WASHINGTON – The entry-level ’14 CLA sedan represents one of 30 new Mercedes-Benz vehicles bound for introduction within the next seven years, and the German brand is counting on a strong launch to help it remain the No.1 U.S. luxury brand in 2013.

Cars started shipping last Friday from a plant in Kecskemet, Hungary, with a starting price of $29,990, excluding $925 destination and handling charges. Journalists were in the nation’s capitol this week for test drives here.

For most of the past decade, Mercedes has trailed BMW, Lexus and, at times, Cadillac, in the annual U.S. sales race. But the brand has finished first the past two years and is on pace to repeat this year.

Through August, Mercedes has sold 203,147 vehicles, good for a segment-leading 18.6% market share, according to WardsAuto data. The automaker’s highest-ever U.S. market share was 19.1% in 2011. The all-time sales peak came last year, with 294,984 vehicles.

“Mercedes-Benz the brand has strong momentum. We are riding a strong tailwind of a recovering market,” Bernie Glaser, vice president-marketing for Mercedes-Benz USA, tells journalists. “Every month this year was another record for Mercedes-Benz.”

The CLA is intended to draw lower-income customers, but the brand’s new flagship, the S-Class sedan, will ply the top end of the luxury segment as well when it debuts next month.

The new entry-level sedan comes in two stripes: the front-wheel-drive CLA250 now arriving in showrooms and the high-powered all-wheel-drive CLA45 AMG 4Matic, going on sale in the fourth quarter.

By spring 2014, an AWD 4Matic version of the CLA250 will be available, followed in third-quarter 2014 by the B-Class compact electric vehicle and the GLA250 4Matic cross/utility vehicle.

Both the B-Class and GLA will share the CLA platform, unlike the new C-Class, which begins production for the first time in the U.S. at the Mercedes plant in Vance, AL, in 2014.

The CLA250 is powered by a direct-injected 2.0L turbocharged 4-cyl. engine rated at 208 hp and 258 lb.-ft. (350 Nm) of torque.

Estimated EPA fuel economy is 26/38 mpg (9.0-6.1 L/100 km) city/highway, which is consistent with test drives this week through Virginia.

A diesel engine will not be offered at launch but is being considered, a Mercedes executive says.

The CLA45 AMG 4Matic comes with a high-output version of the same 2.0L turbo I-4 creating 355 hp and 332 lb.-ft. (450 Nm) of torque. 

Fuel-economy numbers are not yet available for the AMG car, but 21 mpg (11.1 L/100 km) is observed during a moderately paced test drive through Maryland.

The AMG version starts at $47,450, but a Mercedes executive says a fully loaded car likely will price closer to $60,000.

A 7-speed dual-clutch transmission is standard in both vehicles, and no manual transmission is offered. A Mercedes executive says customers show little interest in 3-pedal gearboxes. The manual in the SLK roadster has a 2% take-rate.

Mercedes is counting on the CLA to “recalibrate the value perception” and expects a base price below $30,000 to draw in new customers, even those with thin credit histories.

“We are working with Mercedes-Benz Finance to understand this customer to make sure we can get them into the car and get them into the brand and that credit history, or lack of credit history, doesn’t hurt them,” says M. Bart Herring, general manager-product management for MBUSA.

Herring discounts concerns that opening the brand to lower-income buyers will deplete the brand’s exclusivity.

“What we love about the opportunity to get those customers in there is we have a great product and a great dealer network,” Herring says of Mercedes’ 359 U.S. stores.

Ford or Toyota customers may have enjoyed their dealership experiences, he says, “but it’s not a luxury experience. We don’t see a lot of downside if you do it right.”

However, doing it wrong is a big mistake, he admits.

“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.”

tmurphy@wardsauto.com