The premium hot-hatch segment has exploded, spawning a raft of performance spinoffs, such as the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG, which is a slung back sedan version of the much-lauded A45 AMG.
If you squint, the CLA looks like a mini CLS and if you squint even more, there’s a hint of AU Falcon at the rear. It’s a design that has served the brand well with the CLA shifting similar numbers to A-Class each month (consistently around 300 units), which is partly helped by the fact it’s offered in a sedan and shooting brake.
While the CLA’s design may divide opinion, we think it looks fantastic in white with the optional gloss black wheels and carbon-fibre highlight package. The front and rear aero package also helps this AMG pocket rocket stand out from the crowd.
With a starting price of $92,215 (plus on-road costs), it’s a big step up from the A45 AMG it shares many components with. With a few option boxes ticked, our test car came out to just under $100,000 before on-road costs. Wowsers.
As you open the driver's door, the incredible looking Recaro seats jump out at you. The body-hugging seats wrap beautifully around the driver and provide plenty of support for faster driving. They are fully adjustable, featuring both a side airbag and seat heating. It may seem like a strange mention, but the seats in the Ford Focus RS (also Recaros) don’t have side airbags or seat heaters.
The steering wheel is equally as impressive with a flat-cut bottom and part Alcantara trim. The wheel sits beautifully in hand and comes with metal paddle shifters that are cold to the touch and a nice brushed aluminium surround to the steering wheel inner surface.
Front row leg and headroom is good, but the second row is quite cramped due to the size of the first row seats. It can be tricky to get in and out if you’re taller or have big shoes as they can catch on the B-pillar.
While the steering wheel and seats feel great, the rest of the interior isn’t much to write home about. The piano black air conditioning vent surrounds look and feel cheap, while the centre stack is littered with buttons.
Instead of using a column-mounted gear shifter, the CLA45 uses a stubby shifter in the centre of the cabin that takes up valuable space. A drive mode selector near the shifter and a second knob that controls the COMAND infotainment system then takes even more space. You are forever switching to Race mode when trying to change radio stations or scrolling through the infotainment menu.
If you own one of the larger smart phones, there’s literally nowhere within eyesight to put it. There are two small cup holders in the centre and a tiny storage cavity ahead of the gear selector. The storage and packaging really is quite poor.
These points aside, the CLA45’s dials look and feel sporty with a central LCD display between the tachometer and speedometer displaying trip computer and navigation details.
The centre stack beneath the infotainment screen has been updated to include brushed aluminium buttons that looks and feel far more premium than the plastic buttons they replace. But, it’s disappointing to see blank buttons. Surely the top-specification model with all options ticked shouldn’t feature blank buttons.
Infotainment comes courtesy of an eight-inch colour LCD screen mounted to the top of the dashboard. It runs COMAND, which is Mercedes-Benz’s version of BMW’s iDrive and Audi’s MMI. It now comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, the software and hardware has also been updated to provide much faster scrolling through menus with cool animations in the car settings pages.
While the speed of it has improved, it is still quite clumsy to use. Navigating menus is tricky and counterintuitive, while entering navigation addresses takes more clicks and transitions than necessary.
Thankfully, most of this is overcome with the brilliant voice recognition system. It’s on par with the best in the industry given that you can enter an entire navigation address in one hit. It’ll even dial some of the most obscure Eastern European names I have buried in my phonebook.
The sound system is an absolute cracker. The standard sound system is Harman/Kardon branded and comes with 12 speakers and the ability to stream Bluetooth, auxiliary, USB and digital radio. Sound quality is excellent and there is a heap of bass. It’s seriously good for such a compact car.
Spiffy seats and a cool steering wheel don’t mean much if it’s no fun to drive. So, with a stab of the starter button, the feisty four-cylinder engine fires to life with a burble.
Under the CLA45’s bonnet is arguably one of the most potent four-cylinder powertrains on the planet. It’s a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine that produces a gobsmacking 280kW of power and 475Nm of torque.
To put that into context, it was only until recently that Holden’s naturally aspirated 6.0-litre V8 engine produced 270kW of power — a full 4.0 litres and four cylinders more than the AMG.
