Traditionally, mention of a Mercedes-Benz AMG evokes images of big burly V8 or V12 engines that snarl, bark and generally terrify sensible mortals. Six-figure price tags are also readily associated with this performance arm of the Mercedes empire.
The 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG bucks that trend, though, with a relatively fuel-efficient 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a price that doesn't eclipse most mortgages. Needless to say, those who worship at the altar of performance were skeptical.
Is it fast? Is it fun? Is it deserving of the AMG badge?
These questions are easily answered with an affirming yes, but there's more to the CLA45 AMG that could give interested parties reason to look twice.
Is It Fast?
Based on the entry-level Mercedes CLA250, the CLA45 AMG starts from rather humble beginnings, at least by Benz standards. But the numerous revisions to the driveline and chassis really put it in a different category. AMG didn't just slap a bigger turbocharger on the existing engine. Instead, almost everything related to making power has been revamped to handle the increased stresses.
The result is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that produces an impressive 355 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque. That makes it the most powerful four-cylinder engine offered in a production vehicle. By comparison, the CLA250 makes 208 hp and 258 lb-ft. With a seven-speed automated dual-clutch transmission sending power to all four wheels, this baby AMG turns in some impressive numbers.
In Edmunds testing, the CLA45 AMG reached 60 mph in only 4.7 seconds (4.3 seconds with a foot of rollout as on a drag strip) on its way to a quarter-mile time of 12.8 seconds at 108 mph. The brakes also proved up to the task by bringing it to a halt from 60 mph in a short 111 feet. In the handling department, the CLA45 danced through the slalom cones at 68.9 mph and rounded the skid pad at a neck-stretching 0.95g.
No matter how you measure it, fast isn't a problem.
Is It Fun?
Those remarkable track results translate to a very entertaining street weapon with which to tame the most challenging of mountain roads. After only a few turns, we felt instantly at ease tossing the small sedan into the curves. The steering is appropriately weighted and the suspension keeps all four tires firmly stuck to the asphalt.
The 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG feels light on its feet, tiptoeing between left and right switchbacks with precision, and there's a high level of confidence that it will respond in lockstep with your intentions. And it does. There's no need to analyze what it's doing or might do; it simply executes and thrills. Information coming from the steering wheel is sparse, but it's actually not a problem. You can apply much more throttle than you'd expect coming out of turns, as the summer tires and all-wheel-drive system seem to draw from an endless well of adhesion. Even midcorner bumps are shrugged off with barely an acknowledgement.
First and second gear are fairly short, and the free-revving engine sends the tachometer needle to redline quickly, but we were largely able to avoid the rev limiter. Manual upshifts produce gearchanges as seamless as a perfect baton pass in a relay race. Downshifts were also smooth, with perfect rev matches commanded from the wheel-mounted paddles. Turbo lag is never a problem either, as there's an abundance of boost low in the rev range.
Missing is the characteristic AMG growl. In its place is a gruff four-cylinder note that reminds us of a Subaru STI. It's not all that inspiring, but in Sport mode there's a muted puff and pop from the exhaust that's more in line with other AMG products.
And, yes, the CLA45 AMG is fun. It's as rewarding and lively as the SLK55 AMG roadster. But there's more to this story than just having fun and going fast.
Does It Do "Normal?"
If you're so lucky to live on a racetrack or a serpentine road like L.A.'s famous Mulholland Highway, the CLA45 AMG would indeed be a wonderful choice. But as an urban daily commuter, some will find the aggressive tuning of the CLA45's transmission, brakes and suspension to be a problem.
An issue with the sedan's dual-clutch transmission is that it's slow to engage from a stop and makes smooth getaways difficult. Normal pressure on the throttle produces first nothing, then a lurch, then a crawl and finally genuine forward progress. If stop-and-go traffic is a regular part of your day, this kind of uneven acceleration can become frustrating. With practice, delicate throttle application eliminates some of the issue, but the extra effort on the part of the driver shouldn't be required.
The intense sensitivity of the CLA's brakes is also a problem in everyday driving. Normal pressure on the brake pedal results in an overly aggressive reaction, as if you gave it a quick stab instead. While slowing to a stop, you can also feel the transmission shift into lower gears with a few unrefined lurches.
Then there's the ride quality. The stiffly sprung AMG suspension, though it's great when driving hard, lacks compliance for daily driving in the urban sprawl. If a smooth ride is important to you, the standard CLA250 will likely be a better fit. It's important to note that our test vehicle lacked the optional AMG Driver's package that further stiffens the suspension and adds larger 19-inch wheels with shorter tire sidewalls.
Another practical consideration is fuel economy. The little AMG's EPA-estimated 26 mpg combined (23 city/31 highway) is promising. But exuberance behind the wheel kept our overall average to only 20.1 mpg. Tame driving on our highway-heavy evaluation loop produced 26.4 mpg.
The Inside Story
If you're willing to accept the compromises made by the drivetrain and suspension, the CLA45 AMG's interior is pleasingly up to Mercedes-Benz standards. Despite its entry-level status, the CLA45 interior manages to exceed expectations in terms of materials quality, with leather adorning key surfaces and tied together using racy red stitching. The faux leather MB-Tex and plastic elements are also praiseworthy thanks to convincing graining and sturdy construction.
When it comes to infotainment, the Mercedes COMAND system has a slight learning curve, but once you're acclimated, operation of the many systems becomes intuitive. Navigation and music selection are further aided by the sharp graphics on the permanently affixed display atop the dash. The optional Harman Kardon audio system delivers a strong performance, which is further enhanced by a quiet cabin.
The CLA45's front seats are firm but well shaped for hours of fatigue-free driving, and the aggressive side bolsters keep occupants firmly anchored. If they have a fault, it's the non-adjustable headrests, which lean too far forward. Life isn't as easy for rear-seat passengers, however. Narrow door openings inhibit ingress, and once seated, there's a distinct lack of head- and legroom, making the rear seats acceptable only for smaller passengers.
On the bright side, the CLA45 provides a slightly bigger trunk than its chief rivals at 13.1 cubic feet.
In Good Company
With a base price starting at $48,375, the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG is competitive relative to other all-wheel-drive entry-level sport sedans. Add in the optional premium paint, "Red Cut" leather seating and Premium and Multimedia packages on our test car and the as-tested price reached $55,265.
Considered against the 2014 Audi S4 and 2014 BMW 335i, the CLA45 AMG is arguably the sharpest in terms of all-out performance. So if performance is your overriding priority, the CLA45 is your car. But most buyers will happily trade a few seconds on a back road for more reasonable daily comfort. For that reason, the Audi and BMW are more well-rounded alternatives. These rivals make far fewer sacrifices to ride quality and are more agreeable commuters, yet they still provide considerable performance.
As much as we sometimes hate to admit it, there is more to a car than just thrills.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation
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