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Review: 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG

by Drew Johnson

The CLA45 has a potent powertrain, but can the rest of the package deliver? We find out.

Just as the CLA250 blazed a new trail for Mercedes-Benz, the CLA45 is signaling a new direction for the company's AMG in-house tuning division.

For years AMG has been improving rear-wheel Mercedes models by way of massively powerful V8 and V12 engines, but that blueprint was thrown out the window for the CLA45. For Mercedes' latest performance sedan, the engineers in Affalterbach would have to work around the CLA's front-wheel drive layout and four-cylinder motor.

Curious to see if AMG could still deliver a world-class performance machine with those limitations, we ordered up a CLA45 for a week-long evaluation.

What is it?Carrying a base price of $47,450, the CLA45 represents the entry point into Mercedes-Benz's AMG lineup. But just because the CLA45 carries a relatively modest price, don't assume that the boys and girls at AMG have skimped on the performance front - generating 355 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque from just two liters, the CLA45 lays claim to having the most power-dense engine in production today. Other standard go-fast goodies include an all-wheel drive system with torque vectoring and a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.

What's it up against?The CLA45 AMG is somewhat of a trailblazer for the premium compact performance segment, but it will soon be joined by Audi's hotter A3 sedan, the S3. The CLA is actually a lot bigger than people give it credit for, so buyers could also line the CLA45 up against the Cadillac ATS, BMW 3-Series and even Mercedes-Benz's own C-Class. If you can make do without the fancy badge, the Subaru WRX STI checks many of the same performance boxes as the CLA45, but at a discounted price.

What does it look like?Admittedly, the CLA45 AMG looks nearly identical to the Sport Package-equipped CLA250 we tested just a few weeks ago. However, there are some subtly differences if you look closely.

Whereas our CLA250 was devoid of any bling, the CLA45 AMG is decked out with aluminum trim on its front splitter and lower rockers. The CLA45 also sports a unique rear diffusor with quad-exhaust outlets and a small decklid spoiler.

Take a peek behind the CLA45's wheels and you'll also notice some serious brake hardware not found on the standard CLA. And just in case anyone misses those bright red calipers (a $300 option), Mercedes had fitted the CLA45 with plenty of Turbo and AMG badges to let the world know that you're driving something special.

And the inside?Unfortunately for the CLA45 AMG, it borrows most of its drab interior from the regular CLA.

But let's start with the positives. Our test car was fitted with excellent Recaro sports seats that, while expensive, provided first-rate support. Though on the aggressive side, the upper and lower bolsters are power adjustable, so finding the right fit shouldn't be an issue for most people. And once you do find your ideal setting, the buckets fit like a well-tailored suit.

Our optional AMG performance seats were also accompanied by snazzy red seat belts. While off-putting at first, we grew to like the added ambiance they provided during our week-long evaluation of the CLA45.

The CLA45 comes with carbon fiber inlays on its twin-pod gauge cluster, which adds a nice performance touch without going over the top. Thankfully, the CLA45's black-faced gauges are much easier to read in all lighting conditions that the white dials used in the regular CLA.

The steering wheel in the CLA45 is similar in design to the unit found in the CLA250. Our tester was fitted with an optional AMG Performance wheel that featured a more sporting "D” shape and a grippy Alcantara cover. Contrasting stitching is used on the steering wheel and throughout the CLA45's interior when the long-winded 'MB-Tex upper dash and door trim with top-stitching' option is selected. Of note, the $1,500 MB-Tex package is required for the AMG Performance seats.

Our gripes with the CLA45's interior were pretty much identical to the ones we had with the CLA250 - the center stack already seems dated, the HVAC controls are out of the way and hard to read and COMAND (Mercedes' infotainment system) is clunky to use. We also complained about a lack of storage space in the CLA250, and things are actually worse in the CLA45. The high-performance version of the CLA uses a console-mounted shifter instead of a column-mounted one, forcing Mercedes engineers to put two cup holders where there was previously one. Needless to say, both holders are small and awkwardly positioned.

Rear visibility is again an issue in the CLA45, particularly when backing out of a parking spot. The CLA45 is available with Mercedes' self-parking PARKTRONIC technology, but a rear cross-traffic alert system is a glaring omission. The CLA45's optional rear-view camera and Blind Spot Assist are must-have extras.

But does it go?It's an AMG, so the answer is obviously yes.

It takes a moment for the CLA45's 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder to spool up, but when it does, all 355 horses pin you to the back of the seat with the gusto of a legitimate racing machine. The CLA45's motor has somewhat of a short operating ranging - the engine pulls strong from 3,000rpm but runs out of puff just after 6,000rpm - but the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission ensures everything keeps moving along. The CLA45 defaults to Comfort mode, but we'd suggest using the more responsive Sport or Manual modes. However, even in those snappier settings, the seven-speed still lags in transitions, like when accelerating from a stop or going from reverse to drive.

So it's safe to say the CLA45 accelerates like an AMG, but it doesn't exactly sound like one. The CLA45 fires to life with a raspy four-cylinder note that is more akin to a tricked out Mitsubishi Evo than the V8 soundtrack we've come to expect from AMG. The CLA45's AMG-tuned sport exhaust system provides a pleasing "thud” on up-shift and a rousing back-crackle on downshifts, but neither is as aurally satisfying as the noises a C63 makes. Call us old fashioned.

But the up-side to that four-cylinder soundtrack is really good fuel economy. Sipping premium fuel, the CLA45 is rated at 23 city and 31 highway. During our week with the CLA45 -- which was split about two-thirds highway, one-third city - we saw a very respectable 28mpg.

We weren't able to test the cornering limits of the CLA45's 4MATIC all-wheel drive, but the system does an impressive job of masking the CLA's front-wheel drive roots. During our time with the CLA45 we never experienced even a whiff of torque steer, which can sometimes still rear its ugly head even after the AWD treatment.

The CLA45's large brakes - measuring 13.8-inches up front and 13.0 inches in the back - are able to scrub off speed just as quickly as the engine can build it. The CLA45's steering isn't quite as good as its anchors, but the electric power steering system is at least well-weighted and direct.

If AMG would have stopped at those performance modification, the CLA45 would be one hoot of a daily driver. However, AMG went a step too far by equipping the CLA45 with one of the stiffest suspensions we've ever experienced.

Not just jarring over rougher pavement, the CLA45 manages to find nooks and crannies in even the smoothest road surfaces. Calling the CLA45 uncomfortable would be an understatement - we actually suffered from back pain after spending just an hour in the driver's seat.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe AMG treatment usually makes for a better Mercedes-Benz, but that's not the case with the CLA45.

Outside of an exhilarating drivetrain, the CLA45 AMG is actually kind of a let down, especially when price is factored in. The base model CLA45 lists from a somewhat steep $47,450, but doesn't include things like leather, satellite radio or even a compass. Our test car stickered for an astonishing $60,095 (or just two grand short of BMW's new M3) and lacked typical luxury features like adaptive cruise control or cooled seats. Throw in a ride that is far too firm and the CLA45 is the first AMG product since the R63 to completely miss the mark.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG base price, $47,450. As tested, $60,095.Black "Red Cut” Leather w/AMG Performance Seats, $3,750; Premium Package, $2,300; Multimedia Package, $2,370; PARKTRONIC with Advanced Parking Assist, $970; Panorama Sunroof, $1,480; 19” 16-Spoke Alloy Wheel - Black, $850; Destination, $925.

Photos by Drew Johnson.

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