After months of hype, the new “brand-extending” CLA line from Mercedes-Benz hits dealerships this fall, with a base sticker price starting at $29,900. But can you actually buy one for under $30,000? Um, no.
The vision for Mercedes’ new CLA line was born with a very specific price in mind. “From our earliest product concept, when they asked us, ‘Where does it need to be?’ we always said $29,900,’” Steve Cannon, CEO of Mercedes-Benz USA, said a few months back, according to Automotive News. “We wanted to shock people.”
Specifically, the luxury automaker is hoping to surprise young, less affluent consumers with the idea that a new Mercedes is within reach for them—that buying a Benz is not something that only rich people do. Mercedes’ move is part of a trend: Several upscale auto brands have also unveiled new models starting at around $30,000, which just so happens to be roughly the average price paid for all new cars.
The affordable new model line from Mercedes officially goes on sale in November, but the hype machine began promoting the CLA to millennials and middle-class drivers back in February, with a Super Bowl ad featuring swimsuit model Kate Upton. “We are going to offer people a whole new way to enter the Mercedes family,” Joachim Schmidt, head of sales and marketing for Mercedes, said of the CLA in early 2013, per the Detroit Free Press. “It will be much more attainable … and win over customers who never thought they could consider a Mercedes.”
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This may very well be true. But, as a USA Today columnist asked, “Is it really possible to buy a new Mercedes-Benz for less than $30,000?”
“Nope,” the article states, answering its own question. Mercedes’ $29,900 sticker price does not include a $925 shipping charge, which buyers cannot avoid. So the true starting price is closer to $31,000 than $30,000. Such pricing strategies are not unique to Mercedes; lots of other automakers woo shoppers with the same tactics.
Another strategy sure to be used by Mercedes to push the purchase price higher is a long list of options. Again, this strategy is not unique to Mercedes. But by some account, Mercedes’ range of options will be more robust than others, and the hard sell on options may be harder than others. “While there will be typical creature comforts like moonroofs and uprated stereos on the list, Mercedes is evidently also keen to cash in on the personalization craze that has been padding the bottom lines of brands like Mini and Fiat,” Autoblog noted. The personalized options include racing stripes and black and red 18-inch alloy rims.
Because of the shipping charge and the unlikelihood of anyone purchasing a base model, Mercedes expects the average CLA to sell for $34,000 or $35,000. In fact, an Edmunds.com post recently explored the idea held by skeptics that it will be nearly impossible to buy a CLA with no special options—that a base model with the eye-grabbing $29,900 sticker price could be a “never-to-be-found showroom unicorn.” (In recent years, consumers have complained that lower sticker prices of vehicles like the Hyundai Accent and Nissan Versa are fake come-ons because it’s all but impossible to find a base model at any dealership.)
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Mercedes insists that dealerships are “showing interest” in stocking CLAs “around the base price,” and that it will indeed be possible for a driver to locate and buy such a vehicle in the months ahead.
For that matter, Mercedes insists that its base model CLA sedan is handsomely equipped, and that even at the sub-$30,000 starting price it has the look and feel of a luxury car. M. Bart Herring, general manager-product management for Mercedes-Benz USA, made exactly this argument in a Wards Auto story published last week:
“If we had a product where we said we did everything to get it to $29,990 and we skimped on some things, that’s where the risk would be. When we first had the idea to offer the platform in the U.S., the primary directive was it’s got to be every bit of a Mercedes-Benz. No one can say ever that it would be less than that.”
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Well, USA Today’s James Healey claims that he and many other journalists who have been give early test drives of the new model feel that Mercedes did, in fact, cut some corners to get the price in the $30K range. While the car is gorgeous from the outside, the ride was uncomfortable (“dreadful,” in fact, according to Healey), and many of Healey’s colleagues described the interior as appearing “cheap” and “cheesy.” Healey declared the entry-level CLA a “disappointment,” and essentially said that because it doesn’t have a luxurious look and feel, it’s not a true Mercedes. “It’s not all the way there in refinement and premium persona, which largely are what make a luxury brand worthwhile.”
This may be a far bigger problem than the fact that it’s not really possible to buy the car for under $30,000.