Category - Speed:Sport:Life Original Content

Jaguar Gave, and Jaguar Hath Taken Away….

In a rare bit of music to our ears, Jaguar just announced at the 2014 LA Auto Show that their gorgeous F-Type will come one step closer to claiming our hearts by adding a 6-speed manual transmission option to the 2016 spec sheets. Hallelujah! But wait just a minute....there's a trade off to be made. A few trade offs, actually. The first is pretty minor - the F-Type's previously hydraulic power steering rack is now electrically boosted instead. That news is hardly shocking; in fact, what's more shocking is that the 2015 F-Type still had hydraulic power steering in the first place. It now joins the ranks of other sports cars that have made the same move - the Corvette, Cayman, Boxster and 911 are all on that list. Nice company to be in, so we'll reserve judgment until we try it. Manual_S_Caldera_Red_05_LowRes That new 6-speed manual won't be available on every F-Type, either - just the V6, rear-wheel-drive models. Of course, those happen to be supercharged V6s pushing out either 340 or 380 horsepower and capable of running to 60 MPH in just 5.5 and 5.3 seconds, respectively, so we can forgive the lack of manual availability on the macho V8 "R" coupe and convertible models. Although, we'll admit an F-Type with 550 horsepower and a manual transmission would be pretty damn special. Here's hoping Jaguar changes their minds on limiting the manual's availability to the V6 at some point in the future. AWD_R_Storm_Grey_06_LowRes More troubling, though, is news of the F-Type's newly "available" all-wheel-drive. You see, while you can still have your V6-powered F-Type in rear-wheel drive guise, the rear-wheel drive V8 models have been done away with altogether. That means no more lurid, smoky, 550-horsepower F-Type R slides- though it will presumably be easier to put down the V8's prodigious power with the addition of front half-shafts. The move to AWD has, predictably, added some weight - roughly 150 pounds depending on model - though that small performance deficit will be easily clawed back by the ability to put the power down more effectively. Jaguar claims a 3.9-second 0-60 run for both F-Type R models, though even that figure is probably conservative by a few tenths. AWD_R_Storm_Grey_02_LowRes Luckily, the F Type remains as stunning as it ever was - Jaguar has left the styling alone. Time will tell if the rear-wheel drive V8 configuration makes an appearance on a future, hotted-up F Type model - we hope it does, and while we're at it, let's add in six-speed manual availability, too. Hey, we can dream, right? AWD_R_Glacier_White_01_LowRes

