by Adam Lynton
The CLA-Class was the first front-wheel-drive model and the smallest vehicle that Mercedes-Benz sold in the USA, designed to attract a younger audience into the Mercedes scope. But at the top of every Mercedes model range there must be and AMG, and the quickest of the CLAs, boldly wears the CLA 45 nomenclature as a compact four-door coupe with more than just a hint of aggression. Now in the final year of the first generation, the all-wheel-drive speedster retains the use of a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission to deliver incredible outputs of 375 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque. The 0-60 mph effort takes just 4.1 seconds, placing the CLA 45 in some esteemed company. But rivalries are tough in this junior segment, with the Audi RS3 sedan and BMW M2 both wanting a piece of the action. Can the now aging, less dynamically talented AMG, fend off its rivals long enough for reinforcements to arrive?
The Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 rolls into 2019 fitted with new 19-inch alloy wheels and last year's optional Premium and Convenience Packages equipped as standard. With these minor changes, the starting MSRP of the AMG CLA 45 has gone up by around $3,000. Changes are fairly minimal this year as Mercedes-Benz USA gets ready to introduce the all-new 2020 CLA 45 later in 2019.
he Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 presents as the cheapest amongst the trio of luxury performance compacts, with an MSRP starting at $53,100 in base guise excluding tax, registration, licensing, and Mercedes' delivery, processing, and handling fees of $995. Opting for a fully-loaded AMG CLA 45 with all the packages can quickly see the price increase to more than $60,000. The RS3 is $3,000 more expensive, and the M2 Competition another $2,000 beyond that.
See trim levels and configurations:
|AMG CLA 45 4MATIC||
2.0L Turbo Inline-4 Gas
All the power in the world means nothing if you can't control it, which is why Mercedes-AMG set tongues wagging when they gave the CLA 45 standard all-wheel-drive. But it's only a part-time setup, meaning under regular conditions drive is only sent to the front axle, with the rear engaged only when slippage occurs. More than this, only 50% of the torque can be apportioned to the rear axle.
It leads to a flawed experience, and the CLA 45 will quickly hunt out any understeer to be found through a fast corner. Subsequent to the midlife facelift, Mercedes sought to remedy this with the fitment of a limited-slip differential, while the standard-fit brake assisted torque vectoring was recalibrated. It works to a point, and the CLA 45 makes you feel superhuman behind the wheel. But that's until the brakes overheat and understeer prevails once more. It naturally takes a toll on braking performance, as the brakes are already worn by steering before you even need to bring the CLA to a halt.
That's not the only flaw in the CLA 45's armor, though, as the steering is just as guilty in its own right. The wheel is wonderful to hold; beautifully sculpted, and clad in leather and Alcantara - it's a piece of automotive artwork. But it's completely lifeless. Direct as the responses may be, there's just no feedback, meaning you hear the understeer before the steering wheel tells you it's about to happen.
And then there's the ride quality. By all means, firm is meant to be fast, but the CLA 45 is unyielding. In its softest mode, it's a livable experience, but when hurtling down a twisty section of back road, the suspension is incapable of adjusting as quickly as the road surface does, jarring the occupants and leaving the tires scrabbling for grip with no assistance from the suspension setup.
Don't get me wrong, the CLA 45 is rapid, and if you point and squeeze it down a road it'll likely get you there quicker than machines more than double its price, and make you feel like a superhero for doing so, but it's cold and uninvolving, and the lack of composure makes it a dull driving tool.
Mercedes-AMG was lauded for the CLA 45's incredible performance when it first launched, and sure, it was impressive. But while the CLA 45 was a great first effort, it wasn't and isn't without its flaws. It may be rapid from point to point, but it does so in too sterile a manner to be truly enjoyable. The engine is a true crowning jewel at the heart of the exemplary performance, but it's let down by a dimwitted dual-clutch automatic whose only party tricks are launch control and a hail of gunfire from the exhausts on upshifts. The handling doesn't really do it much justice either, overly firm and crashy - generally, just not the sharpest knife in the drawer. An RS3 is sharper, and a BMW M2 wholly more involving. That pretty much sums up the CLA 45 in a nutshell - uninvolving and outdone by its rivals, and while it may make all the AMG noises you like, it's not the best product to come from the mad scientists of Affalterbach.
As a standalone model at the top of the pecking order, it really comes down to what options you want to add to your CLA 45 to make it your own. To get the most out of it, we'd recommend the AMG Dynamic Plus Package for the adaptive suspension and limited-slip diff, as well as the Driver Assistance Package. To get all the pops and bangs, the AMG Performance exhaust is a must-have, too. Inside, the AMG Performance front seats are pricey, but they're worth it for the extra support they offer, while on the infotainment front, the Smartphone Integration Package is an absolute no brainer. All-in, you're looking at $60,650, but it leaves the CLA 45 in a real position to be able to rival the best from Audi Sport and BMW M.
The CLA 45 might be cold, but Audi pioneered the fast all-wheel-drive compact with their own sterile RS3. Fortunately, Audi has come a long way, and the RS3 is a lot more soulful than it once was. Not only is it more enjoyable from a driver's perspective than the CLA 45, but it's more precise as a driver's machine too. Speed is a given, with the sonorous 2.5-liter five-cylinder turbo motor developing a manic 394 horsepower and 354 lb-ft of torque, sending the all-wheel-drive Audi sedan from 0-60 in 3.9 seconds as compared to the CLA 45's 4.1. What really seals the deal, though, is the Audi's attention to detail. It's faster and sounds better, but inside it feels like a truly premium product with an intuitive infotainment system, high levels of technology, and practical ingress and egress to the back seats; the CLA only looks premium but in reality feels quite cheap. It's point one to the Audi.
There's no subtler way to say it, but in the compact luxury performance realm, the BMW M2 Competition reigns supreme. As the only vehicle of the trio of Germans to be based on a rear-wheel-drive platform, it's a more precise, more enjoyable driver's machine that prioritizes fun over clinical A-to-B speed. It's quick too, with a sonorous twin-turbo six-cylinder developing 405 hp and 406 lb-ft. What's more, BMW gives you the option of a stick shift. Sure, it doesn't have the all-weather tractability of the CLA 45, and it definitely doesn't have the rear seat space or even rear doors found on the AMG, but as a performance machine, it just ticks all the right boxes. It does so without compromising daily usability, though, and on the road it's pliant and easy-going, making it the last word in compact performance cars.
The most popular competitors of 2019 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45: