Doing a mid-range, slightly watered down model requires a different approach.
With less performance and a lower price, it can be hard to engineer in the same sense of specialness that make the range-topping 45 S and 63 S such popular options. That’s where the Mercedes-AMG CLA35 comes in.
With a more powerful turbocharged four-cylinder engine and sportier looks than a regular CLA, it’s designed to slot between the CLA250 and more expensive CLA45 S, mixing performance and an extra sprinkling of AMG goodness into a more affordable, usable day-to-day package.
Have the boffins at Affalterbach managed to tread that tightrope?
Pricing for the Mercedes-AMG CLA35 starts at $83,400 before on-road costs, making it $14,500 more expensive than the CLA250 4Matic.
It’s also an eye-watering $17,200 more than the AMG A35 hatchback with which it shares its base chassis, interior, and engine, and $15,600 more than the sedan with its more conventional three-box body.
That’s a serious price to pay for a four-door coupe body which, while handsome, brings little in the way of extra interior space compared to its siblings.
Standard equipment is generous. Along with a more powerful engine and sportier chassis than the wider CLA range, the CLA35 features an AMG grille and bodykit, more aggressive rear diffuser, 19-inch alloy wheels, and twin exhaust pipes to signal its intent.
It’s certainly a sharp looker, especially compared to the slightly melted original. There’s a real sense of width at the rear, and the front end packs just the right amount of aggression, although the overhangs look very long from some angles.
The multi-spoke alloy wheels don’t do quite enough to separate the CLA35 from the regular CLA250 to my eyes, although buyers keen to really make a visual statement always have the option of the CLA45 S.
Inside, there are leather-trimmed, heated and powered sports seats and an AMG-specific steering wheel with the usual array of buttons, metal shift paddles, and two compact screens sprouting from its central boss to control the drive mode and chassis systems.
As with the wider A-Class range, the CLA35 packs the latest MBUX infotainment system with two 10.25-inch screens integrated into a gloss black surround atop the dashboard. There’s wireless phone charging, but Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are only available when you’re plugged in.
There are a number of options packs available, some of which really should be standard.
The AMG High Performance Seat Package ($3290) brings more firmly bolstered front seats, while the Driving Assistance Package ($1890) adds adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring capable of actively preventing an accident, and rear cross-traffic alert.
Ventilated front seats ($790), a front/side camera and active headlamps (Vision Package, $990), and the more outlandish AMG Aerodynamics Package ($2490) are also offered.
Nine colours are offered, with black, blue, grey, two variations of silver, and white metallic demanding an extra $1190 spend.
Yes. The CLA model line gets a full five-star ANCAP safety rating but CLA35 and 45 variants have not been individually tested.
Nevertheless, the CLA achieved high scores in all major categories including 96 per cent for adult occupant protection, 92 per cent for child occupant protection, and 91 per cent for vulnerable user protection.
Dual frontal and side chest airbags for both the first and second outboard seats along with side curtains and a driver knee airbag are standard.
There’s also autonomous emergency braking with forward collision warning from 7-200km/h, active lane-keeping assist from 60-200km/h, lane-departure warning, and blind-spot monitoring included as standard equipment.
Regardless of spec, the latest Mercedes-Benz compact car interior – which debuted in the A-Class – can’t be matched for outright visual impact by any of its rivals. It’s just stunning, especially in the red and black colour scheme of our tester.
The airline-style air vents are eye-catching and functional at the same time, while the coloured ambient lighting makes night drives a delight.
MBUX remains an excellent, modern infotainment system. It can be controlled with a touchpad on the transmission tunnel, steering wheel controls, or natural ‘Hey Mercedes’ voice inputs.
Both screens are pin-sharp, with impressively quick responses and deep, vivid colours. In the age of smartphones with ultra-high-resolution screens and lightning refresh rates, the displays in the CLA feel like a natural extension of the technology we’re already using.
It isn’t quite as intuitive as BMW OS7.0 based on my experience, but once you’re attuned to how the menus work it’s not hard to jump around.
The addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are welcome, but the fact they’re hidden in a small window rather than making the most of the widescreen infotainment display is disappointing.
Most of the materials feel high quality. The doors and seats are trimmed in soft leather, and the transmission tunnel feels rock solid. The standard AMG steering wheel is a winner, too, with a sculpted rim and metal paddles that are cold to the touch.
But the row of plastic toggle switches below the air vents feels cheaper than the rockstar design of the cabin might suggest, and the drive mode buttons protruding from the steering wheel boss are plastic, not knurled metal as their design might suggest.
There’s a real sense of space in the front seat, no doubt aided by the CLA’s surprisingly generous proportions. It’s actually 2mm longer than a C-Class, although the CLA has a wheelbase 111mm shorter than its rear-drive brother.
The driver’s seat dips low and slides right back, while the steering wheel telescopes to accomodate a wide range of body shapes. The wheel rim cuts off increments above 40km/h on the analogue speedometer in my preferred position, however.
We’d also recommend opting for the more heavily bolstered seats, because the standard units don’t have the support to hold broad-shouldered drivers in place at full speed.
Storage is acceptable, with a compact space under the central armrest, decent door bins, and cupholders ahead of the infotainment touchpad, but there’s no deep storage bin like the one offered in the C-Class and GLC at the base of the dashboard.