Driven: 2015 Dodge Charger SRT 392 & Hellcat

2015 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat
Though my ownership punch card skews heavily in favor of the import, I’m a documented fan of the American car as a species. I owned and loved a 5-liter 2011 Mustang GT. I find the current Corvette to be an absolutely fantastic specimen (though the Camaro leaves me a little cold). And though it’s been only a short while, I can consider myself an honest Mopar fan thanks to the Hellcat – specifically, the Challenger Hellcat I spent some time with over the summer. And now the newest variant to receive the monster 6.2-liter supercharged Hellcat powertrain – the 2015 Charger - looks set to bring my budding domestic love affair to a full boil. 2015 Dodge Charger SRT HellcatIf there’s one thing this car proves, perhaps in defiance of our hipster culture that suggests otherwise, it’s that it is actually possible for something to be both genuine and ironic. Witness the way the supercharged monster under the Charger Hellcat’s hood seems to flout convention – 707 horsepower? Why even attempt such a thing in a post-CAFE world? Dodge’s answer appears to be twofold: “because we could, and because we could do it well”. They’ve created a motor that can bully around an otherwise comfortable and composed 4,575-pound sedan in serious fashion, and then be dialed back down, dropped into 8th gear and left to plod home on the highway achieving mid-20 MPGs. I’m not sure there’s ever been a sedan so dichotomous of character – let alone at this price point, or by an American brand. 2015 Dodge Charger SRT HellcatWhat it adds up to is a pure riot for the driver – especially when the Charger is being flogged around a racetrack, which is precisely what I did during my time with the car. Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia was the venue, a small course with a long straightaway perfect for exploiting the Hellcat’s prodigious power, punctuated by rolling hills and switchbacks. As demonstrated during the Challenger drive event at Portland International Raceway, a closed course is the best, nay, the only place to truly exploit Hellcat’s capabilities. And just like its two door brother, the Charger doesn’t disappoint. The power is mind-bending; it’s hard to imagine ever becoming jaded about its potency. There’s been much said about the competence of the new breed of traditional torque-converter automatics, especially the 8-speeds associated with ZF. I won’t belabor the point, but suffice it to say, the Charger’s sole transmission (aforementioned 8-speed) is equally happy loafing around in Drive or performing full-throttle upshifts firm enough to jostle hairdos. [caption id="attachment_11125" align="aligncenter" width="600"]SAMSUNG CSC SRT 392[/caption] Thing is, the car that stole my heart wasn’t the Hellcat. It was the “tamer” of the two SRT Charger offerings, the 392. That car, with its 485-horsepower naturally-aspirated 6.4-liter HEMI, is certainly no slouch. But its acceleration doesn’t elicit fear in the hearts of men the way the Hellcat’s does…merely those of young children and the elderly. It’s simply “fast” whereas the Charger Hellcat is “stupid fast”. That much is noticeable on the track. But on the street, where we mere mortals play most of the time, the difference is academic – either is capable of adding points to your license in short order. And most of the SRT 392’s low-speed acceleration doesn’t dissipate so quickly into tire dust the way the Hellcat’s does. As a result, it feels nearly as fast – because it’s more usable, more of the time. [caption id="attachment_11128" align="aligncenter" width="600"]SAMSUNG CSC SRT 392[/caption] The rest of the SRT 392 package is just as impressive as the Hellcat. It’s got the same massive 15.4” front and 13.8” rear Brembo brakes capable of detaching retinas at full deceleration. Its sole transmission is still a capable, paddle-shifter-equipped 8-speed automatic. It even looks the same as the Hellcat, save for a couple of missing heat extractor vents in the hood and a couple of kitty badges on the fenders. Of course, you don’t have the pleasure of telling people you drive a Hellcat, but I have a feeling that disappointment would fade over time. 2015 Dodge Charger SRT HellcatAside from the addition of the Hellcat and enhanced powertrains across the rest of the range, the 2015 Charger has benefitted from an obvious facelift. That facelift is more than “face”-deep, however; the fascia’s been heavily revised and is more modern than the 2014’s throwback front end. Dodge is quick to point out that every body panel save the windows and roof has been re-sculpted, though the difference is tough to notice. What you might notice are the revised LED headlights and taillights. Minor interior touch-ups lift what was already a rationally laid-out, comfortable, and roomy place to spend time. 2015 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat (shown in Ruby Red Alcantara sued 2015 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat (shown in Ruby Red Alcantara suedThe 2014 Charger didn’t need much in the way of changes. And the 2015 remains essentially what that car was: a modern interpretation of a classic American big-engined sedan. The new revisions bring it in line with what little direct competition the SRT Charger has – namely the Chevy SS – in terms of refinement and available equipment levels. But the SRT 392 and Hellcat models, frankly, bring the Charger into a different league - a pure arms race where bragging rights are measured against the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini. 2015 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat   [gallery ids="11108,11114,11115,11116,11117,11118,11119,11120,11121,11128,11127,11126,11125,11124,11122,11113,11111,11110,11109,11112"] 2015 Dodge Charger SRT 392/Hellcat Base price – SRT 392: $47,385 Base price – SRT Hellcat: $63,995 Powertrain – SRT 392: 6.4-liter HEMI V8, 485 horsepower, 475 lb-ft torque, 8-speed automatic transmission Powertrain – SRT Hellcat: 6.2-liter supercharged HEMI V8, 707 horsepower, 650 lb-ft torque, 8-speed automatic transmission Dodge provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the manufacturer and author.

Driven: 2015 Toyota 4Runner Trail


Perhaps unfathomable when the 4Runner first debuted on our shores was the idea that thirty years later, the same rough and tumble body-on-frame SUV could still exist in very similar fashion, even after all the competition had eventually morphed into soft-roading, sedan-based shadows of their former selves. We’re happy that the 4Runner still exists, and even if you’re not in the market for one, you should too. Read on to find out why.


