Mercedes-Benz has surprises coming at the top and bottom of its model line this September.
The "little" Mercedes CLA that drew attention with its $29,900 base price will be bigger than most people expect, and offer a high-performance all-wheel drive model.
An all-new version of Mercedes' flagship S-class will debut within days of the CLA. Developed to restore Mercedes to the pinnacle of luxury and technology, the 2014 S-class will introduce driver-assistance features that constitute a significant step toward autonomous driving.
First, the CLA. People assume it's small because it's based on a front-drive platform and because the base European model is a hatchback. Those criteria summon the VW Golf compact to mind, but the CLA is about an inch longer than the C-class sedan that's Mercedes' smallest car today. Mercedes calls the CLA the most aerodynamic production car in the world, with an extraordinarily low 0.23 coefficient of drag. That's lower than exotic and hyper-expensive sports cars and electric vehicles.
The front-drive model, called the CLA250, goes on sale in September. The powerful all-wheel drive CLA45 AMG follows in November. The base CLA250 will get AWD about a year from now.
The 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine produces 208 horsepower, slightly more than the Volkswagen GTI and Audi A3. All CLA models will use a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
The CLA45 AMG is another kettle of fish. In addition to all-wheel drive, it gets a 355-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter engine. In European tests, it accelerated to 62 m.p.h. in 4.6 seconds with its top speed electronically limited to 155 m.p.h.
Expect it to cost way more than $29,900.
Mercedes was able to hold the line on the CLA250's base price and still offer plenty of features largely because of the money it saved by not engineering the platform to accommodate V6 and V8 engines in addition to the four-cylinder.
The CLA's size advantage over the C-class will be short-lived. An all-new C-class that's bigger and more expensive than the current model goes into production in Alabama next year. It should reach dealerships in fall 2014.
At the top of Mercedes' lineup, the 2014 S-class will introduce a new design theme and a host of new technologies when it goes on sale in September.
It's also likely to cost more than any previous Mercedes sedan when two larger, more-luxurious models arrive to replace Daimler's discontinued Maybach super-luxury brand. A convertible is also reportedly in the cards.
The S-class will also debut the full suite of safety systems Mercedes calls Intelligent Drive, many of which will also be available on the CLA and the face-lifted E-class due this May.
Intelligent Drive adds up to a car that can nearly drive itself, including limited automatic steering.
The system builds upon radar-based cruise control, which regulates your distance behind other vehicles and can bring the car to a gradual but complete halt. It adds the ability to use full braking power for panic stops, and sensors that read the road and the vehicle you're following to guide the steering wheel through mild turns.
The goal is to keep the car centered in its lane, so to make sure the driver doesn't do anything reckless like browsing the Internet or taking a nap, the system disables the automatic steering if your hand isn't on the wheel.
Other sensors detect an imminent collision with a vehicle or pedestrian in front of the car and warn the driver. If the driver doesn't apply the brakes, the car does it automatically with enough force to prevent impact at speeds up about 31 m.p.h.
Other sensors detect a car about to hit yours from behind when your car is stopped. It locks your brakes so your car isn't punted into traffic where other vehicles may hit it.
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