As a motoring journalist for more than 14 years with thousands of cars driven, you know you’re onto something good when you’re straight-up reluctant to hand a car back.
In this case, it’s the second-generation Mercedes-AMG CLA45 S – longer, wider and lower than its slightly ugly predecessor, and one of the most unexpectedly-thrilling performance sedans you’re likely to drive this side of a supercar.
Its 2.0-litre turbo-four petrol engine has been thoroughly revised. Mercedes-AMG claims it’s the most powerful four-cylinder production series engine in the world, which should be enough to the rouse interest of any enthusiast.
It’s a big statement, but one that rings true from the very instant you rotate the mode dial to Sport+ and give this four-door coupe some proper hurry-up.
It might be just a four-pot, but this thing is ferociously quick. Autobahn-crushing quick with a redline sitting just beyond 7000rpm. Nothing would make me smile more than smashing a few sections of Targa High Country when it finally comes around again.
The hatch is factionally faster in a straight-line sprint, almost entirely due to its 40kg weight advantage – but I’m more than over 50 years old, and it’s not the look I want.
I still relish a hardcore hatchback such as the Renault Megane RS, Hyundai i30 N and Ford Focus RS (RIP) for their purity, price, and handling, but the A45 S is just a bit ludicrous, especially if you opt for the rear wing.
The sleeker new CLA45 S ticks all the right boxes, notwithstanding its sizeable $17,600 price premium over the hatch.
I’m not looking at this car in that way. It’s just shy of the C-Class in length and can out-drag the AMG C63 S sedan, and that’s before we get into its all-round agility – a true measure of its lightweight advantage under the bonnet.
In that regard, I’d call the CLA45 S a genuine performance bargain for sedan lovers.
Just like the C63 line-up, Mercedes-Benz Australia is only importing the range-topping S variant, leaving behind the less-powerful CLA45.
It’s probably the smart move, given Australian car buyers tend to prefer full-strength performance versions over cheaper, watered-down variants and are generally willing to pay for the privilege.
The positioning of the latest CLA45 S as a new-generation car is best summed up by Tobias Moers, the outgoing CEO of Mercedes-AMG, a passionate petrol head and genuine car guy.
“We have completely redesigned the 45 models – from engine and transmission through the chassis, the elaborately constructed drivetrain to the reinforced body structure as well as the design itself – all with one goal: to raise the vehicle dynamics to and the sporty driving experience to a level previously unimaginable in the compact class.”
Pricing for the new Mercedes-AMG CLA45 S starts at $111,200 before on-road costs. Not cheap.
But what if we told you the CLA is 0.2 seconds quicker than the Porsche 911 Carrera ($236,700) to 100km/h?
There’s obviously more to a car than straight-line speed, but I find it astonishing a four-cylinder Benz packs such awesome performance for that kind of money.
It even makes me wonder about the point of the Mercedes-AMG C63 S when comparing the notes. I understand the appeal of the V8, but the agility of the CLA45 is compelling.
The drag race aspect rears its head again. The C63 S will set you back a cool $162,542 before on-roads and needs 4.2 seconds to hit 100km/h. It all comes down to that V8 exhaust note, but I’m leaning towards the CLA.
Audi has a couple of options: the bargain RS3 sedan (smaller by some margin) from $86,500 before on-roads armed with 294kW of power and 480Nm of torque, and the RS4 Avant with 331kW and 600Nm, and a larger body than the CLA45.
BMW has the M340i priced from $104,900 which generates 285kW and 500Nm for a 4.4-second 0-100km/h run.
There’s another high-powered offering from Alfa Romeo we probably need to mention, too, and that’s the beautiful Giulia Quadrifoglio with its 2.9-litre twin-turbo six packing 375kW and 600Nm. It’s good for a claimed 3.9 seconds but costs from $145,900 before on-roads.
For starters, the CLA 45 S looks like a scaled-down version of the fearsome AMG GT 4-door Coupe. It’s a strong selling point, because this new CLA looks like it packs a heavy punch even at standstill.
The Panamericana grille is a favourite of mine thanks to its GT R and GT3 racer heritage and is by far the centrepiece of the CLA45’s low-set stance, along with its deep front bumper almost all of which is a giant air intake for engine and brake cooling.
Those front aero winglets are a good look, as well as being functional at autobahn speeds no doubt. The wheel arches aren’t particularly flared, but it looks aggressive and tasteful at the same time.
Around back, the design is far more resolved than its first-generation predecessor with a beautifully-housed and neatly-integrated quad-pipe set up in a gloss-black diffuser. None of it is over the top.
Our tester’s stance was a tad more aggressive than the stock car thanks to its AMG Aerodynamic package which includes a deeper front splitter with an extra blade, along with side spoiler lips and larger rear spoiler. Again, it’s a better look and offers more high-speed downforce.
You’ll be happy knowing the CLA45 S’s body shell has been extensively reinforced with a lightweight aluminium plate under the engine for extra torsional rigidity at the front. That’s something you can feel the very first time you turn the car in. More on that to come.
