THE PRICE IS RIGHT: The Mercedes CLA is a brand-new Benz sedan that costs as much as a loaded Camry or top-of-the-line Fusion.
THE PRICE IS RIGHT: The Mercedes CLA is a brand-new Benz sedan that costs as much as a loaded Camry or top-of-the-line Fusion.
PHOTO: MERCEDES-BENZ

WASHINGTON, DC, and BALTIMORE — Who says the bubble’s burst? When it comes to luxury cars, the “one percent” are still spending. For those who want to live like the “one percent,” meet your new car.

The Mercedes CLA is a brand-new Benz sedan that costs as much as a loaded Camry or top-of-the-line Fusion. Never mind the uninhabitable back seat or the fact that heated seats, navigation, and a USB port are all extras. The $31,000 CLA, with its endless curves and a grille emblem visible to outer space, should satisfy my generation’s craving for cheap class on wheels. With this car, Mercedes has shelved its Old World reputation and gone for something young at heart. And because the CLA just came out, it has yet to become a yuppie trophy car like the signature BMW 3-Series. Ding ding ding – Mercedes has won the match.

On its last attempt with an entry-level Benz, Mercedes got knocked out. The C230 Sports Coupe—in actuality, a frumpy hatchback—seemed like a bright idea in 2002. But what works in Europe doesn’t always work here, and the C230’s patterned cloth upholstery, manual seats, and unsatisfying powertrain felt more like a warmed-over German taxi cab than a Mercedes.

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The CLA doesn’t get that treatment, although a few details reveal the cost-cutting mission. Parts of the interior that get the soft, rubberized treatment in more expensive Benz models are hard plastic. The infotainment display, tacked onto the dash, looks like an aftermarket piece and doesn’t feature the redesigned touchscreen interface we’ll see on the 2015 C-Class next year. The car is also front-wheel-drive, which had never been seen here on a Mercedes.

Not that you’d ever know. In the $35,000 CLA250 I piloted out of the capital’s swanky Georgetown district, I’d have been completelyfooled into believing it was a rear-wheel-drive C250. The car’s balance and handling is remarkable, and a stab of the throttle mid-turn brings smooth surges of power with surprising grip, not the normal reaction you’d expect in a front-wheel-drive car with 208 horsepower. Mercedes did its homework here, and installed equal-length half shafts, recalibrated its stability control system, and introduced a feature called Steer Control that gently moves the wheel into the best cornering path. That last part is only possible through electric power steering, which more and more automakers are using to save fuel. Often times, these systems remove a driver’s feel for the road versus hydraulic power steering, but not in the CLA. Here, it’s quick, responsive, and lively—and way better than the new 3-Series.

There’s nothing lacking for the engine, either. The 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is also brand new, and while it makes just seven more horsepower than the 1.8-liter turbo in the C250, this engine really kicks at low revs, which is exactly what drivers in cities and suburbs will appreciate most. A healthy 258 lb.-ft. of torque is on tap at just 1,250 rpm, and combined with the snappy gearing of the 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, the CLA250 scoots without much turbo lag or unpleasant noise. The EPA estimates the CLA250 at 26 mpg city and 38 mpg highway, and that’s not all due to the trick engine and start/stop system that shuts it off in traffic. The CLA’s curvaceous “four-door coupe” body, a downsized copy of the $73,000 CLS, makes it the most aerodynamic production car on sale—slipperier than a Toyota Prius. It also weighs some 166 pounds less than the C250.

Unfortunately, that swoopy shape doesn’t make it impervious to radar. Virginia’s finest surprised me with a ticket—coming down a hill, immediately past an unnoticeable speed limit drop—that I could only attribute to the CLA’s quiet, air-tight cabin. Or, to the three-pointed star that doubles as a giant, chrome bullseye. Add that (and premium fuel) to your running costs.

I’m lucky I didn’t get stopped in the car I took home to Baltimore, a CLA45 AMG. At $56,495 as tested, this little hot rod is well above the price limits of most Millennials. As with all AMG models, a bonkers engine comes standard, although there’s no grumbling V8 like on the C63 AMG. Instead, that same 2.0-liter is reinforced to take 26 psi of turbo boost, making it the most powerful four-cylinder in production. There’s 355 horsepower and 332 lb.-ft. of torque at just 2,250 rpm, sent through all four wheels and a faster-shifting version of the 7-speed automatic.

Beyond the expected speed and the muscular body kit, the CLA45 gets weird, particularly with its engine note. My car had the optional sport exhaust, which pops off backfires and gives out brassy high notes that are part motorcycle, part 1990s Japanese import. Starting it up in my garage, I wasn’t sure an AMG Mercedes should sound like my neighbor’s lowered Civic, and on the road, the bumbling exhaust note wasn’t much more convincing. But I downshifted with the metal paddles every chance I got, because although it’s weird to hear a Mercedes make a “Fast and the Furious” soundtrack, it’s addictive—and the rev-matching engine blips, even down to first gear, are a thing to behold. Needless to say, I only averaged 20 mpg driving like this, but compared to other AMG models, that’s a dream number.

With my car’s leatherette-and-cloth bucket seats (leather is optional), thick Alcantara steering wheel (optional) and red seatbelts (standard—yay!), I was practically goaded into whipping around turns and traffic circles. All that grip trades any semblance of ride quality, all the worse considering I had the smaller 18-inch wheels without the harder AMG performance suspension. I’ve driven Porsches on 20-inchers that weren’t this rough and tumble.

Mercedes can get away with this, if only because its chassis is equally as stiff. The CLA may be the “cheap” Mercedes, but it feels just as tank-solid, from the way the pillarless doors close to the feeling of the switchgear, as the larger E-Class. And while my dog was the only passenger to stomach the rear seat, the four-door CLA is certainly more convenient and just as cool as driving a two-door coupe. While exiting my garage, a young guy in a 3-Series coupe stopped his car, locked in full stare at the white Benz burbling past. So long as the unemployment rate keeps falling, Mercedes has clearly done right.