Anyway, all of that torque is rammed through an all-wheel drive system with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox that features launch control. Our test vehicle was also optioned with Mercedes-Benz’s AMG Dynamic Plus package, which features a front differential lock, Ride Control suspension and tyre pressure monitoring.
The mechanical locking front differential works in unison with the vehicle’s torque vectoring system to maximise traction available at all four wheels. The CLA45’s 4MATIC system primarily operates as a front-wheel drive vehicle until the system deems it necessary to send torque to the rear axle.
Even then, it operates a maximum 50/50 torque split between the front and rear axles, so that front differential comes in handy to prevent exceeding traction limits on the unloaded wheel.
At low speeds, the CLA45 suffers from mild jerkiness like almost all dual-clutch vehicles. It’s primarily noticeable when taking off or when located on a hill. It’s a characteristic we wish manufacturers would figure out a way of removing.
But, once moving things are far better. Throttle response is sharp and it feels zippy enough to cut in and out of traffic. Brake pedal feel is excellent and the steering in Comfort mode is quite communicative and easy to handle. There’s even a semi-automatic parking feature that generally works quite well.
Around the city, the ride is very firm. Even with the new dual-mode adaptive suspension it picks up everything on the road. This is multiplied further if the suspension is in the Sport setting. That partly comes down to the 35 profile 19-inch alloy tyres and wheels.
It’s on the open road that the CLA45 really shines. The raspy engine gets to access its upper rev band where it starts to really bellow. With the exhaust open, the CLA45 sounds nothing like a four-cylinder hot hatch. It takes on a new persona and sounds genuinely loud.
It’s at this point the Sport, Sport+ and Race settings really come in to their own. Each mode steps up the performance equation with the Race setting the most aggressive. The Race setting engages the hardest suspension setting, opens up the exhaust and enables the Sport handling mode, which limits traction and stability control intervention.
The electrically assisted steering also firms up to provide greater resistance and a sensation of feel throughout the steering input range. The gearbox is also busy holding gears, blipping on downshifts and providing glass shattering cracks with each gear change.
It’s a genuine symphony of induction noise, cracks and pops. When you arrive at the first corner, it’s time to remember that the best way to drive this car is by taking advantage of the mammoth brakes — 350mm with four-piston callipers at the front and 330mm with single-piston callipers at the rear.
With exceptional brake pedal feel, it’s easy to stomp on the cross-drilled anchors time and time again knowing that it will pull up effortlessly. German Touring Car and FIA GT champion Bernd Schneider has said previously that this car needs to be driven with a different technique. Hard on the brakes and radical steering angles.
It’s with this technique that you get the most out of this all-wheel drive package. When we hit the track with the A45 AMG, RS3 and M2 earlier this year, even with radical angles and hard braking, the A45 AMG still couldn’t match up to its competitors in terms of tyre durability and lap times.
While we didn’t get the opportunity to track test the CLA45 AMG this time 'round, it felt incredibly capable through our test circuit. Under throttle out of corners the front end tucked in beautifully to slingshot the sleek sedan into the next straight.
The brakes remained strong and confidence inspiring throughout the whole run, while the gearbox supplied lightning shift speeds and drama. It remained flat through corners, but was unsettled by mid-corner bumps that would kick slightly through the wheel and cause the body to buck about. This kind of thing is unavoidable given the chassis rigidity and suspension firmness.
We managed to consistently achieve solid 4.4 second 0-100km/h times, but the gearbox did give up after two back-to-back runs, coming up with an error message. We experienced this at our earlier track test also.
So it’s needless to say that the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG is a capable and bloody quick car. But, it’s let down by a massive price tag and a cabin that doesn’t feel up to par.
The cabin and overall package doesn’t feel anywhere near premium enough to be demanding a $100,000 plus on-road asking price. If it were our money, we’d be going for the Audi RS3, or the yet-to-be-revealed RS3 Sedan. Or for under $10,000 more, buyers can snap up the new C43 AMG, which is priced from $101,900 (plus on-road costs).