Entry-Level Luxury Sedan Comparison
BMW 320i vs. Buick Regal vs. Mercedes-Benz CLA250 vs. Volkswagen CC
The initial idea suggested to yours truly was to line up the Mercedes-Benz CLA250 against the Volkswagen CC R-Line, but the proposal was compelling for all of two minutes. Apart from vaguely sharing body shapes and having turbocharged engines with similar outputs, the bigger, $35K, entry-level luxury question asked was, “Would anybody care?”
With its big-money Super Bowl commercial, Mercedes’ hot, new people-pleaser and its alluring starting price has garnered major public attention. In contrast, the CC is perhaps the most visually attractive VW on sale, but it’s no contest when competing for market relevance. Despite dropping into customer clutches for the first time in September 2013, the CLA-Class was just 1560 units shy of besting CC sales for all of 2013 by December’s end, year for year. Of course, sales totals never singly determine a Motor Trend comparison matchup. Nevertheless, a more inclusive rethink was needed.
Because we wouldn’t have access to an MQB-underpinned Audi A3 until a month after our prospective itinerary, we turned to the other natural Germanic competitor. The MPV-like, front-drive BMW 2 Series Active Tourer is tentatively due in 2015, so a suitably priced 320i was chosen. The least expensive BMW sedan you can lease right this instant also, shockingly, starts at $4550 less than a no-frills 328i.
You’re questioning the rear drive? Hey, nobody ever specified the entry-luxe formula’s drive wheels.
With three buckaroos saddled up, we looked for a fourth compadre. The Buick Verano was the logical choice, having smote the Acura ILX in a preceding entry-luxe shootout (“Forever Young,” January 2013). But to keep the as-tested prices as tight as possible, a one-size-up Regal was selected. Heavily refreshed for 2014, it arrived equipped with a more powerful (39 more horsepower, 35 more lb-ft of torque), now standard 2.0-liter turbo-four and a more smartly designed interior. With a thriftiest-in-comparison cost of $34,685, the Buick brought the “entry” in our entry-level luxury rodeo.
And there we have it. Four cars, close in price, each with room for five and asserting better than average luxury, ready to go. We devised a plan to stay as far away from the Motor Trend offices in El Segundo, California, as we sensibly could, settling on a short tour of western Arizona to help figure which player was best.
Being unable to resist side trips, once we left the greater Los Angeles region we shook off Interstate 40 and landed on Route 66 after turning eastward out of Barstow. Unfortunately, the original Mother Road has some severely broken pavement, and that’s where it all went wrong for one of our party. We parked for a few glamour shots near Pisgah Crater and photo intern Robin Trajano earned a stripe by pointing out that the CLA’s driver-side front tire had a sidewall bubble, indicating that the internal construction had been compromised.
That the CLA250 was the only one to show an external stress marker wasn’t totally surprising. Before leaving on the road trip, each car had been sent down a quiet but beat-up-in-sections road at 65 mph to judge ride quality. The CC and Regal were plush all around, able to float over dips and bumps, with the Buick heaving up and down a little more than the Volkswagen. Even though the 320i came fitted with the passive M sport suspension -- unique springs, shock absorbers, and bushings, with 0.2/1mm thicker front/rear anti-roll bars -- as part of the $1300 Sport Package, it rode confidently on its staggered 18-inch wheels. The BMW suspension delivers a reassuring ride that’s more adept than those of the Regal or CC at snuffing motions after the wheel impact, rather than letting the car oscillate on its own. The purest of BMW purists have harangued that the current F30 3 Series isn’t as laser-focused on handling and as rewarding a driver’s driver as the E30, E36, E46, and E90. We counter the F30 is still an admirable all-around vehicle.
The CLA250 is way different. On an unblemished road, all is right. Take it out of its element—such as out on the wild remnants of Route 66 -- and the cabin sounds like all hell has broken loose. The front end is too tight, sending loud, sharp thwacks through the air where the other three broadcast softer thumps. The body control is good, even if you feel a lot of the road. We started holding our breath any time the surface took a turn for the worse, scowling until the cracks and divots disappeared. The little Merc had optional, $500 18-inch wheels. We’d like to believe the standard 17s with slightly taller-profile tires would offer enough cushioning to alter the ride, but the harshness seems more serious than a set of tires could fix.
Since the sidewall bulge swelled onto part of the outer shoulder (we could really feel it through the newly standard footwell vibration), we limped back to Barstow to find a replacement tire. With a bunch of time on our hands, it was as good a moment as any to check out our luxury cars’ interiors.
First, the BMW. The 320i’s cabin is minimalist and easy to embrace, and the back seat is the most accommodating of the four, with gobs of head- and legroom and trouble-free ingress and egress.
The Regal is much improved over the pre-refresh model. The rejuvenated center stack uses only seven buttons for the sound system (the old one had 17), the climate control and cluster display systems have been improved, and the 8-inch center screen is filled with the vibrant IntelliLink infotainment interface. Leave it to Buick to rate highly on noise control, as the car capably blocks wind and road noise when it is moving. Passengers could catch a few Zs without a passing big rig disturbing their siesta.