It also has a strut tower brace between the front suspension struts and additional strengthening plates connecting the side members to the A-pillars. Diagonal struts front and rear further limit lateral roll and pitch.
Not so long ago there would have been pages and pages of expensive options, so it’s pleasing to note this particular tester only had around $8000 of options – almost all of which we’d have.
AMG’s High Performance Seat package is a must, not only for aesthetic value but for the comfort and proper levels of bolstering they offer.
The super-supple leather is full of contours designed to provide back support for longer hauls, which they surely do.
The CLA45 S’s equipment inventory is otherwise extensive and includes a stack of useful creature comforts such as the exquisite AMG Performance steering wheel in combination leather and microfibre trim.
To be honest I’ve never been one for suede-like wraps on road-car steering wheels, because they usually lack any padding and are too uncomfortable on longer drives – but this one is just about perfect in that regard.
The Burmester surround sound audio is quite extraordinary for its clarity from the highs to the lows and everything in between.
What I thought as an AMG decal on the dash facing is actually the silver/black aluminium trim option. It’s only $290, but I’m not sure it adds anything to what is already a spectacular cabin space.
Even the entry-level CLA200 is loaded to the hilt, but specific kit such as the AMG Driver’s Package – which sees the top speed increased to 270km/h – as well as multi beam LED headlamps with adaptive high-beam assist are unique to the CLA45 S.
It also has AMG’s high-performance braking system, featuring larger 360mm front rotors with six-piston calipers in red, while down back are 330mm units.
They’re actually not that large by today’s performance car standards but geez, there’s big stopping power on call whenever you need to rein in the pace.
I’m a big fan of these wheels, too – 19-inch AMG cross-spoke forged alloys in titanium grey. They not only look the business, but they’re a sensible size so as to provide a very good ride/handing balance.
Yes. The CLA model line gets a full five-star ANCAP safety rating but the 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.
Other useful features include speed sign recognition and warning, tyre pressure monitoring system, reversing collision avoidance with auto braking, rear cross-traffic alert, and fatigue detection.
From the moment you climb aboard the CLA45 S there’s a wonderful ambience. It’s the combination of luxury materials and bling with state-of-the-art technology that will have you feeling chuffed every time you get in.
I’m not sure I’ve quite come around to the two-tone classic red/black leather upholstery, it’s a bit garish for my tastes. A deep claret all over would surely compliment the Mountain Grey Metallic better in my view.
I’m a huge fan of the aircraft-inspired air vents throughout the car (front and rear), especially at night with the light show going on around them.
You’d have to go a long way to better Mercedes-Benz’s latest MBUX infotainment system with dual widescreen displays, which take centre stage in the CLA45 S.
The high-definition visuals and clarity make this system the industry benchmark at the moment, though it can be a bit daunting until you familiarise yourself with interface and how to access the various menus.
Access is via touchscreen (easy), steering wheel controls, natural Hey Mercedes voice inputs, or a pretty useless trackpad – but at least there are options.
Storage is decent, too, with a good-size centre console bin with Benz’s double-lid design along with two cupholders up front and multiple USB-C ports.
Almost everything is soft touch but even the hard plastic surfaces look and feel good to the hand. Honestly, it’s hard to find fault in here – except rear headroom.
I’m shorter than most of the young crew these days and I’ve only just got enough space in the second row thanks to the aggressive slope of the roof line. It definitely would be unpleasant back there for anyone over 178cm.
Storage wise there’s a useful centre arm rest in the back and space for 500ml bottles in the door pockets, as well as adjustable air vents built into the back of the centre console bin.
That said, there are no map pockets with the AMG performance seats but rear leg room is decent and you can slide your feet under the front seats for reasonable comfort. This is more a four-seat car in my view.
Boot space is a reasonable at 460 litres and the convenient 40/20/40 split-fold design aspect can expand that sufficiently if you need to carry longer stuff like small surfboards and bikes.
There’s no spare tyre or even a space saver under the boot, just an inflation kit. Call roadside assist.
It’s hard to believe a four-cylinder engine can deliver this level of performance in a four-door sedan, albeit one from AMG.
The revised engine is assembled entirely by hand as part of Mercedes-AMG’s mantra of ‘one man, one engine’, and features a host of improvements.
Unlike the transverse four-cylinder engine in ‘35’ models and previous A45 range, the new engine is a closed deck design rotated 180 degrees around its vertical axis for a closer connection with the turbocharger, intake, and exhaust functions.
There’s still some lag from a low-speed, all-out launch, but it’s hardly worth mentioning given the tremendous acceleration this vehicle delivers soon after.
What’s more, it’ll rev to just beyond 7000rpm using all of its 310kW of power and 500Nm of torque through a variable all-wheel drive system.
It gets the power down through a new eight-speed dual-clutch transmission with reconfigured gear ratios for what is an extremely quick-shifting experience.
