The first-generation Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 was a big crowd pleaser, but it suffered from many of the same flaws that befell its non-AMG sibling – a tailbone-punishing ride and cheap interior materials. However, the newest CLA 45 4Matic, introduced for the 2020 model year, is much improved, offering plenty of comfort to go along with its outrageous styling and performance.
Underhood is a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four making a robust 382 horsepower and 354 pound-feet, the subcompact CLA has more than enough hustle for its diminutive proportions. But it’s not all about hardcore performance, as we learned on a long weekend trip to Palm Springs. The CLA 45 is happy to squire its passengers down a long, straight highway, with a surprisingly composed ride, comfortable front seats, and a deep trunk making daily duties relatively convenient. While it’s not nearly as posh as an S-Class, it still does a decent impression of less aggressive Benz sedans, while still offering snorting AMG fun on a canyon road.
The entire Mercedes-Benz CLA family lives and dies by its chop-top, fastback styling. The automaker calls the four-door a coupe, owing to its frameless side windows and sleek roofline, but whether you agree with the marketing or not, the CLA is undeniably more stylish than the A-Class sedan with which it shares its underpinnings. Adding to the swoopy subcompact’s visual drama are AMG-specific body modifications, including an attractive Panamericana grille with vertical bars, gaping lower front bumper air intakes, a quad-outlet exhaust, a slightly more aggressive rear bumper and side skirts, and a subtle lip spoiler.
To that, our tester added the AMG Aerodynamics package, including a larger front splitter with front bumper corner winglets, and a more pronounced trunk lip, all done up in gloss black thanks to the AMG Night package (which also tweaks the mirror caps, window trim, and tailpipes). The exterior styling is beyond reproach, looking sleeker and more distinctive than the bygone Audi RS3 sedan and a bit more avant garde than the long-hood-short-deck BMW M2 two-door coupe. That said, it is proportioned like a front-drive vehicle, and that’s because all of Benz’s compact cars have front-biased architecture, 4Matic or not.
Inside is more of a mixed bag. Styling-wise, the CLA 45 is a modern AMG, with a meaty, ergonomic steering wheel and fully digital instrument and infotainment displays. A high, shelf-like dashboard feels intimate without being claustrophobic, and our tester’s Classic Red and black two-tone leather livens up the color palette nicely, a reasonable $1,450 option over the standard grey and black MB Tex faux leather. AMG-branded Recaro seats are a bit dearer at $3,390, but they’re undeniably supportive (more on that later) and impart the interior with a motorsports-ready vibe. Sign us up.
However, unpleasant materials are not hard to find. The center armrest is nicely padded, but the rest of the console is hard plastic, broken up by faux aluminum and piano black finishes. That means your knees will spend lots of time in corners bracing against unyielding materials – ditto your outside elbows, which contend with a hard plastic lower B-pillar. Such frequent touchpoints deserve better at the CLA family’s starting price of $38,900, much less the AMG CLA 45’s $54,800 base or our tester’s staggering $79,915. That said, natty materials made their way into the old RS3 too, so the CLA is at least meeting the class average.
As we said earlier, the littlest AMG is a decent companion on the open road, thanks in part to those gorgeous, heated and ventilated Recaros. The power-adjustable seats fit your author’s 6-foot frame easily, and the aggressive side bolsters felt cosseting (not confining) thanks to a healthy application of supportive padding. Lumbar controls, hidden deep in the MBUX infotainment system, are difficult to alter on the move, but they do offer a wide range of adjustment. The multicontour seats also feature an energizing kinetic function, which adjusts the recline and tilt ever so slightly to activate muscles and ease fatigue on long drives.
Absolute cargo space is adequate at 11.6 cubic feet with the seats up (more than the RS3 and less than the M2), and it’s deep enough to accommodate large suitcases and boxes. There’s also enough storage space in the cabin for the accouterment of a road trip, with a deep center console, decently sized cupholders, and good door pockets. Rear passengers get short-changed in space, with just 35.7 inches of headroom and 33.9 inches of legroom – both the RS3 and M2 offer more. That’s the price one pays for a sloping roofline.
Surprisingly, the CLA 45 rides very well over even broken pavement. There’s some noticeable tire slap over concrete expansion joints, but the impact rarely conveys any harshness, instead soaking up bumps like only a German car can. Noise levels inside aren’t too tiresome, though there is some drone in part-throttle, low-load situations. Overall though, the CLA rides much more comfortably than we expected given its boy-racer styling and killer-bee exhaust note.
