Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: September 14, 2020
382 horsepower. 0-100 km/h in 4.1 seconds. Four-door sedan. Logic would suggest a turbocharged German V6, or maybe a pushrod naturally aspirated American V8. When in fact, these are specifications coming from a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine hand built in Affalterbach. That’s the monster powering the newest AMG from Mercedes, the CLA 45. And here we were thinking that the outgoing 355-hp CLA was already bonkers enough. I guess Mercedes learned a thing or two from their F1 team about squeezing maximum thrust from a turbo-four.
It also has the highest horsepower per litre ratio in the industry, thanks to a water, oil, and air-cooled twin-scroll turbo that runs a crazy 27.5 psi of boost. What did you expect from the most powerful production four-cylinder? With a speedy 8-speed dual-clutch automatic and all-wheel drive 4MATIC+ keeping all four corners grounded, the CLA 45 with launch control will sprint from 0-100 km/h in 4.1 seconds, the same as an Audi RS3 and a non-S variant C 63 AMG (non-S variant). To further put the CLA’s insane speed into perspective, it will sprint to the 100 km/h mark faster than a BMW M2 Competition and Ford Mustang GT.
Of note, the CLA-Class has spawned a middle variant to sit below the hardcore -45, aptly named the CLA 35 ($51,200). This uses the same, non-hand-built, four-cylinder from the CLA 250 but is uprated to produce 302 hp and 295 lb-ft. It runs from 0-100 km/h in 4.9 seconds instead, nearly a full second slower than the CLA 45. Though offered overseas in Europe, we aren’t sure if the 415-hp CLA 45 S variant will be reaching our shores. Maybe Mercedes doesn’t think the market exists, but the limited BMW M2 CS and upmarket Porsche 718 Cayman does make a compelling case. The CLA 45 already starts at $59,200, and our specific fully-loaded Denim Blue test vehicle swells that figure up to an eye-watering $82,540. Pricey it may be, it’s just about on par with a similarly loaded Audi RS3 ($65,600) and BMW M2 Competition ($72,200).
Say what you will about a four-cylinder, because out on the open road, the CLA 45 is magical. Sub-400 horses may not seem much in today’s trump cards of Bugattis and Lamborghinis, but when you consider the petite size of the CLA, you realize that 400 is more than enough to quickly land you behind bars. One whiff of the throttle and you’re bound into your seat back as you watch the numbers climb. And to exaggerate the feeling of speed even more, the gearing in the 8-speed DCT is incredibly short, so when you are flat-out on the throttle you will be hitting the limiter before you even have a chance to recoil from flicking the paddle. This is most apparent rowing through the first three gears. The way you flick up the gears so quickly with little delay between transitions gives an auditory signature similar to today’s Formula 3 cars. And the precise, mechanical, and deliberate booms on upshifts feels like there’s a racing-derived sequential gearbox underneath. We had butterflies in our stomachs. Still do.
Being a four-cylinder does come with its inherent drawbacks though. Unlike a lazy V8 that delivers heaps of torque even from under 2,000 rpm, the CLA’s turbo-four needs a build up of boost to really hit that aggressive state of mind. That magic number is 3,000 rpm. Once the needle swings past that marker, you’re golden, but anything below that is slow and lethargic. It’s either sleeping or has all hands on deck. Could be why the DCT is geared so short, so that you’re constantly above 3,000 rpm and always in peak boost.
The CLA 45 doesn’t feel held back by its front-drive oriented platform. Rather, feels like a grown up, quicker, and more refined MINI Cooper. The way it rides on rails, how the rear wheels always slip before the fronts, and the exhaust that roars right until the limiter - these are features found in all of the best sports cars. Here they have just been jam-packed into a smaller footprint. The CLA 45 remains stable and sure-footed at speed, even at its limits thanks to four wheel grip. Torque steer isn’t an issue, and it’s easily one of the most exciting and approachable compact cars that I’ve ever driven. To further amplify its preference for the rear wheels, the CLA makes use of torque vectoring, meaning it can not only shuffle its torque from the front to rear axle, but also between the two rear wheels. You can even activate Drift Mode, allowing the CLA to wag its tail out until you are oversteering into the nearest tree. How’s that for rear-wheel drive?
The CLA 45 comes standard with a passive, non-adaptive suspension, but opt for the AMG Driver’s Package ($3,700) and you get an three-stage sport suspension, more exhaust noise piped in through the speakers, a leather and alcantara AMG steering wheel with dials budding out the sides, unique 19-inch wheels, and a Track Pace app that lets you dive into track details should you take your CLA 45 to such locales. A more hardcore Track Package ($3,500) takes the top speed up to 270 km/h, adds Race and Drift modes, larger brakes, and a full alcantara steering wheel.