The 4Runner has been enjoying fantastic sales numbers so far in 2014, even at a time when the preponderance of car-based crossovers is at an all-time high. While it’s easy to speculate as to the cause, certainly some of it must be down to the fact that the 4Runner remains a good value proposition, especially when you factor running costs, reliability and resale value into the mix. But I doubt that’s all of it. There are probably buyers who would be better served by a more plebian car-based offering, even one within Toyota’s own portfolio, but are instead drawn to the 4Runner for its macho, go-anywhere cred. And who can blame them? It’s one of the few SUVs out there right now that can actually back up its looks with genuine off-road prowess.


Witness our Trail model’s two-speed 4WD transfer case, featuring an honest-to-god low range. Coupled with standard CRAWL control (meaning hill speed control that can be used both up AND down hills), a locking rear differential and a Multi-Terrain Select system that electronically optimizes traction in various conditions, like Sand/Mud, Rocks, and Moguls – my personal favorite. The term “mogul” on the 4Runner’s headliner-mounted control panel apparently refers to wandering, uneven terrain like washed-out ditches and ruts, rather than successful film or recording execs – good to know. A unique, cut-away front fascia on the Trail allows for a greater approach angle than standard 4Runners (33 degrees compared to 30) and ground clearance is a brawny 9.6 inches.


All of this kit, combined with our tester’s optional KDSS suspension (which allows for greater suspension articulation at rock-crawling speeds) makes the Trail a formidable force off-road. While it lacks the TRD Pro model’s (more on that later) knobby off-road tires, we’re guessing it’d take some pretty serious mud to sideline the Trail. An impromptu visit to a local vehicle-friendly beach allowed me to just barely scratch the surface of the Trail’s capabilities, thanks to some deep, washed-out ruts created by a heavy rain. They presented no challenge whatsoever, and while it would be nice to experience the Trail on some land that really allows its systems to be fully exploited, even our brief taste was enough to place us firmly in the believer camp.


Still, we’d be remiss not to mention the 4Runner’s on-road demeanor, since that’s where about 99% (or 100% in many cases) of these trucks’ miles will be accumulated. The ride is soft and some body lean is noticeable in corners, though you’d expect that in a vehicle set up to do what the Trail can off-road. The KDSS suspension system actually allows for much thicker sway bars front and rear, which are decoupled off-road but keep body roll from being prohibitive on the street. It’s a trick system, and well worth the extra $1,750 for those planning to four-wheel their 4Runners. The only handling gripe came in the form of a grabby brake pedal that proved tough to modulate.


This is a body-on-frame SUV, remember, so the durability of that setup also tends to impact the weight at the scales. As such, the 4.0-liter V6 and 5-speed automatic transmission have their work cut out for them to move the 4Runner around with gusto, but honestly, acceleration is good enough and in keeping with the truck’s mission. There’s plenty of torque on offer – enough to tow 4,700 pounds through the standard receiver hitch.



The interior hews closely to the rugged off-roader image struck by the body; all mod cons are present and accounted for, but the layout is more like an FJ Cruiser’s than a Highlander’s. That’s a purposeful reminder made by Toyota to ensure buyers know what they’re getting into – this isn’t meant to be a “mall-rated” crossover. After all, you’d be hard pressed to find a version of the Highlander like the even harder-core 4Runner TRD Pro model. Starting with the Trail, the TRD Pro adds special TRD front springs and Bilstein shocks (the rears have remote reservoirs), knobbier Nitto off-road tires wrapped around unique black TRD 17” alloys, a front skid plate, a unique front grille and bumper accents, and an exclusive available paint option in the form of an orangey Inferno hue. Starting at $41,995, the TRD Pro is $2,490 dearer than an optionless Trail Premium model, but if the goal was to take my 4Runner ‘wheeling now and then (and if you’re considering a 4Runner, you’d be a fool not to), it’d be easy to spring for the stouter TRD Pro Series hardware and take the badder-ass looks as a free side benefit. I mean, just look at the thing. Marty McFly would certainly approve, especially in black.

[caption id="attachment_11084" align="aligncenter" width="700"]4Runner TRD Pro 4Runner TRD Pro[/caption]

Besides the Wrangler and the now-defunct FJ Cruiser, the 4Runner represents a shrinking island in a sea of car-based SUVs - that of an attainable off-roader that will also comfortably seat four to five people and all of their gear. The 4Runner’s popularity as a result of this limited market is no surprise, but a warning to those whose itch this truck might scratch – act now, because SUVs of this ilk may not be around forever.


