This weekend will be known as the time when an impromptu trip out of town became an extended, three-day test drive. It was not just any test drive, mind you, but a chance to check out one of the newest models from the world’s oldest car manufacturer. And at the end of the weekend, I’m left with one question: keep DH or buy something new? I’ll answer that by the time I conclude this post.
For the long Labor Day weekend, I headed out of town to visit a friend in Alabama. Upon my arrival, I checked in with Hertz Rental Cars, my car rental agency of choice. I had made a reservation in advance; they had a Chevrolet Cruze for me. On a moment’s inspiration, I thought I’d treat myself to something nice, so I asked what other cars were available. There were slim pickings on this holiday weekend. The other choices were a Hyundai something-or-other, a Chevrolet Impala, and a Ford Mustang convertible, none of which I found terribly inspiring. As I was about to resign myself to the Cruze, the latest in a series of mediocre rental cars, the associate said,”Hang on a second… would you be interested in a Mercedes-Benz?”
“How much?” I asked. I’d never driven a Benz of any shape or form before, so the idea was intriguing. However, when I had priced out luxury rental cars in the past, they had always proven to be far too expensive.
The manager stared into his computer screen: “Well… let’s see… between your AAA discount, your frequent membership… and because you’ve been a good customer… we can put you in it for the same price as the Impala. It’s parked in space 20. Go check it out, and if you want it, it’s yours.”
I made my way to the parking lot and immediately spotted the car: a 2016 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 in white. One glance around the vehicle, and I was sold. I dashed back to the Hertz counter, finalized the arrangements, and grabbed the keys.
The CLA-class was introduced in 2013, a design based on both the A-class and B-class. A four-door compact executive sedan, the car is powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Built in Hungary, the CLA-class is an entry-level luxury vehicle that competes in a segment that includes the Acura ILX, the BMW 2-series, the Audi A3, and the Lexus IS. Compact, yet spacious, the car seemed a capable performer during the initial drive to my friend’s home.
Saturday we left early to go to breakfast at Another Broken Egg cafe. A restaurant specializing in breakfast and lunch, Another Broken Egg provided a delicious meal with a view of the Black Warrior River in the background. Our stomachs full, we set off on a road trip to visit Pints and Pixels, an 80’s video game arcade in Huntsville, Alabama, approximately 160 miles away (my friend Jason, expert in all things 80’s, had discovered it online). It would be a good opportunity to test out the Benz and see how the vehicle handled an extended road trip. Along the way, we also stopped by the Mercedes-Benz factory in Vance, Alabama, which has been producing M-class (now GLE-class) sport utility vehicles since 1993. It is the manufacturing headquarters of Mercedes-Benz USA, and seemed an appropriate place to visit with the car. After our excursion to Huntsville, we finished with dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Birmingham, before heading home.
I took notes throughout the drive on Saturday, and I thought it would be interesting to compare the Benz to DH. How does this executive sedan stack up against my four-year old Accord coupe? Is it a fair fight? Does the Benz make me consider ditching DH and replacing it with this luxury car? I compared the two cars across eight categories that I felt would be important to a prospective buyer (namely, me).
Engine: The CLA has a 2.0 liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine producing 208 horsepower. DH has a a 3.5-liter V6 with Honda’s vaunted i-VTEC system and pumps out 271 horsepower. The Benz has an energetic, puppy-dog quality to it: it always wants to rev up quickly. However, once you’re at highway speeds, it seems to run out of steam a little. Also, the turbocharger has a noticeable lag at times, causing a bit of a stutter when you try to swiftly accelerate. The Accord, meanwhile, tends to waft lazily around around town. Bury the throttle into the floor, keep the revs above 4000 rpm, and DH transforms into an absolute beast, leaving most cars in the dust. Winner: DH.
Transmission: The weakest link of both cars. The 7-speed automatic in the Benz wasn’t particularly inspiring. It hunted for gears at times, and depending on which Dynamic Mode (more on this later) you engaged, the gears were either too short or too long. Honda automatics are still the company’s weak link, and I think some of the Accord’s sluggishness about town is due to its transmission. Winner: Even.
Handling: This is where the Benz shines. It’s chassis handles twists and curves easily, yet also soaks up bumps quite well. The 160-mile drive on Saturday was relaxing, leaving me feeling neither tired nor sore. While the Accord is agile, it is not nearly as nimble as the Benz. It tends to crash over bumps and potholes. It also takes more effort to drive at highway speed over distances. It’s not bad, mind you, but not nearly as refined as the Mercedes. Winner: CLA.
Design: The CLA is an attractive car, and its lines are consistent with the rest of the Mercedes-Benz family. It has an aggressive front-end and curvy lines that are more coupe than sedan, and it has a timeless quality that will still look good a decade from now. The 8th generation Accord sedan was one of the most drab and boring cars ever made by Honda, which makes the styling of the Accord coupe that much more noteworthy- it is far more aggressive and attractive than the Accord sedan. That said, it’s an aging design that first came out in 2008. Winner: CLA.