Check these boxes at your own peril because even in Comfort mode, the CLA 45 never quite settles down or relaxes. I initially scribbled down into my notebook that the ‘ride quality was exceptional’, and believed it up until I hit Toronto pavement. Oh boy did the suspension never fail to explore the depths of every pothole. In fact, the firm ride and thin profile tire sidewalls reminds me of the Civic Type R - it’s not as rough as you’d expect from what is essentially a track-focused street car, but it’s still firm enough for commuters to perhaps prefer something a little more reserved and aloof for longer journeys. The CLA 35 would be a nice compromise, or even the Audi RS3 or BMW M2, all of which harbour a slightly more compliant and forgiving ride.
The CLA 45 manages to sing a glorious V8 anthem with four-cylinder vocals. I truly don’t think there’s been a louder, more exaggerated, and more exciting four-cylinder in production. Deep, rich, and soulful in tone, there’s so much noise and rumbling crescendos under acceleration that we could feel the entire chassis shaking from the explicit noise. And with the short gearing amplifying the exhaust and restarting the orchestra right from the beginning, it’s a symphony that is absolutely addicting and intoxicating. Not to kill the mood, but there is some noise being piped in through the speakers, but when it sounds this good, I really don’t mind. For those wondering what it sounds from the outside though, have a listen to our Exhaust Notes video above, where the microphone was mounted outside right next to the exhaust tips.
Visually, the CLA 45 sets itself apart from the -250 and -35 with its vertical-slat Panamericana front grill, easily one of the most distinctive and attractive designs of 2020. For those wondering why it’s called the Panamericana grill, it’s an homage to the Mercedes‑Benz 300 SL racing car that won the legendary Panamericana road race in Mexico back in 1952. I’m not sure how I feel about those black fins sticking out of the front fenders, courtesy of the AMG Aerodynamics Package ($1,500). It also includes a more pronounced front splitter, larger rear spoiler, and optimized rear diffuser. Does this really help with aerodynamics? Probably not at the speeds you’re going, but still a clever design nod to the Black Series models, and a welcome avenue for added personalization.
Mercedes calls the CLA a four-door coupe due to its sloping roofline that mimics a two-door. That lends a sportier silhouette but it also severely digs into rear seat headroom. So much so that my six-foot frame barely fits back there. I have to hunch my neck and force my knees into the front seatback to find a somewhat cozy seat position. Forget about long journeys. Small adults or children only. Otherwise, the AMG Performance seats feel fantastic. They are stiff enough and offer the same kind of ergonomics you would find on a Herman Miller, and the mix of leather and suede surfaces are superb additions.
The rest of the interior exudes a high-tech vibe. There are clearly more features and cabin drama than the button-laden BMW M2 and contrastingly bare Audi RS3. The CLA cabin has been beautifully crafted with top-shelf materials, and the layout remains ergonomically sound. One shouldn’t dismiss how Mercedes somehow installed such a sizable retractable sunroof that actually opens - not always the case with these sloped roof sedans. The column mounted gear lever works well, and clears up a lot of space in the center console for the two cup holders, trackpad, and wireless charging pad. Do make a note that most 2020 Mercedes models exclusively use USB-C outlets, so those who haven’t made the upgrade from USB-A should do so.
The CLA 45 utilizes the new MBUX infotainment system paired with an Apple-like trackpad instead of the outgoing rotary dial and archaic number buttons. Users can tap, slide, pinch, and scroll, much like the inputs that command your smartphone. And while the rotary dial was the gold standard for interface control, this new trackpad is intuitive enough to use on the fly. The learning curve is small and the menus are simply laid out with large button prompts. It’s similar to the Lexus interface that also uses a trackpad, but the MBUX unit is less complicated, the screens are not overloaded, and the input sensitivity level is more fluid and consistent.
The CLA 45 AMG runs in a heated segment and doesn’t come cheap, but it is easily one of the most engaging, reactive, and emotionally stimulating examples around, especially in the auditory department. Where it lacks is in balancing between the extremes of road comfort and street performance, preferring the former and doing a hell of a good job at that. Despite not harbouring a six-speed manual like the BMW M2, the CLA is equally as focused and engaging with a properly geared dual-clutch and whirlwind of an engine. It also takes the crown when it comes to innovative features and cabin creature comforts. The new MBUX system is wonderful to use, though with a slightly steeper learning curve than other systems, the Hey Mercedes voice command is a nifty addition, and though the rear quarters remain a cramped affair, the front seats are spectacularly roomy. Overall, the CLA 45 is a firecracker of a sedan that punches well above its weight class, and its shining star of an engine only serves to make its otherworldly appeal that much brighter.
Model: 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45
Paint Type: Denim Blue ($890)
Base Price: $59,200
Price as Tested: $82,540
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,693 / 1,999 / 1,407
Curb weight (kg): 1,678
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged inline-four
Horsepower: 382 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 354 lb-ft @ 3,000 - 4,000 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch transmission
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 9.4
Tires: Michelin Pilot Sport 4S