[gallery ids="11085,11096,11097,11098,11100,11102,11099,11086,11087,11088,11095,11094,11093,11092,11091,11090,11089,11084"]

2015 Toyota 4Runner Trail Premium 4x4

Base price: $39,505

Price as tested: $40,855

Options on test car:  Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System ($1,750), Sliding rear cargo floor ($350), 30th Anniversary discount (-$750)

Powertrain: 4.0-liter V6 engine, 5-speed automatic transmission, part time four-wheel-drive – 270 horsepower, 278 lb-ft torque

S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 18.2 mpg

Toyota provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.

Driven: 2015 BMW X4

In struggling to describe the X4 to the unfamiliar, I was often reminded of the fact that BMW’s full model lineup has now stretched to a staggering 97 unique drivetrain and body configurations. Obviously, the name of this automaker’s game is diversification. With a car for every buyer and therefore a butt for every well-contoured seat, the Bavarians stand somewhat alone in the marketplace at the moment - though other manufacturers are hustling to catch up. What’s most surprising isn’t the sheer level of choice at your local BMW lot – it’s the fact that the company still manages to make each one of them a decent steer. SAMSUNG CSC Take our xDrive35i for example. A “35i” suffix in BMW parlance indicates that a sonorous 3-liter straight six with a twin-scroll turbocharger hanging off the side is residing under the hood. Though the X4 is bulkier than its outright appearance would suggest – curb weight comes in at 4,260 pounds – the N55 engine still delivers a gratifying shove of acceleration when summoned. It also sounds quite nice doing so, with a burly growl that evokes the naturally-aspirated inline sixes of BMW’s past. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Part of that shove could be down to BMW’s notoriously underrated power outputs – our car felt far stronger than 300 horsepower toting two-plus tons has any right to – but credit also goes to the ingenious ZF 8-speed automatic transmission so prevalent among luxury autos these days. The 8-speed’s mechanicals are probably peerless, but surely some of the charm with this transmission comes down to BMW’s programming work, and it’s clear they’ve spent some time noodling with it. Gear changes are shuffled transparently in full auto mode, though a quick tug of a paddle shifter will spur whip-crack reaction speeds when desired. SAMSUNG CSC   SAMSUNG CSC The powertrain is just one part of a compelling package – the other key is the chassis. You wouldn’t expect a vehicle such as the X4 – whatever it might be – to handle well. Sure, it’s based on a car platform, and a good one at that. But it’s then jacked up to high altitude and given a heavier suit of sheetmetal to carry on its shoulders, which doesn’t typically do great things for handling. And yet the X4 still prospers, particularly when fitted with our car’s optional M Sport package ($1,900), Dynamic Damper Control ($1,000) and 20” M wheels ($950). Cornering attitudes are fairly flat, particularly so with the dampers in sport mode, and grip levels high. Ride comfort remains well-resolved. The brake pedal also loads naturally and offers decent feel. Steering feedback is predictably mute, but the rack does at least have a nice heft to it. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Technology and content levels were high on our admittedly loaded tester. Though nearly every car on the market now seems to offer an available backup camera and blind spot monitoring, BMW’s systems go a step further. As part of the Driver Assistance Plus package, wide-angle cameras front and rear offer crisp, HD-like levels of clarity, and combine to provide a birds-eye view in tight parking quarters. Blind spot monitoring is also included in the package, taken a step further by a lane departure warning system that provides a light pulsation through the steering wheel if you drift into another lane without signaling. It’s gentle but effective, providing the sensation of running over those grooved emergency lane markings. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC The technology onslaught continues elsewhere. BMW’s latest iDrive controller features touchpad scrawling capability for quick alphabetical inputs and is helpful for those with lengthy phone contact lists. The 16-speaker Harman Kardon sound system’s option box was also ticked, and it provided crisp, powerful highs with decent bass and quick pairing via Bluetooth. The rest of the interior is attractively laid out and appears well-assembled, with no materials that felt anything less than satisfactory. BMW will also continue to draw compliments from long-legged drivers like myself for offering sport seats with extendable thigh bolstering. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC While its mega-hatchback looks and tough-to-nail-down classification will draw confusion from some and ire from others, BMW obviously had a hit on their hands with the X6. With BMW now hoping to replicate that success in a nimbler, more affordable and more efficient package, the X4 will probably continue to split opinion and woo those select few for whom it’s a perfect fit. SAMSUNG CSC [gallery ids="11058,11064,11067,11075,11068,11066,11065,11063,11062,11069,11073,11059,11061,11060,11071,11070,11074,11072"]   2015 BMW X4 xDrive35i Base price: $48,950 Price as tested: $65,075 Options on test car:  Metallic paint ($550), M Sport package ($1,900), Dynamic Damper Control ($1,000), 20” M Wheels ($950), Driver Assistance package ($700), Driver Assistance Plus package ($1,900), Lighting package ($1,900), Premium package ($2,200), Technology package ($3,150), Heated front seats ($500), Harman Kardon sound system ($875), Enhanced BT & Smartphone Integration ($500) Powertrain: 3.0-liter turbocharged inline six cylinder engine, 8-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel-drive – 300 horsepower, 300 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 21.7 mpg BMW provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.

