Is this 310kW all-wheel drive sporty small sedan the mod­ern day Lancer Evo?

JA­SON STATHAM?” I ask. “Tom Cruise?” Staff Jour­nal­ist and fel­low road-tester Louis sug­gests from the pas­sen­ger seat. We’re try­ing to name an ac­tor known to play both fun and se­ri­ous roles, and wouldn’t look out of place in a suit. Why? We’re try­ing to de­cide which ac­tor the car we’re sit­ting in is most like. The car we’re in is the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 S and it is not Tom Cruise. The CLA is too tal­ented and en­ter­tain­ing for that, and its act­ing range is too broad. Cruise is the A45 S hatch­back, if any­thing. While the CLA is me­chan­i­cally very closely re­lated to that of the A45 S hot hatch – hyper hatch if you like – it chases a rather dif­fer­ent buyer. One look­ing purely for the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence has an easy choice: the hatch. It’s an ac­tion hero and it’s more than up to the task of en­ter­tain­ing. But it’s not ex­actly a sex sym­bol. Any­one who con­sid­ers style an im­por­tant as­pect to a car will con­sider the CLA coupe (sedan, re­ally) very closely. This is ac­cord­ing to Mercedes-Benz, any­way, who will charge an ex­tra $17,600 to be part of the CLA club, with its $111,200 ask­ing price dwarf­ing that of the A45 S.

For this rea­son, the CLA45 S needs to be the fash­ion­able sib­ling, and our test car is a fine ex­am­ple. While the hatch is bound to ra­di­ate boy racer vibes, the swoopy body on black wheels of our CLA with no ex­tra-cost op­tions is some­what de­mure, hint­ing at its abil­i­ties through mod­est touches to the body­work and its Panamer­i­cana grille. It looks more like a baby E-Class than a com­pact car, po­ten­tially be­cause it’s longer than the C-Class sedan by 6mm. Its wheel­base is, how­ever, shorter by about 110mm. But it’s un­der­neath the skin where this new gen­er­a­tion re­ally needs to shine, as the out­right pace of the last gen­er­a­tion wasn’t enough to al­lay com­plaints about clunky gear­boxes and a lack of char­ac­ter when it came to the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. A stiff ride and a some­what eco­nom­i­cally styled in­te­rior didn’t aid the mat­ter.

This time around, the boffins at AMG were able to set the CLA45 up the way they wanted, with more in­put on their part rather than just hav­ing to mould what Mercedes had al­ready de­signed. The CLA45 S cops a slather­ing of chas­sis up­grades over the rest of the CLA range in­clud­ing ad­di­tional bracing in ar­eas like the front wheel arches, a shear­ing plate un­der­neath the en­gine, and a 4MATIC+ all-wheel drive sys­tem spe­cific to the pair of 45s, which we’ll get to. The CLA also has wider tracks than the A45, by 8mm on the front axle and 27mm on the rear.

Un­doubt­edly the head­line of the new gen­er­a­tion of com­pact AMGs is what lies by that front axle. The M139 tur­bocharged in­line-4 is an all-new build, shar­ing only some fas­ten­ings with the pre­vi­ous M133. The new pow­er­plant’s out­puts are even nudg­ing early C63 ter­ri­tory, with 310kW and 500Nm ex­tracted from just 2.0 litres. Built on a new as­sem­bly line in Af­fal­ter­bach, the M139 has cylin­ders coated in a fric­tionre­duc­ing sub­stance called Nanoslide, is able to nudge 7200rpm, and has an in­ter­con­nected cool­ing sys­tem that in­cludes wheel arch-mounted ra­di­a­tors.

But at the same time as the en­gine is cool, it’s hot as hell. Its tur­bocharger spins to 169,000rpm and can force through 30.5psi of in­ter­cooled air, with elec­tron­i­cally con­trolled waste­gates en­sur­ing boost pres­sure isn’t lag­ging be­hind the de­mands of a right foot on a pedal. AMG aimed to make this en­gine feel more nat­u­rally as­pi­rated than the last, to de­liver power all the way to the top end of the tachome­ter rather than just a big ini­tial surge of peaky grunt. A dyno graph pro­vided by Mercedes showed the


more grad­ual de­liv­ery com­pared to the older en­gine, with power peak­ing at 6750rpm rather than near 6000rpm, and torque build­ing to a peak around 5100rpm in­stead of reaching full thrust be­fore 3000rpm. When it’s placed in the CLA45 S’s en­gine bay, it’s also fac­ing the ‘other di­rec­tion’. The ex­haust man­i­fold now faces the fire­wall, short­en­ing the plumb­ing re­quired for it and the in­take, and avoid­ing run­ning hot pipes un­der the sump.

