by Michael Butler
Think of the Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 as the modern interpretation of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, a compact sedan powered by a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder sending power to all four corners and slaying cars that cost twice its $54,800 base price. There are differences, though, like the fact that the CLA 45 can't be had with a manual gearbox, relying solely on an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, and the fact that this is, technically, a four-door coupe and not a sedan. But with 382 horsepower and a four-second 0-60 mph sprint time, it doesn't matter what you classify it as. This thing is brutally fast. Now in its second generation, the CLA 45 is better than ever, but with ever-present competition from the Audi RS3 and BMW M2, is it good enough?
The 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 is all-new for 2020. Based on the second generation of the CLA-class, the CLA 45 is powered by a newly developed 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 382 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque, up seven horses and four lb-ft from the outgoing derivative. The CLA 45 is the highest trim on offer and comes with standard features such as 19-inch AMG wheels which it carries over from the 2019 model, keyless entry, a 10.25-inch Digital Instrument Cluster, and 10.25-inch MBUX infotainment system.
The 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 packs a class-leading punch, and offers a stunning interior to boot. If you looked at the cabin itself, you'd think that this car would compete in the next price bracket, but it neatly slots in amongst its competitors price-wise. For a base model with no added features, you're looking at an MSRP of $54,800. That price excludes registration, tax, and a destination fee of $995. Compare that to the Audi RS3, which starts at $56,200, or the BMW M2 Coupe, which asks $58,900, and the CLA undercuts both. Fully optioned, the CLA 45 nears the $80,000 mark.
See trim levels and configurations:
|AMG CLA 45 4MATIC||
2.0L Turbo Inline-4 Gas
While the old CLA 45 was a rapid point and shoot machine, it came under fire for shoddy handling dynamics and a poor ride. Even the mid-cycle refresh with the addition of adaptive dampers and a limited-slip differential did little to curb the problems. Built on a new platform, we're happy to report the 2021 CLA 45 is a different beast entirely.
The adaptive suspension can still make things suitably firm in Sport and Sport+ modes, but in Comfort mode, there's enough suppleness to live with on a daily basis. In the firmer modes, US roads are a little too rough, but for those who frequent race tracks, they'll provide welcome support. With the suspension sorted a little better, handling has benefitted too, relying less on the tires and more on overall balance. A new all-wheel-drive system has also helped, especially with the addition of Drift Mode, which can shuffle power to the outside rear wheel in much the same way the Ford Focus RS did. That means that despite it being a FWD-based system, it can take on a rear-biased nature, which means less understeer and more fun, as well as more precision by virtue of mechanical torque vectoring.
But there are still weak points, and the steering wheel relays little of what's actually happening back to the driver. The heft loads up based on speed and drive mode, but it feels very simulated. The brakes, however, don't feel artificial at all, and the standard four-pot front brakes do a fine job of dropping anchor. With less reliance on brake-based torque vectoring, the brakes also last longer, and a trip through a mountain pass won't be met with frustration three corners in anymore.
It's still not the most involving, but for a FWD chassis to feel this rear-biased and playful is truly wonderful and might be enough to give the CLA 45 an edge over the clinical Audi RS3.
NHTSA safety ratings are not available at this time.
It was always going to be a challenge to introduce a brand new car, nevermind a performance model to the market, but we think Mercedes-AMG has pulled a rabbit out of a turbocharged hat here. Starting with the exterior, everything looks sharper and more focused than before. The 19-inch wheels and flared arches, as well as the rear diffuser and quad exhaust scream performance. The interior is exactly what we'd expect in an AMG car; it's beautifully trimmed and everything feels a step above its asking price. When it comes to performance, this little car is an absolute bombshell. It might be lacking the auditory drama of some rivals, but there's no denying the efficacy of the whole package. More than that, the new platform and new suspension setup are leagues above what the old car provided, and the added gimmicks like Drift Mode add a sense of theater the Audi RS3 can't give you.
Well, there's only one to choose from, so you're stuck with a rather expensive options list if you want a more individual experience. If we were doing the buying, we would get one in Mountain Grey metallic with the 19-inch AMG forged cross-spoke wheels to match. We'd also get the Exterior Lighting package. On the inside, we'd have to get those tasty AMG Performance bucket seats, and we would get the aluminum with longitudinal grain inserts. Continuing with the interior, we would add the wireless charging station and Burmester surround sound system. Lastly, we would most certainly invest in both the Driver Assistance Package and the AMG Dynamic Plus Package.
The 2020 Mercedes-AMG C43 is a small luxury sedan that offers tons of performance and is considered by some to be a budget AMG despite similar pricing to the CLA 45. Powering this small exec is a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 which offers a larger capacity, and two more cylinders than the CLA 45. Power output is rated at 385 hp, which is three more than you get with the CLA 45, and 384 lb-ft of torque, which is a whole 30 lb-ft more than the CLA 45. The C43 is a slightly larger car and offers more interior space than the CLA 45, but is still a capable handling car and, as with the CLA 45, sends its power to all four wheels. The ride is good, and it feels as nimble as the CLA 45 in the corners, but the ride can still be jarring, even in its softer settings. The C43 will sprint to sixty in 4.5 seconds, half a second slower than the lighter CLA 45. The interior of the C43 is just as sporty and comfortable but feels somewhat grown up in comparison, and we appreciate the standard Burmester audio system, but the dual-screen system in the CLA 45 is superior. The C43 is the grown-up choice here, so we'll go with the CLA 45 and stay young forever.
This is the duel of the AWD Germans. The Audi RS3 is the definition of dynamite in a small package: it grips and rips and roars its way down the road like few in this class can, and we love it for that. Its 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine produces a CLA 45-beating 394 horsepower and 354 lb-ft of torque, and it will conquer the zero to sixty sprint in only 3.9 seconds, which is a tenth quicker than the AMG car. We also adore its classy yet simple interior which stands in contrast to the more dramatic interior in the CLA, and it offers decent practicality, albeit with a smaller trunk than the Merc. Both are very similar machines, though, sublime at point-and-shoot blasts down the road, but with the addition of tools like Drift mode, the CLA is now a more entertaining weapon, even if it is down on power. But the wailing five-pot in the RS3 is entertainment in itself, which may just be enough to win over most buyers.
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