It’s a mixed bag in the back. At 201cm, I can sit behind a shorter driver (someone around, say, 170cm tall) with adequate legroom, although the sloping rear screen means headroom is an issue. Rear air vents are a nice touch, however.
But with someone tall in the front seat? Forget about carrying anything other than bags back there. There’s no legroom with the driving position set for me. You would need literally no legs to sit behind me.
The rear bench is also quite narrow, and the central seat is best saved for emergencies.
Boot space is an impressive 460L, and the rear bench folds 40/20/40 for longer items. The boot opening itself is quite shallow, meaning the sedan or hatch might be a better bet for people who often carry bikes in the cabin.
Power in the CLA35 comes from a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine outputting 225kW of power and 400Nm of torque.
Rather than a detuned version of the weapons-grade engine from the A45 S, it has its roots in more conventional A-Class models. Rest assured the wick has been turned up to 11, and there’s a suitably noisy exhaust on hand.
The 100km/h sprint is dispatched in just 4.9 seconds, and you’ll be doing an electronically-limited 250km/h. Just not in Australia, of course.
It’s sent to all four wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. Claimed fuel economy is 7.5L/100km on the combined cycle.
I was dreading the ride in the CLA35, having had my young, healthy spine turned to dust by the unbelievably firm previous-generation A45. I find it hard to believe Mercedes-AMG signed off on that car, and harder to understand why anyone would willingly subject themselves to life in one.
Thankfully, the CLA35 doesn’t suffer the same brittle ride as its compact AMG predecessors.
Body control is taut with the dampers locked in Comfort, but never unbearable. It’s perfectly comfortable for day-to-day life, which is a good start.
The CLA35 is like a house cat when you want it to be. The engine is quiet in its most relaxed mode, the transmission shuffles to the tallest gear, and the light steering makes threading through town effortless.
Flicking the drive mode dial one click into Sport mode ups the ante slightly. Throttle response sharpens, the exhaust gets louder, and the suspension tightens up. It makes for a slightly angrier drive, but the real action happens in Sport Plus.
Moving into Sport Plus puts the suspension into its firmest mode, the engine and transmission in their sharpest tunes, and cranks up the exhaust volume again, releasing the animal hiding within.
Even though it lacks the power and drama of the weapons-grade engine in the CLA45 S, the four-pot in the 35 is surprisingly characterful. Throttle response is impressive but peak torque doesn’t come on tap until 3000rpm, so you need to work (a little bit) to extract maximum performance.
Plenty of power
It's not a full-on AMG model, but the CLA35 still packs a healthy punch from its 2.0-litre engine
Thankfully, the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission is happy to kick down in Comfort mode, and holds a lower gear in Sport Plus. The engine is best enjoyed in its raciest mode, but the suspension does its best work in Comfort – something you can do quickly, thanks to the little mode selectors on the steering wheel.
So set up, the CLA35 is impressively quick along a nice stretch of road. Traction from the all-wheel drive system is plentiful and, combined with light, direct steering, inspires confidence the front end will go where you point it.
It’s limpet-like on even cold, slippery tarmac, even with a heavy right foot and a hearty disregard for the laws of friction. Quick direction changes and mid-corner bumps don’t throw it off line, although Sport Plus is still too firm for our liking on the road.
Third gear is all that’s really required most of the time, pulling from below 50km/h to well into licence-losing territory in Australia. Second provides a more explosive top-end blast, but runs into a momentum-sapping soft limiter at 80km/h, meaning it’s best saved for tight hairpins.
Get into a rhythm and it’ll demolish a road, exhaust singing and popping happily away in the background.
There’s a problem though, and it’s the price. A Golf R doesn’t pack quite the same audio punch, but it’s just as adept at hammering along a slick, twisty road at silly speeds, and is nudging $30,000 cheaper than the CLA.
And if you prefer your German wheels to feature a three-pointed star on the nose, the A35 hatch offers a very similar driving experience for more than $15,000 less.
Mercedes-Benz was the first luxury brand to move to a full-time five-year warranty, beating Volvo to the punch in Australia. That’s a big tick for the CLA35, regardless of whether you want to keep it for three years and turn it over, or hang onto the car for eternity.
Maintenance is required every 12 months or 25,000km, whichever comes first.
A three-year service plan costs $2150, compared to $2650 if each service is paid for individually under Mercedes-AMG’s capped-price schedule. A four-year plan is priced at $2950, and five years costs $4000.
The CLA35 is hard to justify if you’re being rational. It’s pitched as a lower-volume, more emotional, style-driven purchase than the regular A35 hatchback or sedan, but neither of those cars are what you’d call unattractive.
I’d argue the slightly more upright sedan is more handsome than the Mercedes-Benz CLA35 AMG, although you might disagree.
If you have cash to burn and value style – and the number of previous-generation cars on the roads of Melbourne would suggest plenty of people fit that description – then there’s plenty to like about the CLA35.
It has the handling chops and performance to justify its halfway-house AMG 35 badge, a lovely interior, and a useful boot.
But make sure you check out the Mercedes-AMG A35 sedan and hatchback before spending between $15,000 and $20,000 more than you need to.