-Benz’s figures. It’s an interesting point to note given the B-Class is about five kilos lighter than the CLA.

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