Mercedes-Benz has a new sporty midsize sedan with the aerodynamic profile of a coupe and flexibility of a four-door.The CLA comes in two models—CLA250 for $29,900 and CLA45 AMG for $47,450 — powered by different 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engines mated with seven-speed dual clutch transmissions.The 208-horsepower CLA250 comes with standard front-wheel drive or optional 4MATIC permanent all-wheel drive. But the really fun AMG version (my tester) comes with the 355-horsepower engine, and the performance-oriented AMG 4MATIC. Both models have standard Collision Prevention Assist, a radar-based braking system, which alerts the driver to the presence of forward obstacles and helps adjust braking force accordingly.AMG is M-B’s performance division, whose manufacturing philosophy is "One Man, One Engine." Every engine is hand built and signed by the builder.The front bumper and fascia, with a mesh grille and prominent splitter, raise the "aggression factor" and add performance styling to the front of the CLA45 AMG.Polished aluminum surrounds the windows, and polished chrome trims the dual oval-shaped tailpipes. The sport exhaust serves two purposes — enhancing performance and emitting an unforgettable throaty growl on acceleration, while pleasantly humming at cruising speeds.AMG’s 4MATIC is a higher level of all-wheel drive integrated with the existing gearbox to keep it light. It offers more cornering confidence and improved handling in any weather, on any road.The bold, aggressive CLA grille is enhanced by the AMG matte-chrome double cross-wing design, along with the signature Mercedes star against a black mesh background. AMG twin five-spoke wheels with machine-finished surfaces (fitted with high-performance tires) complement the aerodynamic lower-body styling and frame the AMG brake hardware. CLA45 AMG 4MATIC models come with Tirefit sealant and a portable pump in place of a spare tire.CLAs come with a fuel-saving ECO stop/start system, which shuts off the engine in idling situations and instantly restarts when the driver lifts off the brake. Acceleration while turning from a stop in an intersection was smooth and certain with no scary delays once the pedal was pushed.My CLA45 AMG was rated for 23 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway (CLA250: 26/38), and according to the onboard computer, I averaged 25.5 mpg with a lot of stop-and-go rush hour traffic on the highway.The CLA cabin will transport four passengers in comfort, with sport-contoured seats featuring red top-stitched (to match the red seat belts), horizontally fluted faux suede inserts. The DINAMICA inserts are easier to care for than real suede.A fifth passenger could ride the middle seat in the rear, comfortable enough for short trips or small people. The outboard seats include lower anchors and upper tether hooks for child seats. The middle seat has only the tether hook.The flat-bottomed steering wheel has a thickly padded leather-wrapped rim with sporty perforated side grips, multifunction controls for the most-frequently used functions and raised thumb rests at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions — close to the paddle shifters located on the back. Oddly, the tilt/telescopic function was manual.My tester, Mountain Gray with Black interior accented by Carbon Fiber trim on the dash and door panels, came with $8,790 in options. The Mountain Gray exterior added $720 and the Carbon Fiber trim added $950.A Premium Package for $2,300 brought an iPod/MP3 media interface cable; gate/garage opener; compass; auto-dimming mirrors; satellite radio; dual-zone climate control; heated seats; and Harman/Kardon premium sound.Exclusive to the CLA, the 450-watt digital system filled the cabin with clear, evenly balanced sound from my favorite satellite stations. The media interface allows the operator or passenger to browse, select and play personal music from an iPod or other compatible device using the vehicle’s audio controls on the steering wheel, the console or the dash.The Multimedia Package ($2,370) brought Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound technology to enhance the experience. That package also included COMAND with hard drive navigation; rearview camera; enhanced voice control; six-disc in-dash changer; 10-gigabyte music register; SD card slot; and SiriusXM traffic and weather.Music register is an in-dash hard drive for storing your own music from CDs and/or audio DVDs. The disc changer plays audio/MP3 CDs and DVDs. Movies can be viewed on the dash-mounted screen when the vehicle is parked. The SD card reader allows playing of digital music files.COMAND uses a tablet-style, seven-inch color screen mounted high on the dash, which also displays locations of ATMs, gas stations and Mercedes dealerships along the route. The navigation and audio controls were a little confusing, with some functions hard or impossible to locate without referring to the owner’s manual. Navigation programming was time consuming and frustrating. However, once programmed, the audible directions were precise and easy to follow. I am familiar with my area and most of the routes I can take, so I was a little puzzled by some of the suggested routes, which seemed to be unnecessarily complicated.CLAs come with Attention Assist, a Mercedes-Benz first, which monitors driving behavior and can automatically alert the driver using visual and/or audible warnings if signs of drowsiness are detected.Passengers are protected by a system of interconnected elements — ultra-high-strength steel in roof pillars, door beams, and floor and roof cross-members; front and rear crumple zones and the impact-force-channeling front bulkhead. CLAs come with 10 air bags, including side and front knee bags.Also standard is the Mbrace2 in-vehicle technology suite, which can be operated/programmed via smartphone or computer as well as from inside the car (where cellular and GPS signals are available). Mbrace2 uses cloud-based and GPS technology to make everyday life easier and to help out in an emergency, with 24-hour expert support. The hardware is standard with a free trial, and paid subscription available if desired.An electronic parking brake is set by touching a button next to the shifter. The shifter includes reverse, neutral and drive, with "park" and "parking brake" engaged simultaneously using the button, and releasing when the shifter is moved to reverse or drive and the accelerator is pressed. The separate park/parking brake was confusing at first, causing me to put the shifter in "reverse" rather than "park" as I am accustomed to. Fortunately, I realized in time to prevent an accident.My CLA45 AMG also had Parktronic with advanced parking assist for $970. Parking assist, using ultrasonic sensors in the front and rear bumpers, almost magically steers the vehicle into (and out of) a parallel parking space with the operator managing the pedals.A Panoramic Sunroof ($1,480) with power sunscreen would have provided plenty of light and a nice open-air feel, but for the cloudy sky and chilly air during my test week.From the first roar of the engine, driving the CLA45 AMG was a pleasure — especially for the attention it attracted.The suspension and handling were sporty (fun), there was a little road noise (not so much fun), but there was lots of power (wisely subdued) and comfort.Total delivered price of my tester was $57,165, including options and the $925 destination charge.Cutline: 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG
The automotive columns of Emma Jayne Williams have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 2006. Contact her at email@example.com.