The 2014 CLA-Class is Mercedes-Benz’ first front-wheel-drive vehicle to be sold in the United States. While that might offend the MB faithful, most customers aren’t likely to care after laying eyes on one.
|1. The most powerful 4-cylinder car you can buy, the CLA 45 AMG makes 355 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque.
2. 0-60 takes just 4.6 seconds.
3. CLA models start at $29,900 with the CLA 45 AMG at $47,450.
The CLA’s styling apes the fast-back coupe look Mercedes-Benz claims it started with the larger CLS, but now made more attainable to the masses by being smaller. The design isn’t a complete copy panel-for-panel left to shrink in the dryer, but is most of the way there. The front shares themes with the revised E-Class and new S-Class, and in a busy parking lot, there’s a distinct possibility of mistaken identity. The back plays its own game with wider, more squared-off hips.
Driving around the political power center of Washington, DC – ‘Benz’ chosen launch location – and seeing roads crammed with six-figure machines, the CLA could always be counted on to turn heads. There was more than one highway stalking in surrounding states and an appreciative thumbs-up on a Maryland interstate.
That severely arched roofline is easy on the eyes but doesn’t make the CLA easy to get into. The car from which it’s cribbed – the CLS – is based on the larger E-Class, which still leaves plenty of room for passengers. Not so the compact CLA… It is significantly tighter, especially if you or your companion are over six-feet tall.
UNIQUE AMG LOOK
The rest of the interior is stylish and modern, including the quintuple eyeball vents, center stack and gauge cluster. Materials are pretty decent, especially given the entry-level price the CLA will demand. A few cheaper bits revealed themselves during the drive through the twisty roads in Virginia: the lower part of the dash where it meets with the console can creak when leaned on during enthusiastic cornering. Overall, though, it’s a minor issue.
Two versions of CLA are coming: the CLA 250 and the hoon-friendly 45 AMG. The former uses a new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder found in products sold elsewhere, providing 208 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Mercedes-Benz says it’ll hit 60 mph from rest comfortably under seven seconds with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.
The 45 AMG is an entirely different experience. Visually, it has bulkier fenders, a lower chin spoiler, bigger air intakes and more up front, a trunk-lid spoiler, deeper faux air extractors and big quad pipes out back, along with unique 19-inch wheels.
Cabin changes over the base 250 include seats with much more lateral support, more expensive trim pieces, and its shift lever sprouts from the center console rather than on the steering column – a traditional Mercedes trait, it looks awkward in the modern CLA.
WORLD’S MOST POWERFUL 4-CYLINDER
Although the basic 2.0-liter turbocharged engine is the same between the two, nearly everything has been strengthened and enlarged to handle the radically expanded output. Power is 355 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque, which are humongous gains over the CLA 250, and like the division’s famous V8s and V12s, the four-banger is hand-assembled by one technician at AMGs German HQ.
The seven-speed dual-clutch remains, although again significantly beefed up. Where the 45 AMG makes the most on its plebeian sibling is the addition of standard 4MATIC all-wheel drive. Although normally biased towards the front in regular driving to save fuel, the instant that slip is detected – or you put your foot down – and power automatically routes to the back axle, up to a max 50:50 split.
Mercedes people claim the engine is the most powerful four-banger available anywhere, and they’re not kidding. The top-end Impreza STI is only 305, while similarly-powered machines from BMW and Audi use larger five- and six-cylinder units. The gains in acceleration are intense – the CLA 45 AMG runs to 60 mph in just 4.6 seconds, which is serious performance-car territory. Thankfully, there are bigger, wider wheels with sticky tires, larger brakes with beefier calipers, and a much livelier suspension tune to keep it in check.
Like other AMG products, there’s also an optional $2,800 Driver’s Package with even tighter springs and dampers, 19-inch wheels with performance tires, red-painted brake calipers and a higher 167-mph top speed.
7-SPEEDS, TWO CLUTCHES
The seven-speed dual-clutch automatic provides clean shifts, and the transmission can be controlled manually via paddle-shifters behind the steering wheel, or using the console-mounted shifter. Even in sport mode, the shifts aren’t quite as quick and predictive as those in Volkswagen and Audi products (which is disappointing), but it’s decent nonetheless.
Shift times can be made faster by selecting S or M – for manual – but in C, the transmission gets into seventh gear quickly and the engine start/stop is activated, which keeps it from guzzling premium. Although official figures for the 45 AMG aren’t available yet, they’ll be somewhat worse than the CLA 250’s 26 MPG city and 38 highway.
WILD, YET REFINED
Like most other models touched by Mercedes-Benz’ in-house tuning shop, the CLA 45 is an absolute monster. With such high boost pressures from the single turbocharger, you’d think that the lag would be horrendous, but full torque comes to play very early in the rev range.
The car devours roads like a hungry wolverine: crouched low, aggressive and ticked off. And like the small steroidal rodent, larger nominally more powerful animals know to stay the hell out of its way.
Plus, it sounds spectacular with exhaust pipes that pop successively and immediately convey just how serious of a performance machine this is.
The 45 AMG trades some of the 250’s civility both in how it drives and how it looks, but won’t kill your kidneys with over-tough damping, and like most German cars excels at the long-distance highway cruise. Even the ‘small’ CLA can lull you into believing you’re traveling 10 or 20 mph slower than you are, which in speed-ticket-heaven like the DC region can get expensive.
However, even in-town, its small footprint gives you confidence in most situations, including nipping thorough ugly commuting battles and parallel parking, helped by the standard back-up camera.
MOST AFFORDABLE AMG
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Although pricing starts at $29,900 for the CLA 250 with all the usual convenience features, the 45 AMG 4MATIC is a big jump to $47,450, but does have plenty already going for it, including the ability to perform just as well in wet, grimy and slippery conditions as it does in the dry. That’s something AMG cars have never done well, being firmly entrenched in sending power to two wheels alone, but with 4MATIC-equipped muscle-sedans in E 63 AMG S and S 63 AMG, here’s hoping that becomes more of the norm. Just make sure those in Northern states budget for some expensive winter tires…
The CLA is playing in a field by itself since both BMW and Audi are revamping their small coupe, sedan and hatch offerings. There will be a new 2 Series coupe and hopefully a 1 Series hatch or sedan; the new A3 will exclusively be a sedan. However, none of these are coming online in the next couple of years, so ‘Benz played its timing just right – much like how it did with the CLS.
Currently, the Audi S4 is the closest thing going, although it is larger, less powerful, slower and a few thousand dollars more expensive to start.
Unless you’re consistently traveling with four people – in which case the C-Class makes more sense – then the CLA 45 AMG gets a hearty thumbs up from here. Despite the usual gripes from the purists, no one will filibuster the CLA’s presence here, nor its appeal as a sports sedan… Oops! Coupe.