Visibility: My Dad recently loaned me a book about German tanks in WWII. In it, the author, a former German Tiger tank commander, relays how when a tank reverses, it must have a spotter behind it, as the driver will have zero visibility rearward, and will likely end up running into a ditch, backing into a building, or crushing a bystander. In this regard, the Benz was basically like driving a Tiger tank. Rear visibility was atrocious, and Hertz for some reason failed to spring for the optional backup camera. The swooping roofline, tiny rear window, and large rear headrests made for some interesting moments. The too-small side mirrors were also unhelpful. The Accord, meanwhile, despite its coupe design, has more glass than your local aquarium. Winner: DH, by a mile.
Interior: For its relatively low price-point, the Benz uses high-quality leather and materials. Nothing feels cheap and plasticky. The seats are comfortable and supportive. The Accord has less expensive leather, and lots of cheaper plastic. It feels like it was designed to hit a price point, while the Benz feels like it was designed despite its price point. DH is a bigger car, however, and has more room for passengers and cargo. Despite this, it’s just not in the same class. Winner: CLA.
Electronics: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The Benz is very high tech. From its four Dynamic Modes, which change the steering feel, shock absorber softness, and engine revving points, to its constant monitoring of your driving to assure safety, the car screams high-tech. It also screams “unintuitive” and “over-complicated.” I had to resort to the manual several times to figure out how different functions operated. I didn’t even bother trying to connect my phone via Bluetooth. The Dynamic Modes were also disappointing, as I never found one that fit my driving style. The Accord is far simpler, and controls are easily readable and intuitive. Everything falls to hand easily. My Dad’s Accord, which is more high-tech than DH, is also easy to use and understand. The Benz is packed with tech, but it’s hard to use. The Accord has very little tech, but everything works simply. Winner: Even.
Odds-and-ends: Both cars lose on road noise. Accords are always noisy, but I was shocked at the amount of tire noise from the Benz. The CLA was running a set of Pirelli run-flat tires (there is no spare tire), so I wonder if a set of Nokian or Continental tires would made things quieter. Unlike the Accord, however, there was no wind noise at all in the CLA. The Accord’s fuel efficiency is great for a V6 engine. According to the posted specifications, the Benz has better fuel efficiency on paper, but that wasn’t reflective of my time with it- it felt like it guzzled gas quickly. The Benz could also take a few lessons from Honda on simplicity: I should not need the owners manual to find the hood release or figure out how to open the fuel door. The Benz also nags you. A LOT. If you’ve been driving for a while it’ll flash a cup of coffee at you and tell you incessantly to take a break. If you open the door, it yells at you to remember your keys. The Accord, meanwhile, politely reminds you to wear your seatbelt, and leaves the rest of the driving to you. The Benz’s gauges are better designed and easier to read than the Accord’s, however. And while I’m not a snob, there is something reassuring about looking at the steering wheel or the hood and seeing that three-point star- it’s a Benz, after all. It’s called “curb appeal,” and the CLA has it in spades. Finally, a Benz, like a Rolex, is something you pass down to future generations, not trade in every 3 years. And no matter how old your car, Mercedes will always supply you with replacement parts (even if they need to fabricate new ones at the factory). Winner: CLA.
My verdict? The Mercedes-Benz is the better car, but not by as much as you might think. Honda makes a great product, all the more so that a four-year old mass-market vehicle can compete with a brand new luxury car. It’s interesting that Mercedes is beginning to target a segment of the population it has historically ignored: aspirational luxury buyers. Will I rush out, sell DH, and buy a Benz? No, that would be silly. My Accord coupe is a great car.
Things get more interesting, however, if I think about my next car. Were DH to be severely damaged in an accident or to suffer some kind of catastrophic mechanical failure, and replacement became necessary, the CLA would compete very favorably against a new Accord. It gets even more interesting if we include the option for Mercedes’ 4Matic all-wheel drive system. The CLA 250 4Matic would cost about the same as the Accord V6 Touring, but that great Honda doesn’t have an all-wheel drive option. Mercedes-Benz has created a vehicle that will attract many new buyers to its brand (indeed, total sales of the CLA-class has already exceeded 100,000). I think the company that should worry the most is Acura, Honda’s luxury division. Most buyers of an Accord would not being looking at a Mercedes, and vice-versa. The same cannot be said about buyers exploring an Acura ILX or TLX. While Honda has recently refreshed its lineup quite successfully, Acura’s vehicles are in need of a similar shot of adrenalin. I’ll be eager to see what the designers of the terrific new NSX can do with the rest of Acura’s fleet.
Thanks for coming along for my first ever automotive review!
‘Til next time.