When you crank this engine over there’s a bit of a short-lived bark before quickly settling into a rather innocuous sounding four-pot idle that gives nothing away about what’s in store for unsuspecting passengers.
Seating position is nice and low – you’re planted deep into the chassis with this CLA. It’s not quite 911-style but it demands the driver finds his perfect seat and mirrors set-up before selecting the relevant driving mode.
There’s more than a few of those: Slippery, Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and Race. Each mode is quite different in character, which quite often is not the case.
Not really knowing the car or what it was truly capable of, I started out in Comfort, more concerned about AMG’s notoriously firm ride than any straight-line heroics.
It was close to peak hour, which seems to have re-emerged in this semi-post-COVID time, and had cause to ‘go for a gap’ to get into a moving lane. Boom, even in the least aggressive default setting there’s a significant shove into the back with just a light prod of the right pedal.
Switching drive modes is dead easy with the rotary dial hanging off the steering wheel. A click clockwise brings up Sport and, although I couldn’t detect much of a change to the exhaust note at low speed, the moment you give it a bit the car is transformed into something significantly more hostile.
In fact, the only time I reverted to Comfort was in stop/start traffic when the transmission is at its most docile. Even in Sport, the gearbox can be a tad jittery when pulling away from standstill.
It doesn’t take long to get comfortable in the CLA45 S. Sport+ takes things up a notch or two. Throttle response is downright explosive from anywhere in the rev range and it keeps on pulling. Honestly, it feels faster than my 991 Carrera S.
Honestly, I’d have to back the Benz in a drag race – because I’d hate to lose – but this thing is just so rapid that it feels more like a supercar than a four-door, four-pot Mercedes sedan.
It’s not just the outright go either, it’s also the linear fashion in which it delivers the power that’s more of a surprise. You can feel the scalpel-sharp throttle response and mid-range boost, and the way the eight-speed DCT bangs through the gears with an emphasis on double de-clutching on the downshifts will have you switching off the audio for good.
In Sport+ the acceleration under full throttle is fierce. There’s a decent soundtrack from the engine when you’re well and truly up it. The harder you go, the better the CLA45 S sounds. It’s exceptional for a four-cylinder turbo.
Throw it into a few corners in the same mode and there’s zero body, but that’s true even in the lesser Sport setting. Moreover, the car feels incredibly agile and light on its feet for something that tips the scales at 1675kg.
You can immediately feel the fine-tuning the AMG guys have performed on this chassis to get it sorted. It isn’t just the damping that we like, it’s the electromechanical speed-sensitive steering that gives reel feedback as well as very quick response to the tiniest inputs.
The good news is the CLA45 S car behaves like a rear-drive performance car in its aggressive drive modes. Thanks to its all-wheel drive you can get on the throttle early on corner exits and the car is still wonderfully manageable. If you get one of these find some twisty country B-roads and give it a good nudge, because you’re going to enjoy it.
Stopping power is well and truly up to the task. The six-piston brakes are quite spectacular in their ability to pull this thing up from high speeds, and it will do that time and time again without any noticeable fade. It’s impressive.
It’s not just the performance aspects of the car we like either, but perhaps even more surprising is the damper control and breadth of damping between the various drive modes. I simply wasn’t expecting this level of ride comfort from an AMG model.
It’s still firm but there’s no crashing even over broken road or those smaller, mega-hard, speed bumps that appear every so often. This is what some AMG cars have been missing for some time in my view, the ability to be used as a comfortable daily is now here.
Mercedes-Benz claims combined fuel consumption of 8.1L/100km using 98 RON (51 litres fills the tank) with a driver of 75kg. I’m a bit more than that thanks to the restrictive conditions forced upon us due to the COVID pandemic, but either way that’s a figure I couldn’t get close to.
More often than not the car was either in Sport or Sport+ when conditions permitted, so my average consumption was closer to 14L/100 or more. In fact, I even ran out of fuel – the first time in 30 years. My fault entirely but the fuel gauge is small and not overly noticeable at the bottom of the instrument cluster. At least that’s my excuse.
Mercedes-Benz was the first luxury carmaker to move from a three to five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty, although Volvo has since followed.
Owners can either pay for servicing as they go with capped price servicing, or they can bundle a service plan into their vehicle purchase and pay for scheduled servicing up front. The latter saves $750 over three years. Intervals are 1 year/20,000km.
The first service costs $700, the second $850, and the third $2200 using capped price servicing, for a total three-year spend of $3750. A three-year service plan will set you back $3000, a four-year plan $3700, and a five-year plan $4300.
While we all love the sound of the V8 in the C63 S, I’m not sure I would be prepared to stump up another $51,000 above the CLA45 S. The latter is quicker and more agile.
Along with its sledgehammer performance, the cockpit fit-out is just as spectacular and with cutting-edge infotainment and technology and daily driver status to boot. It makes for a compelling proposition for any enthusiast.
The Mercedes-AMG CLA45 S just might be the performance car of the year.