So when the three-pointed star – that talisman for all that is powerfully, luxuriously, stoutly German – is mentioned by executives in the same breath as Honda and Ford, toxicologists swab the Riesling glasses for trace psychedelics.

Vital Stats

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 and CLA45 AMG

  • Base price: $30,825 (CLA250, incl $835 dest charge), $48,285 (CLA45)
  • Price as tested: $33,695 (CLA250), $58,385 (CLA45)
  • Powertrain: 208hp, 258lb-ft, turbocharged 2-litre four-cylinder gasoline engine (CLA), 355hp, 332lb-ft 2-litre (CLA45), seven-speed dual-clutch transmission
  • EPA fuel economy: 26mpg city, 38mpg highway (CLA250), TBA (CLA45)
  • Standard equipment: Mbrace2 technology suite, 5.8in display screen, Eco start-stop, power seats, collision-prevention assist, electro-mechanical power steering
  • Major options: Leather upholstery, 19in wheels, Recaro seats, performance exhaust, panorama sunroof, collision warning system, Distronic Plus, AMG night styling

The disruptive force in the starry firmament is called “CLA”, and it redefines what a Mercedes-Benz can be and who can afford to drive one. Compact with a sensuous, coupe-like shape and a starting price of $29,990 in the US ($30,825 including destination charge), the sedan is Mercedes’ special envoy to that young, entrepreneurial consumer bloc commonly called Generation Y. As such, the CLA is a life insurance policy for Mercedes, targeting motorists whose brand loyalty would presumably deepen and diversify in step with their stock portfolios.

But the CLA’s other target is someone who might otherwise purchase a generously equipped Honda Accord or Ford Fusion – and who is older. “If we come in at 41, we’d be thrilled,” says Mercedes-Benz USA chief executive Steve Cannon, referencing a highly sought-after age for average buyers. “And at this price, now you’re talking about someone who might’ve been thinking Honda or Ford.” If the CLA seized just a sliver of the mainstream sedan market, the financial impact on Mercedes would be massive, Cannon indicated.

The task before the CLA, then, is daunting: deliver the prestige and performance that Mercedes-Benz customers expect, at a price that could woo a few mainstream buyers. It is an overwhelming brief, and the resulting machine shows the strain – one moment throwing off sparks of brilliance, the next veering off into teeth-gnashing incompetence. Like a politician serving irreconcilable constituencies, the CLA appeases more than it pleases.

Where the CLA does enjoy broad consensus is on its design. This is among the most exuberantly styled new sedans at any price point. Borrowing lines from its suave up-market sibling the CLS, the CLA also bears Mercedes’ aggressive new familial snout, and carries subtle flares and bulges confidently towards its pert rear. The interior pivots around three centre-mounted air vents, with a purposeful, E-Class-calibre sport steering wheel framing clear analogue gauges. A multimedia screen rests atop the centre vents but does not impede forward vision.

Scrutinise the CLA, though, and an un-Mercedes picture emerges. Door locks have all the tensile strength of No 2 pencils; a determined child could snap the slender black stalks where they stand. Unsightly sheet metal peeks out between door panels and pillars. Rapping knuckles against the dash produces a tinniness evocative of pre-bailout General Motors products. By adhering zealously to a sub-$30,000 price point, Mercedes smuggled in sub-$15,000 materials and build practices. Volkswagen has earned similar razzes for gutting its Jetta sedan, once a critical darling, to serve a sub-$16,000 starting price. If such practices were unbecoming of Volkswagen, how do they reflect on Mercedes-Benz?

Fortunately, CLA engineers salvage their reputations on the roadway. Built atop a new front-wheel-drive platform already in use (at least outside the US) on the lauded A-Class hatchback, the CLA gamely flexes its suspension over two-lane country roads, exhibiting balance and steering feel that would flatter its sportier, pricier stable mates. The base car, branded the CLA250, is motivated by a 2-litre in-line turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque – the first application of the engine in the brand’s US portfolio – and it is feisty as it is efficient; Mercedes estimates it returns 26mpg in the city and an impressive 38mpg in highway driving.

Power is channelled through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, also in its first US application, which can be mapped for efficient behaviour by pressing the “Eco” button on the centre instrument stack. A driver can also change gears using steering wheel-mounted paddles, but Formula 1 hopefuls, take heed – the CLA might upshift unbidden well short of the tachometer’s 6,500rpm red line. It mocks your high-revving pretentions.

Such unpredictable dynamics may be accepted, however grudgingly, in a $30,000 entry-level luxury car. They are far more difficult to pardon in the CLA45 AMG, the hardcore product from Mercedes’ in-house tuning division.

AMG wrings a ludicrous 355hp from a modified version of the 250’s petite 2-litre engine, which, in tandem with the CLA45’s standard 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, facilitates a zero-to-60mph sprint in 4.5 seconds. Larger wheels, revised exhaust, reinforced gearbox housing, beefier suspension and a raft of cosmetic upgrades can quickly push the go-fast CLA’s price close to a knee-knocking $60,000. That matters little when wicked pops of exhaust overrun are quivvering up your spine on downshifts, yet for all the differentiators thrown at the AMG – revised fascias, cherry-red seat belt straps, that berserk exhaust – the panel gaps and play-set plastics carry over from the CLA250 unaddressed. A shopper stepping from an Audi S4 or Lexus IS350 F Sport into the AMG might not even bother to turn the ignition key. And that is saying nothing of Mercedes’ larger C63 AMG, which can be approached for $61,000. Plastics do not rattle in there.

Perhaps the greater sin for AMG, a house of black arts known for borderline-satanic engine tuning, is the 2-litre unit’s perfunctory approach to power. Whether pulling away from a stoplight or overtaking on the highway, the CLA45 is up to the task, but it lacks that depraved, deeply vulgar character that makes AMG power plants so fearsome.

If anything, the CLA45 highlights how accomplished – even desirable – the base CLA250 can be. A $33,695 outlay brings 18in alloy wheels, engine stop-start, Mercedes’ Comand navigation and connectivity system, power front seats, rain-sensing wipers and durable yet handsome MB-Tex synthetic leather upholstery. Buzzy plastics and panel gaps notwithstanding, the base car looks and generally performs like a proper sport sedan. And that oversize three-pointed star on the grille is an incentive that no Honda “H” or Ford blue oval can match.

The question facing buyers is, does a three-pointed star a Mercedes make?