Mercedes-Benz hasn't sold a compact sedan in the U.S. since the instant-collectible 190E 2.3-16 started accruing its legendary status in the 1980s. Now, there's a new small Benz coming, and soon--but will the driving wheels make all the difference with the 2014 CLA 250?

With the CLA, Mercedes-Benz isn't just back into the business of premium small four-doors. It's also now in the business of selling front-wheel-drive cars here--not just one, but at least three versions of the new Mercedes A-Class family of cars, all due to arrive within a couple of years. The coupe-like sedan kicks off things late this year, wearing a price tag of about $30,000 in base form.

The most striking thing about the CLA might be the mini-CLS silhouette. It's a convincing job of scaling down that sleek look to a much shorter body. The frameless windows and pronounced shoulder lines mirror those on the CLS, and the CLA has the gentler nose of the 2014 E-Class--not the more angular one from the past three years. The cabin has more of an SLK feel to it, with its five round vents and extensive use of grey plastic trim. The LCD screen on the dash brings infotainment to the fore, but like the one in today's BMW 3-Series, it's not integrated into the dash, and looks more like an afterthought.

In almost every spec-sheet metric, the CLA 250 promises to trounce its ancestor. Power comes from a turbocharged, direct-injected 2.0-liter four with 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Gears get swapped automatically by a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission. And Mercedes promises a top speed of 149 mph, though 0-60 mph numbers haven't been part of the discussion just yet.

Whether the CLA will translate into a great-handling car remains to be seen, but the fundamentals are in line with those of other front-drive luxosedans. The suspension is struts in front, a four-link design in the rear on its own subframe. The base specification picks all-season run-flat 17-inch tires; the Sport package will wear 18-inch tires and AMG-style wheels, while it also gets perforated front disc brakes.

All-wheel drive will be an option on the CLA as well. The system uses an electrohydraulic, multiplate clutch to distribute torque between the front and rear wheels and anti-lock braking to shut down wheelspin, in a new iteration of 4MATIC.

The switch to front-wheel drive alters the dynamics--not just of a car, but of the Mercedes brand. It's a must for more interior room. The CLA arrives on a wheelbase of 106.3 inches, with an overall length of 182.3 inches. Roughly, that's the size of a Honda Civic or Ford Focus--or on the more upscale trajectory, the Buick Verano or Acura ILX. As with all those cars, rear-seat room isn't expected to be copious.

What may matter more to first-time luxury-car owners is content--no matter if it's delivered by Bluetooth, or whether it saves them from an accident. It's here where the CLA seems very finely balanced to hit its $30,000 price point. There's a radar-based Collision Prevention Assist function standard, that can warn of obstacles ahead and help the driver use just the right amount of braking for the stop. Optionally, the CLA can be fitted with adaptive cruise control; blind-spot monitors; lane-keeping assistance; and parking sensors with parking assist.

On the infotainment side, the 2014 CLA comes with standard Bluetooth, cruise control, a power driver seat, and MB-Tex upholstery. It also sports the latest smartphone connectivity functions via Mercedes-Benz's mbrace2, all displayed on a 5.8-inch screen. The more elaborate, and optional, infotainment system offers a 7.0-inch screen and COMAND, which controls the Multimedia package's navigation system, DVD changer, 10GB music drive, or SD card (as well as phone services) with voice commands. The Multimedia package also includes a rearview camera and real-time traffic.

A Premium package bundles an iPod interface with satellite radio, surround sound, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, and a garage door opener. A panoramic sunroof is a stand-alone option, as are leather seats, summer tires, parking assist, blind-spot monitors, and heated front seats.

Mercedes may have been beaten to the punch in compact cars by Audi and BMW in the States, but the CLA will be the first four-door sedan of the German trio to actually go on sale here, if all goes according to plan. There's a new Audi A3 in the works, with a sedan body style, trailing the CLA by a few months, while a new BMW 1-Series sedan could take until 2015 to arrive.

Of course, the CLA already has competition in the size class--everything from the pedestrian Ford Focus and Honda Civic, to the near-luxury Acura ILX and Buick Verano. They're cars without its prestige, but without that burden, too.

The 2014 CLA goes on sale late this year.


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