The CC’s interior is best described as classy. The VW, which has frameless doors, does a fine job buffing and polishing its plastic decor -- maybe the finest job of the foursome. It’s too bad the RNS 315 5-inch touch-screen navigation system is mounted too low and the software looks decidedly low-tech. Further enhancing the car’s sense of age, the iPod cable is located in the glove box instead of the center console bin. Considering the CC shares its platform with the previous-generation Passat last seen in 2010, the car’s general oldness wasn’t unexpected.
We slapped a fresh tire onto the CLA250, and before peeling out of Barstow (again), we checked out the cabin. It’s obviously smaller, pinching heads as soon as you hop in, and with 14.3 fewer cubic feet of passenger volume than the roomier CC (79.3 cubic feet versus 93.6). Back-seat legroom does not feel as tight as the 27.1-inch spec implies, but the rear headroom is as offensive to tall people as the plunging roofline suggests. Build quality and materials hold their own in this group; old-guard Mercedes customers will automatically know the CLA is the baby of the brand.
We pushed on to Boulder City, Nevada, gateway to the Hoover Dam. With our eyes set on Jerome, our route took us through Arizona Route 96 into Kirkland, eventually dumping us into Prescott via the cow-inhabited Iron Springs Road. Along the way, each car demonstrated ample passing power on the open road, with no one pining for more from the least-powerful 320i (its ZF eight-speed auto makes the most of the powerband) or any other contender. We weren’t terribly concerned with outright speed this trip. We just wanted to get to where we were going.
Hours after the sun set, the Regal was stalking the CLA250 on Route 89A leading to Jerome. The road was narrow, with the eerie kind of dark where a bright moon is of little use. Here, the Regal was as good a curvy road companion as the other three, though it did mandate first gear for the slowest hairpins. It drives like it is the most skewed toward luxury, with abundant pitch and roll, yet its wide front track and accurate steering place the car where it’s needed. Dare we say it was the second-most enjoyable in these conditions behind the at-home-on-windy-roads BMW? The CC doesn’t dive as much on the brakes as the Regal, but it’s harder to feel out the front tires through the steering. The CLA250 is nimble, but the twin-clutch automatic struggles to respond on manual toggles and the overly stiff front shakes the rest of the car, making for sweaty hands.
After overnighting in a supposedly haunted Jerome hotel, we moved south to Phoenix and finished in Yuma. Final orders were tallied and each reviewer noted a reason he’d buy each car, plus a reason he wouldn’t. First and second place were clear. First goes to the 320i, with its easygoing, composed chassis. It’s the most eager to go driving in by a long shot. Knocks against it: It’s weaker on wind-noise abatement and doesn’t come with as many features, although there are plenty of a la carte options to inflate the final price. Second sits the Regal, exceptionally outfitted with goodies including a heated steering wheel and AC power receptacle and boasting ride comfort for all ages. There’s no embarrassment in (inadvertently) taking it through a canyon.
"IntelliChoice cost of ownership calculates the CLA250 would command $1220 more to operate over 5 years than the 320i. Regal and CC: $1987 and $3738 extra over the BMW"
The votes tied the CC and CLA250, circling us back to the standoff that initiated the whole adventure. Needing to break the stalemate for third place, we flipped through the yeas and nays for the two. The CC: simple and elegantly executed, if a bit bland, and it’s definitely showing its age. The CLA250: The fuel economy (both the EPA estimate and Real MPG) is impressive, and it looks neat, but nobody mentioned the driving experience as a positive.
And as we stood there in the Arby’s parking lot in Yuma, kicking the second CLA250 tire that had formed a sidewall blister smaller than the first, we recognized that the car wearing the vaunted three-pointed star would have lost the original comparison.
4th Place: Mercedes-Benz CLA250It'll be a star when rough-riding luxury cars become all the rage.
3rd Place: Volkswagen CC 2.0T R-LineBeauty craving more substance.
2nd Place: Buick Regal TNearly bucked the “3 Series always win” trend.
1st Place: BMW 320iPrepared for any road, anywhere, any time.
Lap of LuxuryLuxury cars are special in that they are held -- justifiably so -- to a higher standard than mainstream vehicles. Luxury car shoppers are willing to take on heftier monthly payments, even when their rides aren't loaded with more frills, might not be bigger, or aren't autonomous, compared with a hoi polloi alternative costing thousands of dollars less. Brand prestige, the pursuit of quality, and the allure of high-dollar goods are strong indeed. Entry-level luxury isn't exempt from great expectations.
We've selected three features we all agreed are expected of a luxury car. Our four evaluators then voted which of the entry-luxe contenders they felt was superior in each.
As equipped, only the American was skinned in real leather ("Soleil Keisel," as David Dunbar's brand names it). With a vote apiece for the BMW and Mercedes, the takeaway is that synthesized "leather" isn't bad at all.
