Mercedes-Benz has AMG on an impressive growth curve these days, the official name of the effort being Performance 50. By the 50th anniversary of AMG in 2017, the Mercedes performance division will produce 30,000-plus units per year, up from today's 20,000 or so. In addition, AMG will boast a catalog of 30-plus models, and a greater dedication to making AMG cars truly nimble performers in every sense will be a priority. Within that very full agenda, this new CLA45 AMG is certain to be an important contributor on all accounts.
The thrill monitors at AMG have a long-established reputation for creating large, open-road rockets that err on the side of brute force and everyday comfort over zippy, tight-feeling sports car finesse and balance. The strategy has worked wonders for the company's sales ledger and created handsome levels of profit per unit, but entire developing sectors of the premium hot-car market have been knowingly left out of the AMG equation. While there are exceptions, AMG has never been considered a maker of truly agile machinery that's easily tossed around.
The very first thing that we notice while driving the CLA45 AMG – on schedule for North American deliveries beginning in November with a reported starting price of $47,450 – is exactly how lively its new 4Matic chassis can be. It's an entirely new feeling for an AMG, and it's entirely welcome by us. Some will complain about the price being asked for this super CLA-Class, but this little sedan is a true AMG of the new genre, and as such, it might just be something of a bargain.
Physically, we have a top-trim CLA with a handsome leather interior, very nice performance seats in front and some AMG aero extensions and trim bits to highlight the stance and darker side of the 45 AMG. The standard wheel is an 18-inch set, but our tester came dressed in 19-inchers, an option to be made available in a Driver's Package that will also extend the speed limiter to 167 miles per hour. Our first CLA45 tester was fitted with the Euro-standard lower and stiffer setup, and it was already very sharp. Combined with an as-needed 50:50 torque split on the 4Matic all-wheel drive and the sticky Dunlop Sportmaxx RT tires – 235/35 ZR19 91Y front and back – the CLA45 can be snapped around smartly between tight curves.
A Driver's Package will extend the speed limiter to 167 mph.
Yet the CLA45 only really pops all of your senses when fitted with the optional AMG performance suspension and exhaust system. In this fully optioned chassis, the front springs are 20-percent stiffer and rear units are 22-percent stiffer. So, if you get one of these, opt for both of those plus the 19-inch alloys. Thus prepped, you're bound to seriously enjoy yourself.
We were in on earlier ride-and-drives with the engineers of this little AMG. At that point, Benz reps admitted they wanted to improve the electro-mechanical steering's crispness and fidelity. Boy, do they seem to have worked out the bugs, because we felt very sure behind the wheel. Our time with the CLA45 stretched over some hilly north-central German country roads and lots of no-limit Autobahn. (Track time at the new and very hilly 2.6-mile Bilster Berg Drive Resort was in an Edition 1 trimmed A45 AMG.) The AMG-specific front axle treatment and re-engineered elasto-kinematics of the multi-link rear axle make this CLA45 unrecognizable to the AMG family we thought we knew all these years.
This powerplant has been gifted with a wild maximum turbo-boost pressure of 26.1 psi.
Certainly, the 147 additional horsepower (peaking at 6,000 rpm) and 74 greater pound-feet of torque (between 2,250 and 5,000 rpm) supplied by the new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine helps things a bit. This sweet-feeling 355-horsepower, 332-pound-feet-of-torque powerplant (internally called "M133") has been gifted with a wild maximum turbo-boost pressure of 26.1 psi from its big twin-scroll Honeywell unit, which is clearly visible when the hood is lifted. The mood button on the center console that corrals the drivetrain includes modes for Controlled Efficiency, Sport and Manual, and in either of the latter two settings, your optional exhaust will flap open and make you smile throughout the rev range and the seven shift points of the dual-clutch AMG gearbox.
As much as we can rave about this machine, we noticed something that the AMG dudes will only halfway admit: The A45 AMG, which we won't get in North America, is a tick better at all of this performance driving stuff than the CLA45. It would have been outstanding to try an all-boxes-ticked CLA45 around the track against the A45 AMG Edition 1 cars we did have. The trouble is that the CLA45 launches in Europe this September, whereas the A45 starts selling right now, so there were no spiked CLA45s yet for us ham-fisted press mooks at the track.
The A45 AMG, which we won't get, is a tick better at all of this performance driving stuff than the CLA45.
Compared to the A45 AMG hot hatch, the CLA45 is more of an acutely warmed-up little grand tourer. This is not actually a criticism at all, and we sincerely dig the CLA45. But it just feels a tiny bit disingenuous to pull this punch from our trunked cars. AMG insists that the suspension calibrations are all identical between the two models, but every sophisticated yaw sensor on our bodies tells us that the whole story has yet to be shared. The weight difference between the A and the CLA is only 66 pounds trim for trim, so that doesn't account for it, either – perhaps it has something to do with distribution?
With the three-stage ESP all the way off and our most aggressive driving packed with high lateral g-force maneuvers, we could feel the ESP Curve Dynamic Assist chiming in ever so slightly. Or to put that into plain English, we noticed the brake torque vectoring system while wringing the car out. On the ideal tarmac under the early summer sun, though, we didn't really need or want it to kick in, since the CLA45 was nailing every line through every single transition and weight shift. On these AMGs, when you've got the Speedshift dual-clutch transmission in manual mode, the gears are held at the rev limiter, unlike in the CLA 250 Sport. What's more, in Sport or Manual, shift times are exactly as quick as on the SLS AMG GT. Along with this true manual treat, the redline has been extended 200 rpm up to 6,700 rpm. Downshifting is still frequently forbidden, most annoyingly, right when you might need it heading into curves, and second gear is too short to be of much use anyway, but the turbocharged torque rush helps out there.
Even though we'd like a Black Series CLA45 that collaborates in some clever way with the rear-biased 4Matic, we are definitely fans already of this 2014 Mercedes CLA45 AMG. The chassis sensations alone are happily unlike anything we've ever felt from Affalterbach. Sooner or later we won't hesitate to mention the AMG lineup in the same breath as M from BMW or even Porsche. AMG may arguably already be there in certain cases, but it takes time to break old perceptions that have been engraved over decades. The CLA45 is a fantastic start for a better, nimbler AMG.