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.
Mercedes pioneered the four-door coupe segment with the CLS more than a decade ago, and with the CLA they've retained those same design cues, albeit in miniature. The AMG CLA 45 rides on 19-inch multi-spoke or cross-spoke alloy wheels. Up front, the signature AMG twin-blade grille is flanked by LED headlights, and daytime running lights illuminate the way. The front bumpers boast sculpted air intakes and black detailing specific to the CLA 45. At the rear, quad chrome tailpipes are housed in the AMG-specific rear bumper, while integrated on the sloping trunk lid is a black lip spoiler.
As the smallest compact Mercedes vehicle available in the U.S., the AMG CLA 45 is also one of the lightest performance compacts on the market. With a curb weight of 3,450 pounds, it is lighter than both the Audi RS3 and BMW M2 Competition. The swooping bodywork measures 183.8 inches in length, spread over a 106.3-inch wheelbase. It stands a mere 55.7 inches tall, and at 80 inches wide it showcases a low, wide presence on the road.
A color palette of nine exterior paint options is available for the 2019 AMG CLA 45 comprising Jupiter Red, Polar White, and Night Black as the standard options. For an extra $720 it can be optioned in either Cosmos Black, Polar Silver, Mountain Gray, Lunar Blue, or Cocoa Brown metallics, and finally, for an extra $2,500, designo Polar Silver Magno gives the CLA 45 a matte finish exterior. Any of the lighter options are good choices that play well off the CLA's curves and kinks, but if it were up to us, we'd stick with the no-cost Jupiter Red to highlight the CLA 45's performance.
The AMG CLA 45's turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four engine launches the AMG CLA 45 from 0-60 mph in just 4.1 seconds, two-tenths slower than the more powerful Audi RS3 but one-tenth quicker to the mark than the BMW M2 Competition. The astonishing acceleration is largely due to the engine's muscle, but, power is nothing without control, and the standard-fit 4MATIC all-wheel-drive system helps the CLA leap cleanly off the line, while the quick-fire dual-clutch automatic keeps things on the boil. The AMG CLA 45's top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph by default, but the selection of the Driver Assistance Package sees this raised to 168 mph.
If only it were that simple, though. But in the real world, on paper figures can't account for the sterile manner in which the CLA 45 achieves its pace. Rapid from point to point, but cold and uninvolving. Is all-wheel-drive pace really worth the lack of engagement so much better personified by the likes of the rear-wheel-drive BMW M2?
Holding the title of the most powerful series-production four-cylinder engine in the world, the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder under the hood of every CLA 45 is not messing about. Outputs of 375 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque support that statement - comparable outputs to what used to be the sole domain of big displacement V8s. Outputs are sent through a snappy seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox to a Haldex-based all-wheel-drive system, the latter pairing enabling the activation of launch control to achieve its 4.1-second 0-60 mph time.
But numbers don't make the car, and in the case of the CLA 45, the engine's outputs are let down by the dual-clutch automatic. Sure, it's capable of firing off rapid shifts when plowing on in a straight line, but when it comes time to engage with the thing, and swap gears up and down, the 'box is dimwitted and slow to respond. More than this, it regularly selects gears in a clunky manner and takes long enough to downshift that the turbo has released all the pent up pressure, leading to immense turbo lag. It's a real pity; because the engine - when kept on the boil - is tenacious and lively, and while it encounters a dead spot at the top of the range, it's more than punchy enough from down low to compensate.
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.
The 2019 AMG CLA 45 returns above-average gas mileage figures relative to core rivals, with the EPA assigning it estimates of 23/30/26 mpg city/highway/combined. The 2019 Audi RS 3 returns weaker ratings of 19/28/22 mpg, and the 2018 BMW M2 even worse EPA estimates of 17/23/20 mpg. That's where the smaller four-cylinder engine comes into its own, but it requires premium unleaded gas to keep it running, meaning the 14.8 gallons it uses to traverse 385 miles on a tank will cost you just a little bit more than you might be expecting.
Mercedes knows how to build a cabin that looks stylish, and the aviation-inspired decor of the CLA 45 truly looks the part. But while it has looks derived from those of the S-Class, the quality is well below standard - the sacrifice made for the sake of affordability. The dash materials feel hollow and improperly secured, and harsh plastics are found a little too easily. The main touchpoints are all soft, but the veneer of quality seems thin in comparison to rivals like the Audi RS3. The interior isn't the most spacious in the compact segment either, but against the RS3 and BMW M2, the CLA manages to create more rear passenger space and greater cargo volume too. There are caveats, however, as the sloping coupe roofline makes access to the rear seats difficult for even average-height adults.
The AMG CLA 45 seats a total of five occupants in a compact environment. The driver is seated ergonomically behind the controls and with ample visibility from front to rear. The sport front seats are comfortably cushioned and wonderfully supportive, have heating and memory functions, and are 14-way power-adjustable with lumbar adjustments too. The only downside is the integrated headrest that protrudes forward a little too aggressively for taller drivers. The rear seats are just as comfortable and are nicely contoured for support. The headroom and legroom in the front of the cabin are ample but somewhat limited in the rear, especially for anyone over six feet tall. Ingress and egress to the front seats is no problem, however, the rear seats are somewhat restricted. The sloping roof cuts into the door aperture and even shorter adults will need to limber up before trying to climb in.
