Boy racer meets luxe
You could almost afford his-and-hers CLA-200s for the price of the AMG version we drove, which starts at $92,215. The base model ($52,500) has eight-inch centre screen, digital radio, imitation leather seats, satnav and a decent safety package. The AMG’s focus on performance accounts for most of the premium. Power leaps from a tame 115kW to 280kW, there are bigger wheels, bigger brakes, performance exhaust and sports suspension with adaptive dampers. The cabin trim gets a complete overhaul with real leather sports seats, AMG emblems, red highlights and alloy pedals.
For a car with such a focus on performance, the CLA 45 is surprisingly civil for the cut and thrust of city driving. Comfort mode soaks up all but the rudest of bumps and the cabin is quiet and cosseting. Sporty Benzes used to rattle the dentures but adaptive suspension creates a car with two characters. Ambient lighting gives the cabin a classy look at night and the heavily bolstered sports seats are surprisingly comfortable. The news isn’t as good for those in the rear, as the tapered silhouette cuts into headroom. Knee room is acceptable for most people.
All CLAs get nine airbags, semiautomatic emergency braking, blind spot warning, reversing camera and tyre pressure monitor — a good package but not as comprehensive as some Benzes. The CLA 45 adds active cruise control, lane departure warning, an alarm and a threestage stability control that has more leeway than the less sporty models.
For most enthusiasts the V8-powered C63 S is the pinnacle Mercedes sedan. I’d pocket the $70,000 difference and settle for the CLA 45. Mercedes claims a 0-100km/h time of 4.2 seconds, only three-tenths shy of the C63 S. Lighter on its feet, the CLA 45 takes corners more like a hot hatch than a sedan, with plenty of grip thanks to the all-wheel drive. The magicians who tune Mercedes exhausts have made it sound nearly as good as well. In sports mode it snaps and snarls and clears its throat under brakes. It’s borderline anti-social to have it in sports mode around town.
ALTERNATIVES HSV Clubsport R8, from $83,490
A lot more real estate for the money, combined with a thumping V8 soundtrack, but thirsty and bulky and can’t match the cabin ambience.
Audi RS3, from $78,616
Anonymously styled hatch with a cabin that doesn’t match the Merc’s modern finishes. Its firecracker engine delivers the same — and arguably more — performance for less money.
BMW M2, from $98,615
A winner in the looks department but the coupe layout is not as practical. Can’t match the Benz in a straight line but comes into its own through the bends. Cabin is a bit ho-hum for the price.
It’s a huge jump in price from the equally stylish CLA 200 but a world away in performance and style. The cabin is just the right blend of boy racer and luxury, while the engine punches above its weight and sounds fantastic.