The Mercedes-AMG CLA takes orders from the driver via MBUX infotainment, which works as well here as in just about any other Benz. Using the system is simple via the 10.3-inch touchscreen display, but if you can’t be bothered to make the easy reach, there’s also a trackpad in the center console that’s relatively easy to use even in motion. As on other MBUX-equipped vehicles, there are thumbpads on the steering wheel spokes that control both the center screen and the identically sized, reconfigurable digital instrument cluster. The final redundancy is “Hey Mercedes” voice functionality, which works for climate, audio, navigation, and more.
Wireless device charging is available as an option, bundled with NFC technology that makes Bluetooth pairing very easy. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, however, still require a wired connection. An optional Burmester audio system should ease the pain, in theory, but we didn’t notice particularly impressive sound quality – it was fine, but not as stellar as expected. Augmented-reality navigation was a different story, making traffic maneuvers in a strange city much easier by displaying the road ahead on the infotainment screen, overlaid with turn-by-turn directions.
Our weekend trip to Palm Springs included a deliberate detour through the aptly named town of Idyllwild, comprising a stellar ribbon of road that climbs 5,000 feet up from the desert floor. On both sweeping switchbacks and tight corners, the Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 offered stellar grip and excellent steering, with plenty of weight and good feedback through the Dinamica rim, allowing us to read traction on the few gravel-strewn corners we encountered. In both Sport and Sport+ drive settings, the CLA’s optional adaptive dampers were firm, but composed, with little body roll and few untoward motions detracting from the experience.
And what an experience driving this thing is. Acceleration from the boosted four-banger is immediate and nearly lag-free, with a delightful BLAAT from the tailpipes at every upshift of the eight-speed dual-clutch transmission. Mercedes says 60 miles per hour happens in 4.0 seconds, and we’d be surprised if it weren’t faster. We didn’t test the delimited top speed of 167 mph, but our repeated abuse of the optional AMG upgrade brakes and their red calipers revealed no bad habits – they’re strong, linear, and easy to modulate.
While the killer-bee exhaust note gets a bit tiresome on the highway, it sounds divine echoing off the San Jacinto mountain rills – the first sign that this was going to be a fun little side mission. Abundant grip made quick progress easy, with responsive steering helping out with mid-corner trajectory corrections to avoid rocks and those stout brakes resisting fade with aplomb. And as powerful and capable as the AMG-tuned four-banger is, it doesn’t overwhelm the driver, thanks to a communicative chassis that can tame the snarling engine. Overall, the Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 is a cohesive performance car, with high limits and few limitations.
The CLA 45 loses a single point in its safety score because only automatic emergency braking and blind spot monitoring come standard. Lane-keep assistance and lane departure prevention are optional, bundled together with rear automatic braking, Distronic adaptive cruise control, lane-change assistance, and stop-and-go functionality. The whole package works with the driver to ease their burdens on a long freeway slog, maintaining lane trajectory and following distance smoothly and intuitively.
The EPA rates the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4Matic at 20 miles per gallon city, 29 highway, and 25 combined. Those are marginally better numbers than the contemporary Audi RS3, which gets 19/28/24 mpg (a new one is on the way), and it blows the BMW M2 Competition’s 16/23/20 mpg out of the water. All vehicles in this class require premium fuel.
Compared to the $56,200 Audi RS3 and $58,900 BMW M2, the $54,800 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 is the cheapest to start, but the options list is comprehensive and expensive. As mentioned before, our tester cost $79,915 thanks to a long list of add-ons including $2,500 Mountain Gray Magno matte paint, $3,390 AMG Performance seats, and a $2,900 AMG Dynamic Plus pack that includes the adaptive suspension, upgraded brakes, and Dinamica-trimmed steering wheel (that also boasts an AMG drive-select dial with two additional modes – Race and Drift).
Other nickel-and-dime options include SiriusXM radio, heated and ventilated seats, a garage door opener, Burmester surround sound, and the aforementioned wireless charger and NFC pairing. Our tester’s Monroney also included a $2,900 line item for Pirelli P Zero Trofeo R tires, though we suspect the original rubber had worn out by the time the CLA hit our possession with 7,000-plus miles, since it was riding on less aggressive (but still wonderful) Michelin Pilot Sport 4S rubber. Deducting that amount would yield an effective as-tested price of $77,015.
It’s likely that a more meagerly equipped CLA 45 would be a hoot to drive on a winding road, and your author tinkered with the 2021 build-and-price tool to create a $71,055 sport sedan with exuberant Sun Yellow paint, those fab Recaro seats, the driver-assistance suite, and every performance goodie but the aero package and track-optimized Trofeo R tires. That’s still a good amount of cash, but somehow, a shade over 70 grand is more palatable than a shade under 80. It may be an expensive toy, but the Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 is a very fun one too, and for some drivers, the smiles it generates will be priceless.