After decades of selling only rear-wheel and all-wheel-drive cars in the U.S., Mercedes-Benz on Sunday announced its sole front-wheel-drive entry for the U.S. market.
The German automaker used a private event ahead of the 2013 Detroit Auto Show to debut the all-new CLA250. It's a compact, four-door coupe in a similar style to the larger and more expensive CLS.
The CLA will be launched initially only with front-wheel drive; an all-wheel-drive model comes later. It will compete in a nascent segment of compact, luxury cars that will soon include the all-new Audi A3 sedan and the recently launched Acura ILX. BMW, which sells only rear-wheel-drive cars here now, also plans to bring a front-wheel-drive vehicle to the U.S. market.
"Audi has proven the point that you can have a front-wheel-drive car in the luxury market," said Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis for research firm AutoPacific Inc. "It has gotten the attention of BMW and Mercedes-Benz. You can sell a lot of cars around the world with a really good front-wheel-drive car."
The CLA will slot below Mercedes' C-Class when it goes on sale in September 2013. The base CLA will start at about $30,000, Mercedes said, comfortably below the $35,000 starting price of the larger C-Class. It will serve as a more expressive, sport-oriented vehicle that should add some sex appeal to the company's conservative image.
"We think that a primary target for this are people in their 30s and early 40s," said Steve Cannon, chief executive of Mercedes-Benz USA. "We want to bring new people into the brand."
Mercedes worked on giving the CLA an aggressive design to put space between it and the automakers more conservative C-Class sedans so as not to cannibalize sales, said Heiko Schmidt, product manager for the CLA.
"We wanted it to have a bold status and presence on the road," Schmidt said. "It shouldn't look like just another compact sedan."
The CLA250 will be powered by a 2.0-liter, turbocharged, direct-injected four-cylinder engine making 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. It will route power to the front wheels via a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission with shift paddles. In spring 2014, Mercedes will offer the CLA250 4MATIC, an all-wheel-drive version with the same engine and transmission.
Fuel economy numbers have not been divulged, but Mercedes says all CLA models will have a start/stop function to help save fuel. Other standard equipment includes a 5.8-inch display screen on the center console, a sport-tuned suspension, Bluetooth connectivity, 17-inch alloy wheels and run-flat tires.
The CLA will also come standard with its collision prevention assist feature, which at speeds above 4 mph warns drivers of an impending collision and can calculate in advance the appropriate brake force needed to stop the car.
All this is wrapped up in a seductive, wind-swept body that Mercedes says has the lowest drag coefficient of any production car. The profile of the CLA is similar to that of a coupe, with a gently sloping roof line and a short trunk lid. The car also features LED daytime running lights and sculpted door panels below frameless doors.
Mercedes showed off the CLA at a media event Sunday night in Detroit. The car will not be on display at the company's booth, nor will it be a part of Mercedes' auto show news conference on Monday. It's official world debut will be during the Berlin Fashion Week on Tuesday. Mercedes' Detroit Auto Show lineup will focus on the refreshed E-Class lineup of sedans, station wagons, coupes and convertibles.