In the world of hot hatches, there’s only one apex predator, the slightly berserk Mercedes-AMG A45 S. But not everyone wants a hot hatch, preferring instead something more mature than a hatchback’s unashamed youthful positioning.
Enter the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA45 S, a four-door ‘coupe’/sedan with all the performance and charisma of the hatchback, but with a boot.
It’s something borne out by Mercedes-Benz Australia’s market research: the typical CLA45 S buyer likely in a relationship but without kids, and with an interest in design, while the hatch customer is typically a single professional, with no mention of an interest in design, or anything else.
Priced at $110,835 plus on-road costs, the CLA45 S is more than $17K dearer than its A45 S hatchback sibling. It’s also around $20,000 more expensive than the model it replaces, the outgoing CLA45 (non-S) wanting $90,670 when new as recently as last year. And gone from the range entirely is the CLA45 wagon, or shooting brake. You want a ‘45’ in CLA guise, then this is it. Our test car was fitted with just the single option, the Communications pack ($790) that brings a head-up display. As tested price? $111,625 plus on-roads.
For those not quite prepared to shell out in excess of $111,000 for a CLA45 S, there’s the tamer and milder Mercedes-AMG CLA35 that wears an $85,500 price tag.
In terms of rivals to the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 S, there’s not a lot of competition for the brawler from Affalterbach. The Audi RS3 sedan asks for $85,135, while a BMW M2 Competition is cheaper at $102,900, but it’s powered by six cylinders and you lose two doors, so that's not really a fair comparison.
Perhaps BMW’s $72,990 M235i Gran Coupe is a better yardstick, certainly in terms of styling. But it’s no match for the CLA45 S in the performance stakes, not on paper, the BMW more closely aligned to the CLA35.
The CLA45 S matches its aggressive performance (more on that later) with an equally aggressive stance on the road. Sure, it might resemble the wider Mercedes-Benz CLA range, but that’s all it is, a resemblance.
Aggression is the order of the day, and it comes in the shape of a host of AMG-specific bits that add to its menacing air. The Panamera grille out front looks the business, while deep, functional air vents add to the unashamed sporty vibe.
The bonnet bulges with power, while out back the rear diffuser with its four pronounced fins looks like it’s come straight off a race car. There’s an integrated spoiler on the boot lid, too, underscoring its performance chops.
The whole package sits on 19-inch alloys that clothe Merc-AMG’s ‘high performance’ brake package: 360mm perforated rotors up front with contrasting red six-piston calipers, and 330mm rotors at the rear with single-piston floating calipers. Sporty.
Inside, the CLA45 S resembles the wider CLA family, albeit with a fair bit of bling thrown at it. The most noticeable are the two-tone black and red Lugano leather seats, a no-cost option. They look sharp, and feel even better by the seat of the pants with plenty of support offering a snug fit, which is exactly what’s required when exploiting some of the AMG’s performance abilities.
The steering wheel, too, looks like it came from a race car, wrapped in Dinamica microfibre with contrast yellow stitching and a 12-o’clock marker also highlighted in yellow. It looks fast. AMG’s impression of a Manettino dial is nestled in the lower right of the wheel and toggles through drive modes – Comfort, Sport, Sport+, Race or Individual.
Down low, stainless steel sports pedals look sharp.
It’s a comfortable cabin up front, with plenty of gloss-black accents that attract fingerprints like ants to honey. Storage options are adequate, with an average-sized central bin (housing two USB-C plugs). The door pockets can hold regular 600ml bottles, too.
A pair of cupholders live in the centre console, while forward of the touchpad (just one of many options for controlling infotainment) is another little cubby that serves as a wireless phone charger. Another USB-C port and a 12V plug also live there.
In terms of cabin design, though, the CLA45 S hasn’t left anything on the table. The twin 10.25-inch screens – one for infotainment, the other a configurable driver display – offer a commanding presence atop the two-tiered dash. That dash looks great, the tiers broken up by aluminium accents and trimmed in configurable ambient lighting. It looks good at night, if that’s your thing.
Infotainment comes via Merc’s MBUX system, and it is at once sharp and reasonably intuitive. It features all the bells and whistles as standard, too: satellite navigation, Apple and Android smartphone mirroring, DAB+ radio, and a trick 12-speaker Burmester sound system, all of which can be accessed in myriad ways.
There’s the good old-fashioned touchscreen functionality, while a thumb pad on the left-hand spoke of the steering wheel can toggle through (a lot of) menus without distraction while on the move. Then there’s Merc’s ‘Hey Mercedes’ voice commands, and while it works reasonably well, it can be found wanting. I found the thumb pad option the most satisfying user experience.
Similarly, another thumb pad on the right-hand spoke of the wheel can toggle through driver displays on the second 10.25-inch screen, again configurable myriad ways. I liked the set-up of the Classic dials, a digital take on Merc dials of yesteryear. Call me nostalgic.
The second row isn’t the last word in comfort. Even behind my relatively average 173cm tall driving position, I found my toes jammed under the driver’s seat. Head room, too, is scant, impacted no doubt by the standard-fit panoramic roof that robs vital millimetres of available space. Still, the seats are comfortable to sit in, although those consigned to the second row will find little in the way of comfort, with a pair of air vents (with no separate climate controls) and a pair of cupholders the highlights. No charging options back there of any kind.