The cabins' build materials (including the leather) and the quality of construction were scrutinized. The big question: Do the cars' interior treatments live up to the mid-$30K asking prices?
The luxury car driver wants solidity, confidence, and comfort to register through the seat of the pants. The group's Bavarian provided a pleasant, controlled ride across all kinds of roads to sweep the category.
|2014 BMW 320i||2014 Buick Regal T|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD||Front-engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbocharged I-4, aluminum block/head||Turbocharged I-4, aluminum block/head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||121.9 cu in/1997 cc||121.9 cu in/1998 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||180 hp @ 5000 rpm||259 hp @ 5300 rpm*|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||200 lb-ft @ 1250 rpm||295 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm*|
|REDLINE||7000 rpm||6500 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||18.5 lb/hp||14.2 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||8-speed automatic||6-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F;R||12.3-in vented disc; 11.8-in vented disc, ABS||12.6-in vented disc; 12.4-in vented disc, ABS|
|WHEELS, F;R||8.0 x 18-in, cast aluminum||8.0 x 18-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES, F;R||225/45R18 91Y; 255/40R18 95Y Bridgestone Potenza S001||235/50R18 97V M+S Michelin Primacy MXM4|
|WHEELBASE||110.6 in||107.8 in|
|TRACK, F/R||60.3/61.9 in||62.4/62.5 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||182.2 x 71.3 x 56.3 in||190.2 x 73.1 x 58.4 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||37.1 ft||38.1 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3326 lb||3674 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST., F/R||50/50%||60/40%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||40.3/37.7 in||38.8/36.8 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||42.0/35.1 in||42.1/37.3 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||55.1/55.1 in||56.7/54.4 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||13.0 cu ft||14.2 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.2 sec||2.2 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.6||3.3|
|QUARTER MILE||15.1 sec @ 90.7 mph||14.8 sec @ 95.7 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||109 ft||112 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.92 g (avg)||0.84 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||26.1 sec @ 0.69 g (avg)||26.6 sec @ 0.67 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1600 rpm||1600 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$34,975||$34,685|
|AIRBAGS||Front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee||Front, f/r side, f/r curtain|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||4 yrs/50,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||6 yrs/70,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||4 yrs/unlimited||6 yrs/70,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||15.8 gal||18.0 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||24/36/28 mpg||21/30/24 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY/COMB||140/94/119 kW-hrs/100 miles||160/112/139 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMBINED||0.69 lb/mile||0.80 lb/mile|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||26/38/30 mpg||18/31/22 mpg|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|
|2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250||2014 Volkswagen CC 2.0T R-Line|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD||Front-engine, FWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbocharged I-4, aluminum block/head||Turbocharged I-4, iron block/alum head|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||121.5 cu in/1991 cc||121.1 cu in/1984 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||208 hp @ 5500 rpm||200 hp @ 5100 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||258 lb-ft @ 1250 rpm||207 lb-ft @ 1700 rpm|
|REDLINE||6300 rpm||6100 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||15.7 lb/hp||17.0 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed twin-clutch auto.||6-speed twin-clutch auto.|
|AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO||4.13:1 (1-2,4-5,R); 2.39:1 (3,6-7)/2.00:1||3.68:1 (1-4); 2.92:1 (5-6,R)/2.37:1|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs; anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F;R||12.6-in vented disc; 11.6-in disc, ABS||12.3-in vented disc; 11.1-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS, F;R||7.5 x 18-in, cast aluminum||8.0 x 18-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES, F;R||225/40R18 92W Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 2||235/40R18 95H M+S Continental ContiProContact|
|WHEELBASE||106.3 in||106.7 in|
|TRACK, F/R||60.9/60.8 in||61.1/61.4 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||182.3 x 70.0 x 56.6 in||189.1 x 73.0 x 55.8 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||36.1 ft||37.4 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3264 lb||3408 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST., F/R||61/39%||59/41%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||38.2/35.4 in||37.4/36.6 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||40.2/27.1 in||41.6/37.3 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||56.0/53.2 in||56.0/54.7 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||13.1 cu ft||13.2 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.4 sec||2.6 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.0||3.3|
|QUARTER MILE||14.9 sec @ 93.7 mph||15.1 sec @ 93.2 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||114 ft||121 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.90 g (avg)||0.85 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||26.4 sec @ 0.69 g (avg)||27.0 sec @ 0.64 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1600 rpm||2000 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$36,545||$34,990|
|AIRBAGS||Front, front side, f/r curtain, front knee||Front, front side, f/r curtain|
|BASIC WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||4 yrs/50,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||Unlimited||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||13.2 gal||18.5 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||26/38/30 mpg||22/31/25 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY/COMB||130/89/111 kW-hrs/100 miles||153/109/133 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMBINED||0.64 lb/mile||0.77 lb/mile|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||25/34/29 mpg||24/33/27 mpg|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|