Last month, I had the opportunity to put the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 and CLA45 AMG 4-door coupes through their paces for about 200 miles around the busy streets of our nation’s capital and on to the winding back roads of Virginia’s wine country during a press drive celebrating the launch of the all-new model. The route couldn’t have been more fitting for the sport coupe and really highlighted the city, highway, and rural strengths of each unique version.

For those unfamiliar with the CLA, it follows the same 4-door coupe design language as the hot-selling higher-end CLS, the only main differences are that it’s much smaller and far less expensive. In fact, in terms of overall size, the CLA slots in just below the C Class making it the smallest model currently offered by Mercedes in the States. As for pricing, a standard issue front-wheel drive CLA250 starts at a very reasonable $29,900, excluding a destination charge of $925, making it nearly $5,500 less than the brand’s former entry-level sedan the C250 which starts at $35,325.

From the outside, just by looking at it you immediately know that the new smaller Mercedes is something special because nothing else on the road resembles it. The CLA has a distinctive sporty edge carried out by key elements including an eye-catching exterior with swooping coupe-inspired bodylines, chiseled front bumper with LED running lights, and distinctive rear-end, complete with standard dual exhaust. Major exterior options include a $2,200 sport package which boasts sport body styling and bigger 18” AMG wheels, $1,480 panorama roof, and $850 for bi-xenon headlamps and LED tail lamps.

The high-end treatments don’t stop on the outside. Inside, standard powered sport seats with MB-Tex hold you firmly in the cockpit and an easily visible instrument cluster plus a 5.8” integrated display screen atop the center stack make changing radio stations and reviewing important vitals a breeze. As for overall interior quality, the materials used are on par with the slightly more expensive C250 sedan, which shows that Mercedes truly cut no corners when designing the CLA.

If you find yourself craving more and want additional luxury features, a $1,500 interior package is available, which includes leather upholstery and MB-Tex covered dash. Also available is a premium package for $2,300, which adds auto climate control along with heated front seats and harmon/kardon Logic7 sound system. Another big ticket option is the multimedia package, which for $2,370 includes a rear-view camera and 80GB hard-drive navigation system.

Mechanically, the CLA250 boasts a standard 2.0L inline 4-cylinder turbocharged engine paired to a 7-speed dual clutch transmission, which is good for 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. This engine and transmission combination allows for fairly quick 0-60 mph sprints of around 6.9 seconds, all while still achieving average city and highway fuel ratings of 26 and 38 mpg, respectively. Despite only having 208 horsepower, the CLA’s impressive performance is made possible by a combination of the seven speed dual clutch transmission and ample amounts of torque on demand which help keep the near 3,300 pound coupe feeling light on its feet.

If the CLA250 doesn’t make your pulse race, have no fear because in proper Mercedes fashion there will also be a tire-shredding AMG version arriving later this fall. This top of the line model will be known as the CLA45 AMG and from the outside it will closely resemble the base model CLA250 equipped with the optional $2,200 sport package. However, that’s where the similarities stop as under the hood the AMG packs a menacing 355 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque delivered through a special performance-oriented 4Matic all-wheel drive system allowing for 0-60 mph sprints of 4.5 seconds, almost a full second and a half faster than the base CLA250. AMG-specific brakes, wheels, and interior components will also make this a true pocket rocket. Having all of these AMG goodies and power comes with a price, and a hefty one at that as the CLA45 AMG is expected to carry a base price of $47,450, not including $925 for destination, along with a laundry list of available features which would bring the total MSRP near $60,000.

As far as typically-equipped models are concerned, Mercedes officials anticipate that most base model CLA250s will be contented with about $5,000 worth of additional optional equipment bringing the average MSRP up to around $35,000, with high take rates of the premium and multimedia packages. Moving up the model ladder, Mercedes predicts that the average CLA45 AMG buyer will add on an additional $7,000 worth of optional content, which will bring the average MSRP up to around $55,000.

Mercedes is aiming their sights at attaining conquest sales away from other entry-level luxury cars such as the Acura ILX, Audi A3, BMW 1-Series, and Volkswagen CC. Since the CLA250 was just launched late last month it’s still too early to anticipate its future success.  Mercedes is taking a gamble by straying away from the tried-and-true rear-wheel drive platforms they have successfully built their brand around. However, given the appealing new design language along with exceptional fuel economy ratings and sub $30,000 base MSRP gives the CLA the right ingredients to succeed. In the coming months, it will be interesting to follow the performance of the CLA as Mercedes carves out a niche for itself in what is gearing up to be an ultra-competitive marketplace.