A “Baby Benz” for Today

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250.

Mercedes-Benz caused a bit of a stir in 1984 when it introduced a compact sedan known as the 190E. Meant to compete with the BMW 3-Series, the “Baby Benz,” as it was nicknamed, offered a low-priced entry into the German brand.

The car had a few issues at first. It was a bit underpowered and noisy, the interior wasn’t nearly as nice as larger Mercedes models, and many felt it cheapened the brand a bit. Nevertheless, it was successful, letting people of more modest means become Mercedes-Benz owners.

Through the ensuing decades, that little sedan evolved into the C-Class, which today is anything but entry-level in terms of size, price or prestige. Most examples on dealer lots are priced above $40,000 with various options and features.

So in a bit of history repeating itself, Mercedes-Benz has brought out a new entry-level sedan, the CLA250. The base price is just a tick under $30,000, and it includes a first for a Mercedes product in the U.S.: Front wheel drive. Much like most compact cars, the new baby Benz carries its 4-cylinder engine sideways, next to its transmission, in order to free up interior space.

And there is plenty of interior space, especially considering that it’s called a “4-door coupe” by Mercedes-Benz, its sloping roofline mimicking that of the larger CLS. There’s actually so much leg room in front that I didn’t need to move the driver’s seat to its rearmost position like I usually do.

The idea of a German sport sedan being front wheel drive has a lot of car enthusiasts turning up their noses at the idea, as rear wheel drive has always been the setup of choice for spirited driving. But the vast majority of people who buy cars like this don’t really care which wheels are carrying the power, so long as the car performs to their expectations.

The payoff to the turbocharged 2.0 liter engine (making an impressive 208 horsepower) and 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission is EPA fuel economy numbers of 26 mpg city and 38 highway. I was able to easily duplicate these figures, and darn near got the highway figure on a round-trip to the Antelope Valley, which included lots of hills and some significant speeds.

Aiding the city fuel economy number is a stop-start feature that’s working its way into more and more new cars. Arrive at a stop, and if conditions are right the engine shuts off automatically. Lift your foot off the brake to proceed, and the engine instantly starts. You can switch this feature off if you like, but you have to do so each time the car is started.

Some long-timers within Mercedes-Benz likely remembered the criticism of that 1984 190E’s interior, so this new CLA gets one that’s right up there with other vehicles in the company’s portfolio. Controls are well laid-out, and the somewhat retro circular air conditioning vents have now worked their way into nearly all the company’s vehicles.

Performance of this new small Mercedes is quite acceptable, but if you want to really put on some speed there’s an AMG version too. That sub-brand is Mercedes-Benz’s in-house tuning firm that creates super-performance vehicles for super money. They’ve worked their magic on this car too, in the form of the CLA45 AMG.

Still four cylinders under the hood, but tweaked and pumped up to an amazing 355 horsepower out of 2.0 liters. That would be way too much power to send to just the front wheels, so the AMG car gets the company’s 4MATIC all wheel drive system standard.

So is a car so small with a small engine worthy of the AMG badge that usually adorns cars with monster V8s, making gobs of power, torque and wonderful sounds? You bet. I got to do some hot laps at Willow Springs Raceway in the CLA45 behind an instructor from the AMG Performance Academy. The little hot rod did just fine, and is still docile around town as an everyday car.

My CLA250 test car came in at $36,545 with a few option packages, and the CLA45 AMG starts at $47,450. In either case, it’s a lot of car for the money by today’s standards. Think of the base car as an entry Mercedes-Benz for loaded-up Honda Accord money.

Yes, the Baby Benz is back, and way better than it was the first time around in 1984.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @ABC7DaveKunz, Facebook: ABC7DaveKunz

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