New adap­tive dampers are one of the other tal­ents that make the new CLA45 bet­ter than the last, with three stages rang­ing from gen­uinely com­fort­able to quite stiff and fo­cussed, though nei­ther end of the spec­trum re­ally lim­its what you can do from the driver’s seat. Sport+ won’t de­mol­ish your spine on a rel­a­tively rough road, while Com­fort won’t stop you hav­ing fun.

And fun on back­roads you will have. The cabin of the CLA45 is quite stylishly ap­pointed and vis­ually calm, even with op­tional red ac­cents. You’ll prob­a­bly lose some of that calm when you re­alise that just say­ing ‘Mercedes’ trig­gers the MBUX in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem’s voice recog­ni­tion as­sis­tant. This ir­ri­tat­ing quirk aside, there are few things to com­plain about from in­side the CLA45, save for maybe the hard plas­tic hand rest for us­ing the MBUX sys­tem’s touch­pad. It looks a lit­tle bit ‘rental’ but you’ll likely for­get about this once set­ting off.

Push the start but­ton (while hold­ing the right shift pad­dle if you’d like a cheeky rev) and you’ll hear the M139 greet you, with re­port­edly no false en­gine sounds orig­i­nat­ing from in­side the cabin. There’s no but­ton to open valves in the ex­haust as with some AMG mod­els, but the en­gine does get more vo­cal when you switch the driv­e­train to Sport or Sport+. Cruise through the sub­urbs and the CLA is able to play the part of an ex­ec­u­tive run­about, with its com­pli­ant sus­pen­sion and 19-inch wheels let­ting only small thuds through as you tra­verse level cross­ings or the likes of Melbourne’s tram lines.

We de­cided to leave those tram lines be­hind, how­ever, as the de­sire to con­quer moun­tain roads and wind­ing coun­try­side lanes struck. The CLA is up to the task, need­ing only a turn of the steer­ing-wheel mounted dial to get into Sport mode, stiff­en­ing the dampers slightly and wak­ing the en­gine right up.

Driv­ing hard in Sport means the body will still roll some­what on its chas­sis and the en­gine re­quires your at­ten­tion as it’s not at full-at­tack just yet. Though it’s not the most ef­fec­tive way to make the CLA fast, it’s one way to make it fun. An­other turn of the con­trol dial and you’re in Sport+ mode, which stiff­ens the dampers to their fullest and gives the en­gine a lit­tle more perk, while also set­ting the AMG dy­nam­ics con­trol to ‘Pro’, al­low­ing a higher de­gree of hooli­gan­ism from the driver’s seat. The ex­haust also reaches its most ag­gres­sive by this point, though the sound of a greedy in­take up­front does its best to gain your at­ten­tion.

It’s also in Sport+ that the 4MATIC+’s new tune comes to front of mind, it’s Twin­ster-style ap­pli­ca­tion (sim­i­lar to that of the late Ford Fo­cus RS) pro­duc­ing a more rear-driven feel than the Haldex-style sys­tems of cars like the Audi TT, which di­vert drive to the rears when it’s needed rather than when it might be wanted. With AMG Torque Con­trol, the driv­e­train can ac­tively dis­trib­ute torque be­tween the rear wheels to use them to ro­tate the car through a cor­ner. It’s this new sys­tem that makes Drift Mode pos­si­ble, though this isn’t some­thing we were keen to test on pub­lic roads. Even with­out it, the CLA45 feels keen to in­volve some mild tail-wag­ging, al­most like it wants Drift Mode on. Cheeky bug­ger.

