The bottom-of-the-line Benz always faces a tough question: Is it a real Mercedes?

That's a compliment to the venerable German brand's standard-setting build quality. But the question also speaks to the oxymoron inherent in a budget Benz, and the challenge of delivering a bona fide Mercedes for the price of a Ford or a Honda.

Such are the hurdles facing the CLA, a compact sport sedan seeking to set a new standard for affordable luxury and tap into a broad customer base of up-and-comers. Starting at $30,924, the CLA competes in a crowded space against the higher-end offerings of mainstream automakers and starter sport sedans from traditional rivals BMW, Audi and Lexus.

Mercedes aims to steal customers from both, said Steve Cannon, chief executive of Mercedes-Benz USA.

"You have a car like a Ford Fusion that can sell for as much as $30,000, so you have Mercedes-Benz competing directly against Ford," Cannon said.

The CLA replaces the C-Class as the brand's entry-level offering. Formerly known as the baby Benz, the C-class has moved up in size, performance and price with a redesign unveiled this week. The CLA's platform, engine and transmission will also be used in the upcoming GLA, a similarly priced compact crossover expected to go on sale next fall.

Cannon characterized the CLA as the least expensive "real Mercedes" possible without soiling the brand. As a cautionary tale, he recalled Cadillac's cut-rate Cimmaron from the 1980s, essentially a duded-up Chevy Cavalier that brought few sales and much shame to GM's luxury marque.

After a two-week test, we can affirm that the CLA is no Cimmaron. Far from it. But whether it delivers on the Mercedes promise is harder to answer.

The CLA has the essentials expected by any Mercedes buyer, even young ones new to the brand. Most important is that intangible sense of bank-vault build quality, and the CLA has it, along with appropriate measures of power, style and handling. Those seeking a status symbol on the cheap won't be disappointed.

But the CLA falls short on utility, value and, most disappointing, the refined driving experience one expects from any Mercedes, regardless of price.

Most of the blame here falls on the transmission, which on paper should be among the car's biggest selling points. The gearbox is a seven-speed, dual-clutch automated manual, of the kind now found in all the best exotic cars.

Volkswagen Group has been perfecting dual-clutches for years, and not just in premium cars. Used in models ranging from the compact VW Golf to the Porsche 911, and many fine Audi sedans in between, these gearboxes combine the best of manuals and automatics while eliminating the downsides of each. Those we've tested rip off lightning-quick shifts while never upsetting the chassis. Most impressive, gear changes often seem better timed and executed in automatic mode than manual mode – the car shifts itself better than you can.

The dual-clutch in the CLA is nothing like this. Gear changes are neither crisp nor intuitive. The transmission seems to be guessing at your driving style, and seems poorly matched with the car's turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine.

The motor has plenty of get-up for a small sedan, with 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. But like many turbocharged power plants, it takes a moment to spool up to full fury. The gearbox doesn't seem to get this. Hit the accelerator with any force, and the downshift comes too slowly, leaving the engine gasping for torque. When it finally does shift, it often selects too low of a gear, making the car lurch forward abruptly.

The result is that you have to adjust your driving style to the transmission, rather than the other way around.

Speaking of driving style, the Eco and Sport driving modes, which adjust shift points accordingly, both seem to miss the mark. We would trade in both of them for a "normal" driving mode, programmed for less aggressive shifts than Sport but more aggressive than Eco.

The CLA's other shortcoming is space. If prospective CLA buyers do indeed cross-shop higher-end versions of the Ford Fusion or Honda Accord, the CLA's interior will seem tiny by comparison – tighter than most economy cars'.

The front of the CLA's cabin is cozy; the back seat is cramped, bordering on uninhabitable. Rear passengers have a mere 27.1 inches of legroom, eight inches less than a BMW 320i and nine inches less than a Honda Civic. The severely sloped rear window, which lends coupe-like styling to the exterior, only adds to the sense of claustrophobia inside.

But many in the CLA's targeted market will no doubt care less about rear seat room than luxury and functionality, and here the CLA excels like a Mercedes should. Controls are elegantly and logically laid out. Materials are first-rate, with soft-touch dash coverings surrounding a textured metal insert running from the center console to the passenger door. The leather is imitation – dubbed MB-Tex – but didn't feel cheap and likely wears better than the real thing.

The technology package offered simple and functional controls, a rarity in today's cars, even those from luxury brands. A nice, if ironic touch: digital representations of an analog clock and radio dial. Not so nice: the in-dash screen is more of an on-dash screen, sticking out from the console as if mounted with a suction cup.

Handling and ride quality were two other high points. When you can get the transmission and engine speaking to each other, the suspension confidently harnesses the car's ample power on curvy roads. The CLA definitely tends more toward sport than comfort, but passengers pay little penalty in ride quality for the thrill ride in the twisties.

The CLA also comes with an impressive list of standard safety equipment, including collision prevention systems that warn the driver of impending front-end crashes and automatically prime the brakes. Another system monitors the driver's behavior for indications of drowsiness and sounds an alarm if needed.

Other key amenities on our test car came at a price. A premium package including heated seats, dual-zone climate control, a premium stereo and other amenities added $2,500. A multimedia package, including navigation, added $2,700. A set of 18-inch alloy wheels added $500, and a blind-spot monitoring system added $550. The total tab: $36,545, including destination charge.

That's a good bit less than most Mercedes models, to be sure, but hardly chump change.

Do you get a real Mercedes for that money? Yes.

But for the discriminating driver, not a real good one.


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