Driven: 2015 Buick Regal GS

cq5dam.web.1280.1280 (2)
Having spent a bit of time in Europe, I recall the new Opel Insignia I rented once from an airport counter a few years back. That car was an “estate”, a body style we’re not fortunate enough to get here, for obvious sales reasons. Still, the brief encounter with that station wagon was a pleasant one, and a driving experience immediately drawn to mind during my week with the Insignia’s American stepsister, the Buick Regal. I don’t think I’m wrong in my belief that it’s the most European car GM sells in this country. SAMSUNG CSC Describing something as being or feeling “European” or “continental”, at least when used outside the context of manufacturing location, has always struck me as a bit marketing-y in the past. After all, how could something assembled in Canada, made from parts of predominantly North American origin, be European? Even the nameplate, Buick Regal, is about as ‘Murican as it gets in this day and age. But the Regal truly is European. It was designed by Opel, GM’s German subsidiary, for European drivers, their roads and their tastes. After deciding to introduce the car to Americans as the Regal, GM’s initial production run was pulled from German assembly lines. SAMSUNG CSC As a result, the Regal GS feels decidedly continental (there’s that word again) in its movements. The ride and handling balance displays such a well thought out level of compromise that the E39 5-series immediately springs to mind. Is that praise too bold for a front-wheel drive platform? I don’t think so. So many manufacturers these days, sometimes even German ones, fall victim to the consumer belief that a hard ride = sporty handling. The GS proves otherwise. The ride is unperturbed over nearly any road surface, the cabin remains quiet and rattle-free, and yet when you throw it into a corner, it doesn’t fall apart. Roll is kept nicely in check, and while our GS AWD model’s nearly 4,000 pounds keep it from feeling what you might call “playful”, it is nevertheless a competent chassis that is willing to be hustled if you demand. SAMSUNG CSC Similar things can be said about the powertrain. Refinement is the name of the game here – outright power junkies won’t be blown away by the 2.0-liter turbo’s 259 horsepower under full throttle, but part throttle openings are rewarded with a broad plateau of the four-cylinder’s 295 lb-ft of torque between 2,500 and 4,000 RPM, and more than 80% of that is available as low as 1,800 RPM. Unlike some blown fours, the 2-liter Ecotec’s power delivery is never lumpy, surgy, or any other descriptor that could be associated with the seven dwarves. The six-speed automatic fitted as standard to the AWD GS (a six-speed manual is available on FWD GSs) shifts smoothly and remains pretty much transparent in all conditions. Considering the curb weight and the all-wheel drive system, our 25.4 mpg observed average fuel economy was impressive, though some of that can be attributed to a highway-heavy test week. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC The Regal, particularly in GS guise, strikes me as one of GM’s better styled offerings currently on the market. Sure, the Camaro and Corvette are flashier and more suggestive. Caddy’s offerings are also not without their well-proportioned charms, particularly the ATS – though there is a bit more glitziness to be found there. This Buick, meanwhile, is fairly toned down. GM did well by keeping chrome flair to a minimum, though some pieces can still be found on the hood and around the windows. Still, most of the exterior brightwork is of the matte aluminized type rather than polished chrome. I might even go a bit further with a color-matched monochromatic look, but even as it sits, the influence is obviously European. Oops - that word. Moving on…. SAMSUNG CSC Inside, the Regal has benefitted from some updates over the years to help it match new car buyer’s expectations from a technology standpoint. To that end, a broad touchscreen, touch-sensitive climate controls, a slew of radar- and camera-based safety features and additional ancillary steering wheel controls have been added. GM also saw fit to add class-exclusive 4G LTE capability and a Wi-Fi hotspot, in addition to a fully electronic center gauge panel with a multi-configurable display akin to the one found in the C7 Corvette. The Wi-Fi was a boon for my passenger during a long road trip, but less helpful was the gauge cluster’s tendency to go on the fritz from time to time, leaving me without a speedometer. I tried to use this as a get-out-of-jail-free card for potential speed tickets, but alas, no troopers took notice of the GS, despite its ability to cruise at extralegal speeds with ease. cq5dam.web.1280.1280 (3) cq5dam.web.1280.1280 (1) The Regal is an easy car to like. The GS even more so. It’s not an obvious choice within its field, probably for the reason that it’s tough to line up against a direct competitor. A Subaru WRX STI is similar money and brings more speed to the table, but it’s hard-edged and not as well-equipped. Plus, it sends the wrong message for corporate-ladder types. Audi’s upcoming S3 will offer boosted all-wheel-drive performance at a similar base price, but won’t be anywhere near as well-equipped as the Buick, and offers less space inside. The GS is better than the CLA250 I drove last week in just about every way, though few people will be cross-shopping the two. The Regal is an out-of-the-box thinker’s choice for sure; similar to the way a performance Saab or Volvo might have been a couple of decades ago. And it’s a better car for it. SAMSUNG CSC   [gallery ids="11024,11006,11023,11022,11021,11020,11019,11018,11017,11016,11015,11014,11013,11012,11011,11010,11009,11008,11007,11005"] 2015 Buick Regal GS AWD Base price: $40,585 Price as tested: $43,820 Options on test car:  Adaptive cruise control & automatic collision prevention ($1,195), Forward collision alert, blind zone assist, lane departure warning, memory package and rear cross-traffic alert ($1,040), Power sunroof ($1,000) Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel-drive – 259 horsepower, 295 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 25.4 mpg Buick provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author (exterior) and manufacturer (interior).