For more ag­gres­sion, turn that wheel-mounted dial once more to Race mode. The set­tings are al­most all the same as


Sport+, but now the en­gine is en­tirely ready to at­tack at any time, and the 8-speed dual-clutch is keep­ing the revs in the sweet spot (above 2000rpm) al­most con­stantly, snap­ping up the next gear in which­ever di­rec­tion it must with ease. It’s in Race mode where the CLA be­comes sear­ingly quick, mak­ing its 0-100km/h claim of 4.0 sec­onds em­i­nently be­liev­able.

So we de­cided to test that claim at Heath­cote Park Race­way. With tem­per­a­tures ap­proach­ing 15 de­grees through a dry morn­ing, we lined the CLA45 S up hav­ing been told the Race Start launch con­trol sys­tem was pa­tro­n­is­ingly easy to use. Elec­tron­ics all off, foot on brake, foot on ac­cel­er­a­tor. The en­gine is poised and, we as­sume, we’re about 4.0 sec­onds away from hit­ting 100km/h. Foot off brake… and not much hap­pens for a mo­ment. Some hes­i­ta­tion from the CLA to launch hard was later ex­plained to us as the com­puter likely cal­i­brat­ing its clutches to gauge whether they’d been run in yet. We were the first to use Race Start. We man­aged to coax a 4.21sec run to three dig­its, with a 12.32sec quar­ter mile at 185.93km/h thanks to one smooth launch, but fears of fry­ing clutches pre­vented us from press­ing on to reach the magic num­bers we had hoped for.

Our com­rades at Wheels man­aged 3.9sec to 100km/h in the A45, and the fact the CLA45 S takes just 2.41sec to blast from 80 to 120km/h is con­fir­ma­tion the car is about as fast as it’s claimed to be, as long as it’s ready to launch. The brake dis­tance of 34.99m from 100km/h is a tes­ta­ment to the AMG’s 360mm front discs with six-pot cal­lipers, paired with Miche­lin Pi­lot Sport 4 S tyres mea­sur­ing 9 inches wide at both ends.

The dis­ap­point­ment of our Heath­cote visit melted away once we were back on wind­ing roads. The play­ful de­meanour of the CLA45 S emerges from be­neath that sly fa­cade, again urg­ing you to make use of the most pow­er­ful pro­duc­tion four-cylin­der en­gine in the world. Much of the crit­i­cism lev­elled at its fore­bear is for­got­ten, as the new kid is ready to play along to which­ever script it’s handed. Un­for­tu­nately, like a ca­pa­ble ac­tor, the cost will make you ques­tion its value. Con­sider the $93,600 A45 S and your pri­or­ity for style may wa­ver, though look at the price of a (slower) AMG E53 Coupe at $180K and you might feel a bit bet­ter. From out­side the AMG sta­bles, the ob­vi­ous ri­val in BMW’s M2 Com­pe­ti­tion is set to be a short-lived one as the CS ap­proaches and the sub-$100K Com­pe­ti­tion Pure ends its time on sale. Is the M2 as much of a fash­ion state­ment? Per­haps not, but its abil­ity to im­press dy­nam­i­cally is hard to top.

The temp­ta­tion to award the CLA45 S 4.5 stars is im­mense, not just for the sat­is­fy­ing ‘45’ match-up, but also that there are 17,600 rea­sons it prob­a­bly shouldn’t be given the same score as the sim­i­larly able A45 S. Still, car buy­ers re­main the direc­tors of their own mo­tor­ing sto­ries, and some­times it’s bet­ter to have a CLA45 S ful­fill­ing your need for speed than, well, Tom Cruise.

RIGHT New turbo 2.0-litre po­si­tions ex­haust at the back and in­take at the front, short­en­ing the plumb­ing and im­prov­ing re­sponse

BE­LOW Once upon a time 360mm brakes with six-pot calipers were re­served for su­per­cars – not any­more

ABOVE The in­te­rior of the CLA45 S is well-laid out and pleas­ing to the eye, and its seat­ing po­si­tion is er­gonom­i­cally sound

BE­LOW LEFT While the CLA is im­pres­sively fast on the strip, the real ex­cite­ment is found in the cor­ners of wind­ing moun­tain roads

ABOVE Mercedes MBUX is a wel­come fea­ture, and makes menu nav­i­ga­tion much eas­ier than be­fore. It’s no BMW iDrive, though

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