A pair of ISOFIX mounts are fitted to the outboard seats and joined by three top-tether anchors. Still, if Merc’s market research is on the money, those fixtures, indeed the second row, won’t get much of a workout.
The boot is reasonably sized, too, measuring in at a claimed 460L, which is larger than the outgoing model and with a wider aperture for easier loading and unloading. There’s no spare tyre of any kind, simply a puncture repair kit.
None of that diminishes from the CLA45 S experience, however. It is at once a monster cloaked in respectability.
Under the bulging bonnet lives the same 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine as found in its A45 hot hatch sibling. It is the most powerful series-production four-cylinder engine ever created, with a slightly unhinged 310kW (at 6750rpm) and 500Nm (from 5000–5250rpm) on tap.
Sending those outputs to all four wheels is an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, and working together (and with launch control activated, a standard feature) the CLA45 S can complete the 0–100km/h dash in 4.0 seconds flat, just 0.1s slower than the A45 hatch despite carrying a 40kg weight penalty.
Acceleration is brutal. And it’s addictive. There’s a simple pleasure in the way the CLA45 S surges forward with gleeful abandonment, defying expectations. That AMG can take a reasonably humble CLA and cram this much performance under the bonnet is testament to the team from Affalterbach.
Acceleration is nice and linear, too, without any of the ‘whoosh-bang’ rush some turbos have a predisposition for. And with peak torque not coming on song until high in the rev range, there’s good mid-range shove to be found, making for a controlled and predictable experience behind the wheel.
There’s a delightful soundtrack, too, certainly in Sport+ mode, which is when the exhaust valves conveniently open up to sing from a songbook of barks and snarls and pops on overrun. Yes, it’s enhanced inside the cabin, but it’s a delicious assault on the aural senses, nevertheless.
Potter around town, and the CLA45 S does its best impression of a docile small car, displaying none of its snarling potential. Light on its wheels, subdued in its soundtrack, the CLA45 S can easily be driven in tight city streets barely eliciting a glance.
But, afforded the opportunity to stretch its not inconsiderable legs, and the little ‘coupe’/sedan barks into life, all while managing to remain composed.
The eight-speed ‘Speedshift 8G’ dual-clutch transmission does a great job when left to its own devices, instinctively swapping ratios in barely perceptible fashion. It’s simply point and go and let the 8G do what it does best. You can switch to manual and use the paddle shifters to swap your own cogs, but I found the DCT behaved better when left on its own, with only the occasional hesitation when changing down during more adventurous driving.
The steering is nice and direct, light and twirly at city speeds, and weighting up nicely as speeds increase. Toggling through drive modes adds even more heft and offers decent feedback through the tiller. You’re never left wondering.
And the CLA45 S is as predictable hauling off speed as it is piling it on, those big rotors doing a decent job of retardation, and again, all entirely predictable. There’s no grabbing or biting, just a nice and controlled easing of speed.
Under wheel, the ‘coupe’/sedan remains composed, if a little taut. The adaptive dampers work away intuitively, automatically adjusting the settings depending on driving and road conditions. Around town, the damping is pliant enough to elicit complaint, while more spirited driving will see the ride firm up, but again, not to the point of bone-jarring.
All of that works in tandem with Merc’s 4Matic+ all-wheel-drive system that, along with torque vectoring and a tricky new rear diff with twin multi-disc clutches (one for each wheel), ensures grip is sent to the right wheel at the right time in the right situation. It’d take an engineering degree to actually feel that at work, but what this non-engineer can tell you is that grip is prodigious, the CLA45 S never feeling on edge.
As an aside, that new clutch also allows for a Drift Mode that channels more power to the outside wheel, allowing for some controlled sliding action. In the right environment, of course, such as a racetrack or a skid pan. Naturally, I didn’t try it on my public-road-only week with the CLA45 S. Nice to know it’s there, though, just in case you want to fry up the factory-fitted Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S 245/35ZR19 rears.
Mercedes-AMG claims the CLA45 S needs 8.9L/100km of premium unleaded on the combined cycle. Impressively, after a week with the car combining inner-city grinding, highway cruising and a healthy stint of adventurous driving on rural back roads, we saw an indicated 10.0L/100km. Not too shabby considering the temptation to exploit the CLA45 S’s performance.
In terms of safety, the wider CLA range wears a five-star ANCAP rating awarded in 2019, with the safety advisory body noting it did exclude AMG models. Still, an advanced suite of active and passive safety technology is all standard, with autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, driver-attention alert, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping assist, 360-degree cameras, front and rear parking sensors, and tyre pressure monitoring the highlights, while nine airbags cover both rows.
Servicing intervals are every 12 months or 20,000km, depending on what comes first and will set you back $3000 over three years/60,000km or $4300 over five years and 100,000km, which is getting up there when looked at against its main rival from Audi ($2320 / $3420). Kudos though, to Merc for offering a five-year/unlimited km warranty, something its main German rivals haven't done. Yet.
The philosophy behind the CLA45 S presents an interesting conundrum for potential buyers. For around $17K less, you can have better performance and arguably a better aesthetic with the A45 hot hatch.
But, not everyone loves a hatchback, and for those people this might well be the answer to living with hot hatch performance in a more mature package. What would we do? Grab the hatch and pocket the change. Either way, though, right now, whether the A45 hatchback or this, the CLA45 S, AMG has achieved the pinnacle of performance from a series-production four-cylinder.