Mercedes Classes Explainedby Richard Rowe
Things used to be so simple at the Silver Arrow -- "A" was little, "S" was big, and everything in between was in between. That's it. Mercedes universally adopted its class system in the early 1980s, perhaps drawing inspiration from BMW's similar sizing system using numbers. Back then, few people had predicted that the automotive world would one day explode into the massively diverse market it is today, or that Mercedes itself would wind up building vehicles that seemed neither fish nor fowl in its own nomenclature. These days, you can still see hints of Mercedes' original size-classing -- but exception now certainly seems to be the rule.
A-, B- and CLA-Classes
The A-Class certainly follows the original Mercedes size-classing scheme; this entry-level Baby Benz introduced in 1997 is a compact front-driver that might have been unrecognizable to Americans as a Mercedes when it was first introduced. Proportionally, the original version looked a bit like a cross between a Honda Fit and a Smart ForTwo -- appropriate, since Mercedes also makes Smart. The modern iteration looks more akin to a Mazda3, and may or may not enter the North American Market in the near future. The reason it probably won't is that in 2013, Mercedes began selling the CLA-Class here. The CLA, famously marketed as "the only Benz under $30,000," is effectively a new European A-Class with new sheetmetal, different engines and optional all-wheel drive. The B-Class is a slightly enlarged A-Class with more powerful engine options, but is otherwise identical to the A-Class.
C- and E-Class
In North America, the rear-drive C-Class is a step up in terms of both size and price from the CLA-Class, with an approximately $5,000 higher buy-in price for base models. It competes most directly with the BMW 3-Series, and its popularity reflects its place in this market segment. As of 2014, Mercedes has introduced an all-new aluminum chassis that's 220 pounds lighter than its forbear, but the previous-generation car remains on sale. Engine options include a 2.5-liter diesel, 3.5-liter six cylinder, 4.0-liter hybrid, 5.5-liter V-8 and a bomb known as the AMG 6.3-liter. It comes in both coupe and sedan forms. The E-Class is a step up the sizing and pricing ladder, falling in the mid-sized segment with an approximately 5-inch longer body. It offers two or four doors, and most of the same engines as the C-Class, but with more interior room and luxury amenities, and a $15,000 higher buy-in for base models.
The S-Class is Mercedes' flagship sedan, directly competing against the Audi A8 and BMW 7-Series. True to its name and history, The Big is a high-speed, luxurious autobahn cruiser that evokes thoughts of a ground-level private jet while driving. One of the S-Class' more telling options is a 124.6-inch wheelbase, which is about 5 inches longer than the standard S-Class' and almost a foot longer than the longest E-Class. And every bit of that goes to rear leg room for chauffeur-driven customers. It's Mercedes' most expensive sedan, at about $100,000 for a base model and going for upward of a quarter million if you tick every option box.
G- and M-Class
To draw analogies in more American terms: the G-Class is a four-door Jeep Wrangler, an M-Class is a Chevrolet Equinox crossover SUV and the GL-Class is a new Ford Explorer. The "K" on the end of GLK" means "Kompact," and ostensibly it's a slightly smaller version of the GL. However, in reality, it's a high-riding station wagon based on the C-Class sedan chassis; so, if the GL is a Ford Explorer, then a GLK might best be compared to a Ford Flex. It competes directly with the Q5 from Audi. The GLA "compact crossover"...in terms of description, it's almost beyond sense or reason. Think "very large four-door hatchback with a suspension lift and optional four-wheel drive." Given that, the closest American equivalent might actually be the worlds very first crossover: the 1980 AMC Eagle. Of course, being Mercedes, all of these are far more luxurious, much more powerful and orders of magnitude more expensive than any other brand mentioned here. Price-wise, the range starts with the GLA, then the GLK, M-Class, GL and finally Mercedes' $100,000, current Hollywood "it" car, the G-Class.
Despite its name, the SL class is in no way, shape or form related to the S-Class. Far from it: "SL" stands for "Sport Light" in English, and that tells you everything you need to know about it. The base SLK roadster is the smallest and cheapest of them at about $45,000, and the The SLS is the modern incarnation of the classic Mercedes "gullwing" 300SL, a brutally precise two-seater known as much for its signature upward-hinging doors as anything else. The SLR, though -- it's known for its AMG-built, 622-horsepower, 6.2-liter engine and low-11-second quarter-mile times. It's been called the "German Viper" by the American automotive press, and a no-holds-barred muscle car by the European press. That would be an easy case to make, given the engine's gut-punching soundtrack, but a slightly harder one to make given its $228,000 base price. Of course, you can buy a base SL for about half that much; the AMG63 engine is a $50,000 option, which makes it almost a bargain compared to the SLS, and one of the baddest Mercedes available. Unless, of course, you want to buy a used 2003 to 2010 McLaren SLR.
Richard Rowe has been writing professionally since 2007, specializing in automotive topics. He has worked as a tractor-trailer driver and mechanic, a rigger at a fire engine factory and as a race-car driver and builder. Rowe studied engineering, philosophy and American literature at Central Florida Community College.