Driven: 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250

Much has been made of the German Big Three’s move toward the mainstream in terms of price; at no time in history has one of these luxury marques been more attainable by the non-wealthy (in the US at least). But most of the opinions voiced in the press have been somewhat negative, at least from a purist’s perspective. “What’s the point of an aspirational brand if any middle management type can afford one”, they argue. We spent a week with the CLA250 in the hopes we could separate the editorial banter from the car underneath. SAMSUNG CSC Looking around the CLA, it’s not immediately apparent that this is the inexpensive model in Mercedes-Benz’s lineup. It’s got the fastback styling and frameless side windows of the upmarket CLS after which it’s modelled, and although car guys and gals will be quick to point out the nose-biased, front wheel drive proportions, to the person on the street it’ll simply look like a stylish Mercedes product. I think it’s pretty handsome, and found the greenhouse and rear-three-quarter view to be mildly reminiscent of the old “Ponton” W120/121 cars of the 50s and 60s. SAMSUNG CSC Inside, the story is much the same. The design is evocative of something much more expensive, and it holds up well against its near-luxury rivals. There’s a varied mix of surfaces here that seek to emulate the upmarket leathers, woods and brushed metals from its bigger Benz brothers, which forms a nice alternative to the typical monotone black interiors so common at this price point. As such, the CLA’s overall cabin aesthetic easily gets the better of its main rivals, the Audi A3 and BMW 320i (a front-wheel-drive 1 series sedan that lines up directly against the CLA is imminent), though panel fit and finish on the A3 seem a smidge better. SAMSUNG CSC Like its German rivals, feature content is somewhat of a mixed bag; our car had assorted niceties like a panoramic sunroof, standard wheel-mounted paddle shifters (you’ll pay extra for those on the BMW and Audi), a Harman Kardon stereo and heated seats. Conversely, things like a backup camera or navigation with a larger, 7-inch display require a further cash outlay beyond our car’s $36,700 as-tested price. Those two items, along with a few other goodies, come bundled in a $2,370 Multimedia package – though there is an available standalone Becker navigation upgrade for the base 5.8-inch screen, for a more reasonable $800. The CLA really needs that backup camera, though – due to the curvy proportions and smallish greenhouse, rearward visibility can be tricky. Equipped as it was, our car was a bit of an odd duck – you’re far more likely to find CLAs on dealer lots with the optional extras listed above than you would a scantily-clad model like this one. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC The “baby” Benz lives up to its title when it comes to size – its abbreviated length makes it a doddle to park in town, though you pay for that wieldy-ness with limited rear legroom. Granted, this author is taller than most at 6’4”, but I was unable to sit behind myself without splayed legs. If you’re going to be regularly transporting 6-plus footers in the back seat, it’d be worth your while to step up to a C-class. However, it’s unlikely the CLA’s target audience will be using the back seats to transport anything much larger than a French Bulldog. M-B’s adoption of a “coupe” descriptor for the CLA model line further reinforces that point. