Some brightly wrapped packages deliver way more than three pairs of brown socks or an electric toothbrush.
I know all about these things.
Too many long-ago Christmases and birthdays conditioned me to not get overly lathered up over flashy boxes – though I do have warm feet and clean teeth.
So, when a sleek, fiery red 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 sedan rolled into my driveway last week, I wondered what color socks I should expect.
I still remember the first CLA250 I drove in 2014 -- an appealing-looking compact diminished by a balky engine, clunky transmission, fidgety ride, odd handling and mediocre interior.
It never felt much like a Mercedes.
But in this, the absolute worst year ever for many of us, the new CLA surprisingly emerges as a much better, near-luxury compact with – get this – good value.
What’s next – the star-struck Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl?
Actually, Mercedes had to make the CLA better.
The Benz’s new, slightly smaller A-class sedan has replaced the CLA as the automaker’s entry-level vehicle, prompting a much-needed polishing of the repositioned CLA.
Now slightly lower, longer and wider with a revitalized engine and transmission, the CLA is the sort of well-wrapped package you’ll enjoy opening.
The sedan I had last week featured one of Mercedes’ signature broad, blacked-out grilles with an oversized Benz star in the middle and clean, low-key headlamps flanking it.
A long, strong, lightly sculpted hood hid the sedan’s humble front-wheel drive, flowing into a graceful top with enough curve in it to be a coupe. (All-wheel-drive, incidentally, is optional.)
Although the sides were simple and mostly smooth, they sported some of Benz’s subtle surfacing, which provides definition without a bunch of overly busy lines.
Meanwhile, five-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped with 225/40 tires kept things well-grounded while enhancing the CLA’s pleasing proportions.
But for me, the heart of the CLA’s little transformation was its turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder engine, which has been upgraded to 221-horsepower.
While that’s not huge muscle for a sedan that weighs about 3,400 pounds, the little engine is tuned nicely, delivering lusty responses and – at last – a premium performance feel.
Punch the accelerator and a slight turbo pause quickly fades into a satisfying rush of power that stays strong past 6,000 rpm.
Sixty miles per hour now arrives in a swift 6.2 seconds, giving the CLA the sort of propulsion needed to merge with mad-dog urban traffic.
The engine also can deliver 28 miles per gallon overall fuel economy.
It is still bolted to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic that, as in the past, could be clunky, particularly when shifting from reverse to drive or on downshifts.
But like the engine, the transmission is better than it was a few years ago, maintaining smooth, positive shifts most of the time.
What really completed the CLA’s package, though, was its high-end handling and ride.
Even with front-wheel-drive, the CLA slices into corners at moderate speeds, feeling almost like a sports sedan with minimal body lean and good traction.
Moreover, the steering was quick, light and well-matched to the CLA – a rarity in this era of electric power-steering units.
Likewise, Mercedes appears to have spent some time and effort in giving the CLA’s interior a true near-luxury feel – commendable in a car with a sticker of about $42,000.
As in Benzes costing twice as much, the black interior in my CLA was anchored by two highly horizontal 10.25-inch digital displays side by side for the instrument panel and infotainment system.
They worked well with a couple of highly irritating exceptions.
For one, the stereo had to be tuned with tiny arrows on the infotainment screen. Even more exasperating, the CLA was equipped with one of Benz’s maddening touchpads on the console, which was a vague pain to use and changed channels on the stereo if I breathed hard on it.
I’ve crossed paths with this pad in several Mercedes-Benzes now and was inclined to toss all of them out a window -- at high speed.
However, the car did offer plenty of useful tech, including blind-spot assist, speed-limit assist, brake assist and attention assist, as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The CLA’s classy leather seats almost compensated for the cursed touchpad, providing bolsters that kept me planted in my seat and inviting sectioned centers.
Leg- and headroom in back were reasonable for a compact sedan, though the car’s nicely curved top cuts into the space for tall passengers.
My reasonably priced CLA arrived with about a half-dozen options, among them a multimedia package ($1,150); premium package ($1,100); and the 18-inch wheels ($200). Most entry-level near-luxury sedans are still over-priced, lack any special content and aren’t as nice as many well-equipped mainstream sedans.
Much to my surprise, given its unremarkable origins, the CLA manages to deftly rise above all of that and still provide some value.
2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 Review
- What I liked most: The CLA’s well-rounded combination of styling, performance, value and even a bit of three-star cachet
- What I would change: Benz’s truly wretched touchpad, a device that makes a strong case for low-tech
- MSRP: $36,650; as equipped, $42,195
- Official color: Jupiter Red
- Fuel economy: 25 miles per gallon in the city, 35 on the highway and 28 mpg overall with filler on the left
- Odometer reading when tested: 3,221 miles
- Spare tire: None
- Weight: About 3,400 pounds
- Length-width-height: 184.6 inches long/72 inches wide/56.7 inches tall
- Fuel-tank capacity: 13.5 gallons
- Towing capacity: Not applicable
- 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 in a few words: One of the most improved entry-level near-luxury sedans and that rarest of luxury vehicles – a pretty good value
- Warranty: Four-year, 50,000-mile overall warranty
- Final assembly location: Kecskemet, Hungary
- Manufacturer’s website: www.mbusa.com
- E-mail me at email@example.com
- Up next: 2020 Toyota Corolla Hatchback SE