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Mercedes offers luxury for the rest of us

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Mercedes CLA

Engine: Turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder

EPA rating (city/highway): 26/38 mpg

Fuel type: Premium

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By Larry Printz
Friday, Dec. 6, 2013, 10:07 p.m.
 

What if Gucci, Prada or Louis Vuitton suddenly and unexpectedly produced its own designer knockoffs, ones that sold for more than 50 percent less than the majority of their lines?

Well, if you're an automaker, say, Mercedes-Benz, then the product might be called the 2014 CLA-Class, an all-new model and market for the brand in the United States.

The CLA starts at just $29,900, an astonishing $42,200 less than the CLS. And when typically equipped, the CLA should average about $35,000, on par with a top-of-the-line Honda Accord and less than a fully loaded Ford Fusion.

By offering filet mignon at hamburger prices, Mercedes-Benz is taking a big chance with its image.

So, just what do you get in this modest Mercedes?

Well, for starters, you get a car that uses a front-wheel drive platform — a first for the brand in this market — adapted from the redesigned A-Class, a small hatchback that Mercedes-Benz sells in Europe and Asia.

The CLA comes in two flavors: the mild CLA 250 and the wild CLA 45 AMG. Both use a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. You'd expect it to be fun to drive. But it's a mixed bag.

It's not that the car isn't nimble — in fact, it's fairly athletic, with nicely weighted steering.

Overall handling is good, and the CLA remains flat in corners. Acceleration is more than adequate despite the car's turbo lag.

But on the whole, this car is very much a welter-weight Mercedes-Benz. Get the $2,300 Premium Package, which adds a Harman/Kardon sound system, iPod/MP3 interface, SiriusXM satellite radio and dual zone climate control.

Still, once the novelty wears off, you have to wonder if this reasonably priced car will dilute the marque's premium image.

When the servants drive the same brand of car as the lord and lady of the manor, it's hard to convincingly market yourself as a luxury manufacturer.

Larry Printz writesabout automobiles for The Virginian-Pilot.

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