The wonderfully sculpted AMG sports seats can be upholstered in numerous choices of color and material, with the default option being black simulated leather with Ultrasuede center panels and red contrast stitching. Sticking with the base option also gives you sporty red seatbelts. Genuine leather is a $1,600 option, though, available in Black, Nut Brown, or combination Sahara Beige and Black. Each of these options can be paired with one of six trim choices, including the default red/black AMG design inlays, the same design in black and silver, or more classy alternatives like aluminum, matte black ash wood, AMG carbon fiber, or the AMG black Dinamica Ultrasuede.
As a final option, the AMG Red Cut Exclusive Package adorns the interior with Black "Red Cut" leather upholstery, designo red seat belts, and topstitched MB-Tex upper dash and door trim.
The CLA 45 offers a decent amount of cargo capacity and in-cabin storage solutions; the 13.1 cubic feet of space in the trunk is ample for weekly groceries, golf clubs or luggage for a weekend family getaway. The individually folding rear seatbacks allow one to expand the cargo capacity for larger or oddly shaped items. Along with hands-free access and electronic closing, the trunk's large lid opening, shrouded hinges, and deep floor all add to the AMG CLA 45's overall convenience.
In-cabin storage includes decently proportioned door side pockets on all four doors that can hold bottles, two cupholders, a small center cubby, a deep center armrest console, a sizeable glove box up front, and a small cubby in the rear. Two additional cupholders are located in the rear center backrest in the rear.
Primarily a performance car, the CLA 45 is still a Mercedes, and that means buyers expect Mercedes levels of standard specification. For the most part, the brand doesn't disappoint, with standard inclusion of SmartKey with Keyless-start and Keyless-Go, an ECO Start/Stop system, ambient interior lighting, 14-way power-adjustable sport front seats with heating and memory functions, split-folding rear seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with digital compass, and a HomeLink garage door opener. It is also equipped with brushed aluminum pedals and an E-Select gear lever made of leather and aluminum. Driver assists are numerous as well, with standard functionality including blind-spot monitoring and a rearview camera, with optional access to adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, and active parking assist.
Infotainment in the CLA 45 is lacking, as it is equipped with one of the weakest iterations of the COMAND interface in the current Mercedes line-up. The infotainment setup comprises an eight-inch color display with a 12-speaker Harman/Kardon LOGIC7 premium surround sound system and a central controller on the console, but many of the system's features can also be accessed via the integrated steering-wheel controls. The system features an HD Radio receiver, SiriusXM Radio with a six-month trial, and prewiring for Garmin Map Pilot. Standard AM/FM radio functionality, Bluetooth streaming and hands-free, round out the functionality, while two USB ports and an in-dash SD card reader cater to additional inputs. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are not integrated as standard, but are available as a $350 option. The system is clumsy to use, and the menus lack the intuitive layout seen on many premium rivals.
Now in its last year before replacement, the 2019 CLA 45 hasn't been affected by any recalls, with only lesser CLA models impacted. Driver complaints are also few and far between, which is a good indication that the CLA is reliable, if nothing else. All-new Mercedes-Benz vehicles are covered by a limited warranty covering defects in material or workmanship for four years/50,000 miles. The warranty can be extended up to 100,000 miles at an extra charge.
Neither the NHTSA nor the IIHS has crash-tested the 2019 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45. Nonetheless, the CLA 45 is well-equipped with standard and optional safety features that should render occupants safe in the event of an accident.
Safety features integrated as standard in the AMG CLA 45 encompass a consignment of eight standard airbags - including dual front knee airbags - as well as Mercedes-Benz Emergency Call, and a rearview camera. Standard driver-assist features include active brake assist, attention assist, and blind-spot assist, in addition to the mechanical safety items like high-performance brakes. Electronic nannies, such as advanced traction and stability control are also installed. Lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, and active parking assist are standalone options to further improve the safety offering.
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.
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.
The compact Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 is a standalone top of the range AMG derivative of the CLA four-door coupes. A 2.0-liter turbocharged engine delivers 375 hp to all corners via a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. As an AMG-fettled product, it receives a bespoke suspension, upgraded brakes, and an assortment of styling upgrades to set it apart from lesser models. The interior follows suit with exclusive trim and AMG sports seats. But equipment levels are still generous, with LED headlights, power-adjustable heated front seats, leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control, and an eight-inch infotainment screen with a 12-speaker Harman Kardon speaker system.
|AMG CLA 45 4MATIC||
2.0-liter Turbo Inline-4 Gas
A range of upgrades can be equipped for the sake of personalization or increased specification on the CLA 45. Exterior upgrades include a $1,480 panoramic sunroof as well as AMG carbon fiber mirror caps at $1,200. Inside, the AMG "Red Cut" Exclusive Package equips bespoke upholstery and designo Red seatbelts for $1,650, while the wonderful AMG Performance front seats will set you back a further $2,250. A Smartphone Integration package allows for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionality and will set you back $350, while the $2,300 Multimedia Package includes smartphone integration but also adds COMAND navigation and SiriusXM Traffic. From a performance perspective, the AMG Dynamic Plus Package equips AMG Ride Control Sport suspension, an AMG limited-slip differential, RACE mode, and a raised 167 mph top speed for $2,800, while the AMG Performance exhaust system is an extra $650 as a standalone item. Lastly, the Driver Assistance Package is a $1,500 option that includes Distronic adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist, which can also be paired with the $970 active parking assistant.
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.