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC Mercedes’ traditional on-road demeanor has hewed closer to the comfortable, luxurious end of the spectrum (aside from its sportier AMG models, of course) but this CLA was apparently tuned to deliver an overt impression of sportiness. As a result, body motions are tightened down to a minimum, and even hard cornering reveals low levels of body roll. The steering weight is on the heavy side, but it’s geared quick enough to point the nose into corners eagerly. SAMSUNG CSC The price to be paid for athletic responses is usually ride comfort, and on optional 18” wheels and low-profile rubber, our car’s ride was firm to the point of being harsh. Road imperfections rattle the driver’s teeth and the interior panels in equal measure, and large potholes were best avoided. In creating the US-market CLA, Mercedes specified the harder of the two available suspension setups offered in Europe - a move that seems like an odd choice for a vehicle whose mission is not sporting in nature, especially for use in a country with less-than-pristine road surfaces. It’s likely that the 17” wheel and tire package that comes standard on the CLA250 would improve the ride quality, and even though you might sacrifice a bit of style, the 17s would be my personal choice. That, or an imported set of softer Euro-market springs. SAMSUNG CSC The powertrain here is a rapidly becoming the industry de facto – a 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder hooked to a dual-clutch automatic transmission. In the CLA’s case, that transmission is a seven-speed unit controlled by paddles on the wheel or an electronic column-mounted stalk that can be found elsewhere in the Mercedes lineup. The transmission can be cycled between three modes - Eco, Sport and Manual - and I found Eco to be the most agreeable and transparent in day-to-day driving. The 2-liter four-cylinder churns out 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, which is enough to tote around the CLA’s 3,262 pounds with ease. Besides, hardcore speed duties are carried out by the CLA45 AMG and its mega 360-hp four-pot, so the CLA250 can occupy the middle ground. To put it in perspective against its rivals, the 250 feels quicker than a 320i or A3 1.8T, but not quite as quick as the 328i or A3 2.0T Quattro, both of which have higher base prices. SAMSUNG CSC To the average new car shopper, it’s easy to see the appeal of the CLA. What we enthusiasts might view as a bit of a compromise, dynamically, is just as likely to be interpreted as “sporty” by the general market. Its wieldy size and high fuel economy numbers make it a boon for urban commuting. There’s more style on offer, inside and out, than its close competitors, and while another competent sedan from a non-luxury brand like a Mazda 6, Buick Regal or Volkswagen CC might offer more space and content for less money, they certainly don’t offer the luxury dealership experience included as part of the Mercedes brand, or perhaps most importantly, the three-pointed star on the trunk. This, apparently, can make all the difference. SAMSUNG CSC [gallery ids="10978,10979,10980,10981,10982,10983,10984,10985,10986,10987,10988,10989,10990,10991,10992,10993,10994,10995,10996,10997,10998"]   2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 Base price: $30,825 Price as tested: $36,700 Options on test car:  Metallic paint ($720), Burl Walnut wood trim ($325), 18-inch wheels ($500), Blind Spot Assist ($550), Panorama sunroof ($1,480), Premium Package ($2,300) Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder engine, 7-speed dual clutch automatic transmission, front-wheel drive – 208 horsepower, 258 lb-ft torque S:S:L-observed fuel economy: 28.6 mpg Mercedes-Benz provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.