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Mercedes-Benz tries a new drive

A front-wheel drive Mercedes-Benz. To hear some people talk, you'd think the Germans had slapped their threepointed star on a Daewoo and called it a day. Well, I say Germans: this thing's actually built in Hungary. And it ain't no Daewoo.

A front-wheel drive Mercedes-Benz. To hear some people talk, you'd think the Germans had slapped their threepointed star on a Daewoo and called it a day.

Well, I say Germans: this thing's actually built in Hungary. And it ain't no Daewoo. And front-wheel drive isn't inherently less luxurious than rear-wheel drive. And this is actually a pretty good little car.

Speaking of pretty good little cars, it seems only the American pundits are really outraged about the idea of a lower-cost, front-driver Merc, as Canadians have had access to the pudgy B-Class for years. That particular car has now been sharpened and sleekened, but for the fashion conscious, there's now something even sleeker.

This is the new baby-Benz sedan, Mercedes' gambit to gain a foothold in a younger market, and a platform-engineered attempt to stay ahead of a coming emissions crunch with an efficient turbocharged engine.

It's called the CLA250, and the whole front-wheel drive thing is just one of the ways it's not what you'd expect from a Mercedes-Benz.

Design

Think of this car as a shrink-ray version of the lean-looking CLS, and the styling cues immediately start to make sense. The idea of a "coupe-style" sedan might sound silly, but in execution, it's pretty good.

Because it's a front driver, with the engine necessarily lined up with the front axles, the CLA has a blocky, pugnacious frontend that wears an enormous Mercedes badge somewhat self-consciously. There are huge air intakes and a massive grille and, somewhat sadly, it's mostly all fake. The gawping air inlets are almost all blocked off for better aerodynamics.

Speaking of which, this is nearly the slipperiest production car in the world when it comes to cutting through the atmosphere. As the eye might be able to tell from the tapered way the little sedan flows back along its flanks to the horrible mishmash of a rear end, the CLA has been wind-tunnel tested to slip along at highway speeds with hardly any drag. The actual figure is a reported 0.23, slightly better than the much vaunted Prius.

As mentioned, the rear of the car is not quite as balanced as the rest of the shape, but neither is that of the CLS which it pays homage to. Seventeen-inch alloys are standard, and unlike many modern cars, the CLA doesn't seem to have been designed around the idea of an enormous wheel-and-tire package: both the standard wheels and the optional 18-inch alloys look perfectly fine.

Environment

While no effort has been made to integrate the central display screen into the dashboard, creating a somewhat jarring effect, it's perhaps the lone misstep in an interior that hides any cost-cutting measures very effectively. Yes, there are plastics in this cockpit that would be ruled out aboard more expensive Mercs, but the engineers have hidden them well.

The seats are firm and more bolstered than you'd expect from a non-AMG Mercedes. The aluminiumlook dashboard is snazzy. The centre-stack Command system is - well, Mercedes isn't quite as high tech as Audi or BMW in some of their infotainment controls, but the setup is at least straightforward.

There are a few ergonomic quibbles, what with the lack of touchscreen interface, and the lowmounted air conditioning controls. Those cool looking aircraft style air vents are mounted in wobbly rubber gimbals, and there is some cheaper plastic exposed between the seats.

And, as far as that coupeshaped body goes, there's also only just-acceptable headroom for rear-seat passengers. Legroom is similarly tight - this is a car for singles or young couples who only occasionally need to carry passengers. The trunk, however, is perfectly workable.

Performance

The CLA's allaluminium, direct-injected, turbocharged four cylinder engine makes 208 horsepower. In this day and age, that's really not a lot.

Consider that a Hyundai Sonata - not really a car you'd compare to a Mercedes-Benz normally - can be optioned with a similarly sized engine that makes a much healthier 274 h.p. BMW's offering puts out an underrated 240 h.p, and Cadillac's four-banger turbo makes 272 h.p. In fact, even the usually conservative Audi is making more power out of their 2.0-litre turbo - what gives, Mercedes? The answer? Fuel economy. With official ratings of 7.8 litres/100 kilometres city and 5.1 l/100 km highway, the CLA is practically an economy car - or it would be, if those figures weren't: (a) highly optimistic, and (b) requiring premium fuel.

However, torque is good at 258 foot-pounds right from a lowly 1,250 r.p.m., and the seven-speed, dualclutch gearbox makes the most of the power available. Here's where the CLA stops being a Mercedes and starts being something else.

With a relatively lightweight chassis, stiff suspension and quickshifting dual-clutch, the CLA behaves quite like another German threeletter acronym - the GTI. It's snappy on downshifts if you're using the manual paddle shifters, and there's plenty of grip.

Show the CLA a tight, curving road, and it's no wafting S-Class. It's nimble, the available torque gives way to ample power when the engine is revved up, and torque steer is relatively tamed. It's actually a bit of a hoot; if the intent was to appeal to a younger audience, this is certainly a youthful drive. The nutbar 355 h.p. AMG version must be an absolute riot.

Having said that, the CLA has quite a few youthful indiscretions as well. While the handling is sporty, the ride is really quite firm, and rough pavement can feel like a punishment. The seven-speed transmission upshifts early to conserve fuel, but it's also a tad harsh in engagement, particularly when cold.

It's no replacement for the inexpensive-butcushy C-Class. Instead, it's a Mercedes badge on a fun-to-drive little car that's acceptably efficient and relatively affordable. Those looking for Mercedes-Benz style in a more youthful package will find it here.

Features

As you'd expect from any of the major German marques, the CLA's low introductory price of $33,900 gets you the basics, but perhaps not quite the car you might actually want. Bluetooth connectivity, leather power-adjustable seats, and basic infotainment are all standard. Navigation, driver-assistance, Bi-Xenon headlights, or an upgraded audio system are all extra add-ons.

A moderately wellequipped CLA will end up costing somewhere closer to $40,000, for which you can have forward collision and lane departure warning, as well as a Harmon/Kardon stereo and a few other niceties. Navigation is an extra $2,020, and Mercedes also offers a catch-all Premium Package for $2,800 that includes heated seats, a power moonroof, and climate control.

As mentioned, fuel economy figures are quite good, particularly on the highway. The low dragcoefficient makes the CLA an economical proposition if you have a highway commute, but heavy city driving and enthusiastic flexing of that 2.0-litre turbo will hurt the pocketbook a little.

Green light

Stylish look; sprightly driving experience; good fuel economy for premium segment

Stop sign

Expensive options; rough ride and occasionally harsh transmission engagement; modest power

The checkered flag

Not just different for the front-wheel drive, an entirely new take on what a Mercedes-Benz might be.

Competitor

Audi A3 ($31,100): With BMW's 2 Series still waiting in the wings, the CLA's biggest competition comes from Audi. Also built in Hungary, the diminutive A3 sedan is very similar to the old A4 of the early 2000s; it's a right-sized car that also drives like a GTI, and offers a premium brand at an affordable price.

The Audi will offer allwheel drive without having to step up to a performance model (only the CLA AMG is all-wheel drive), and has a slicker infotainment system. However, its base model has a smaller engine, and might cost even more as the options pile up. As Canadian-spec models aren't quite here yet, it's a comparison that's coming up fast on the horizon.

mcaleeronwheels@gmail.com

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