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Mercedes-Benz CLA: stepping up with a step down

The 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 suggests that Mercedes-Benz is taking a page from other car dealers and offering premium cars at sub-premium prices. Illustrates WHEELS-MERCEDES (category l), by Warren Brown, special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, Oct. 4, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Mercedes)

The 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 suggests that Mercedes-Benz is taking a page from other car dealers and offering premium cars at sub-premium prices. Illustrates WHEELS-MERCEDES (category l), by Warren Brown, special to The Washington Post. Moved Friday, Oct. 4, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Mercedes)

The 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 is an exceptional car for everyman, which speaks more to profits than it does to democracy.

Relatively few people can afford automobiles costing in excess of $40,000, the price tag often attached to Mercedes-Benz’s previous entry portal of C-Class cars.

More buyers can be had at $40,000 or less. The sweet spot for automotive sales is in the heart of the middle class, with base prices ranging from about $30,000 to $40,000. The CLA 250, with a base price of $29,900, is aimed at that audience.

South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co. figured all this out long ago. It also realized that middle-class buyers have pride, what many folks in Asian cultures call “face.” Hyundai is enormously successful because it honors “face” by offering upper-class cars at middle- and working-class prices.

An aside: In the United States, Mercedes-Benz has long presented itself as an exclusive luxury marque. But in Europe, South America, Africa and many parts of Asia, the German car company wears a more common face – a maker of cabs, compact family vehicles, commercial trucks and public transportation. Reasonably priced, well-engineered Mercedes-Benz vehicles are not uncommon in those places.

But how do you explain that to Americans reared on notions of Mercedes-Benz exclusivity? With its new CLA cars – the front-wheel-drive 250 and 45 AMG – Mercedes-Benz appears to have answered that question taking a page from Hyundai: It is offering premium cars at sub-premium prices.

That may not sit well with people invested in outmoded concepts of prestige and automotive performance, although Mercedes-Benz provides a healthy sampling of the latter in its CLA 45 AMG.

But the accessibility strategy will go a long way toward winning buyers who place a premium on value.

I will go further: The CLA cars could save Mercedes-Benz from becoming irrelevant in markets where the likes of Hyundai and Kia are gaining customers with attractive, affordable automobiles.

I drove the CLA 250 and 45 AMG in Virginia and Maryland and found them very much to my liking. Both have excellent build and materials quality. Overall road behavior in both is excellent for daily commuting and longer road trips. Both, judging from numerous public comments, are attractive – especially the 250, with its eye-catching diamond-black grille.

Self-described automobile enthusiasts, that bunch that seems to measure everything in 0-to-60-mph acceleration times and that worries mightily about matters such as “turbo lag,” will not be excited by the CLA 250. The car is too tame for them. But here’s betting that most people who have a chance to drive it will join me in celebration.

The CLA 250 is an effortless driver – as fast as it needs to be when needed, easy to steer (thanks to speed-sensitive, electro-mechanical power steering), and reasonably fuel efficient at 26 miles per gallon in the city and 38 mpg on the highway. Its 2-liter, direct-injection, turbocharged (forced air) four-cylinder gasoline engine requires premium fuel. But given the engine’s performance (208 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque), that’s not a bad trade-off.

More power can be had in the CLA 45 AMG with a specially tuned version of the 2-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine (335 horsepower, 332 pound-feet of torque.) You can move from 0 to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds in the CLA 45 AMG. But you’ll pay for it with an estimated base price of $36,000.

Mercedes-Benz officials say the fuel penalty for the CLA 45 AMG won’t be “much higher” than that of the CLA 250, and a nearly 100-mile drive in the CLA 45 AMG seemed to back that up in terms of highway mileage.

I like the new CLA line. Mercedes-Benz has done a much-needed thing here – making its badge more accessible to more people with high-quality, relatively low-cost products. Thumbs up.

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