With Mercedes-Benz marketing its 2014 CLA 250 as an affordable way to get the full silver arrow experience, there's likely no better way to prove that theory than to take it to a bone fide racetrack and put it to the test.
Enter Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters driver Robert Wickens, who races for Mercedes in the German Touring Car series. The 24-year-old won his maiden race in the highly competitive DTM series this year after a masterful drive in rainy conditions at the famed German Nurburgring Circuit. He finished fifth overall in points.
Fittingly, Wickens agreed to help put the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 through its paces at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (CTMP) in Bowmanville, Ont., on Sunday in heavy winds and rain.
It should also be noted that when first approached with the idea, Wickens' racer blood showed its true colours: He asked if he could drive the faster 355-horsepower, all-wheel drive CLA 45 AMG version on the track test instead.
While the AMG might be more in Wickens' wheelhouse, and handling the CLA may not be a huge challenge for the DTM race winner and 2012 World Series by Renault 3.5 champion, it's easily more than enough to keep most drivers happy.
The car acquitted itself well in Wickens' hands around a soaked 10-turn, 3.96-kilometre CTMP road course, with the racer pushing the car around the circuit in a downpour and not missing a beat. The 250 CLA's 2.0-litre inline 4-cylinder turbocharged engine puts out 208 horsepower and offered good power and driveability. The brakes slowed the car well and the anti-lock system did its job well on the slippery surface at the end of the long Andretti Straight. Considering how wet the track was, the car was well-balanced front and back, even with the soggy running.
There's obviously no comparison between Wickens' regular Mercedes C-Coupé DTM ride and the CLA, so trying to judge it based on that scale would be patently unfair. Wickens pointed out that the biggest thing holding him back was the tires, which are light years away from the slicks he normally used on track.
"The confidence that you get in a racing car from the grip from the tire is remarkable compared to what you have in a road car, so you are always a bit hesitant to release the brake in a road car because you don't really know what the tire is going to do," Wickens said.
That fact was evident as the CLA fought for grip on the downhill left-hand Corner 2, gladly latching onto a strip of new asphalt and tracking confidently around the rest of the turn.
The transmission responded quickly and smoothly to the manual paddle shifting, running up and down the gears with little lag . The front-wheel drive CLA's one downside on the track is that understeer (you want to turn but the car wants to keep going straight) happens when traction is lost under acceleration on corner exits.
Mercedes has mitigated this effect with its traction control system, which often didn't require Wickens to lift the throttle to steer through corners when it came on. The 90-degree Moss Corner exit onto the long, fast Andretti Straight at the bottom of the circuit had the traction control earning its keep as Wickens stomped the throttle an took the car up the hill after the slow turn. Ditto for the stability control which even kicked in a couple of times to do some clever trickery and set the car straight without driver correction.
"From a driving side, I felt that I was in control of the car and I could do what I wanted with it, which is what you want from a road car," Wickens said.
When it comes to fuel economy, the 250 CLA used roughly 7.72-litres per 100 km over a week of testing, which included five days of city travel, a 900-km mostly highway trip, and about 25 km at CTMP.
There were a couple of minor bothers. The screen for the in-car entertainment and navigation seems unsophisticated for a Mercedes, and would have been much better as an integrated in-dash display.
The blind spot warning system used in conjunction with the side mirrors would often sound an alarm when passing close to stationary cars and solid objects. While mildly irritating, it wasn't enough to lower the experience.
The one real irritant was the lane assist system that makes the steering wheel thump when the car feels itself not staying between the lines. Unfortunately, it also goes off when the car is hit by huge gusts on a windy day and drifts to one side, or when the driver doesn't correct the car zealously enough.
The CLA is an relatively affordable way to experience the luxury brand, and the minor issues aren't enough to take away from the overall appeal of the car.
Price as tested: $40,570.00
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