I am not a good car reviewer. I'll admit it from the outset. When I got my CLA45S in May I sent a terribly written review to CarAdvice and I think it almost immediately made its way into the trash can. But a bit of time with the car has given me the opportunity to appreciate it far better and hopefully now I can produce a review that is “worthy” of the readership (note: my writing skills have not improved).
So, what is the CLA45S? Well, it’s the third iteration of the small car platform with the extra “pep” that Mercedes Benz introduced in 2013. At the time it raised a lot of eyebrows; a 2-litre engine from AMG??? The heresy! It did however open up the brand to a lot of younger customers, and with that aim it was very successful. The first CLA45 had 265kW and the revised model in 2016 raised that to 280kW. It featured extraordinary power from a 2-litre hand-built engine by AMG, but they had issues. Despite the performance numbers they were primarily front-wheel drive cars with power shifting to the rear wheels when needed. AMG/Mercedes-Benz did a good job limiting the kind of understeer that plagued the RS3 at the time, and straight-line performance was astonishing. Mercedes-Benz had managed to get produce a car that - with less than half the displacement - was as quick as the C63 models.
And I had the luck to own both previous models, hence my progression to the current CLA45S.
I ordered my CLA45S in November last year after the full details were released. It was built in mid-December and found its way onto a ship to Australia in late January. Of course it caught the 2020 curse, and when it arrived in Melbourne, it remained in quarantine due to “seed contamination” for close to three months. The joys of COVID lockdown didn’t help the situation. I finally got handed the keys in May some six months after the car had been built.
First, let’s address the elephant in the room. Price. The CLA45S has plenty of expensive options. While the previous models had standard performance seats, these became a $2000+ option. The aero kit (black longer boot spoiler, different rear diffuser and aero “flicks” at the front with deeper spoiler) is $2000+. Air conditioned seats are an option, as is a head-up display (HUD). The AMG sticker on the dash, and even the AMG sound (which is amplified and not “fake” exhaust note) in the cabin is an option. All metallic colours are extra dollars - I got the digital white, which is a great metallic white. It shines like crazy in the sun. The car used to start at $108,000 but with on-road costs and options the price got to over $130,000 in Victoria. The price has gotten even higher, with two price rises since February. The only good thing that happened as a result of the delay in my delivery was that I got 5 years warranty. Was the price worth it? Well, read on.
So, what is the CLA45S like to drive? It is a totally different car than earlier models. Mercedes-Benz/AMG have managed to transform the engine and drivetrain into a much better car. First, the engine, while still the size of a milk bottle, now produces 310kW. The 30kW increase might seem “meh” but the way the engine delivers the power is breathtaking. Somehow, AMG has managed to make a small capacity engine with a monstrous turbo feel as linear as a larger capacity, naturally aspirated motor. Gone is the low-down lag and the asthmatic top end. This thing pulls like a train to the red line, but like no other turbo engine I have ever experienced.
There is an angry surge after 3000rpm, but it doesn’t hit hard like a 2-bar boost should. It’s a marvel and really the most outstanding thing about this new CLA45S. It is now a joy to let the engine rev out. The new 8-speed transmission is also very well suited to the engine and it seems that AMG has managed to finally get the engine and transmission to play nice together. Yes, there still is some occasional jerkiness but far, far less than the outgoing model, which sometimes felt like someone had read-ended you. The drivetrain is still all-wheel drive with a front-wheel drive bias, but now there are 3 (or 4 if you consider Drift mode) levels of control, with each level giving an increased level of rear-wheel drive feel. It is really noticeable on winding roads.
Grip is amazing but now the car feels like it is being pushed from the rear, and the torque vectoring is very efficient at shuffling power around. On wet roads the previous model still spun the front wheels for a split second before power was diverted to the rear, but now it is seamless. And OMG, the launch control. Before, you had to press 15 buttons for it to activate, it was laggy, and while it gave slightly better times it was just too cumbersome to use most of the time. In the CLA45S as long as you are in Sport/Sport+ or Race modes, you hold the brake, press accelerator and launch control is activated. Let go and you get slammed back into the seat. The first time I used launch control I seriously felt my kidneys move around. It is brutal. But, fuel economy will be directly proportional to foot-pedal activity. I am averaging 13 litres per 100 kilometres with only city driving and during the lockdown.
The cabin is a much better place to be than in the outgoing model. The dual digital screens are infinitely adjustable, and the left display is touch activated. The main display can also be adjusted in three sections, with each area having a whole host of possible functions, including speedometer, maps, rev counter, media display, consumption etc. The head-up display is also fully adjustable and very clear. I was concerned that the digital displays would be hard to see in bright light but there is no such issue. The only hassle is the fingerprint marks. The CLA45S is also much more adjustable than ever before, both through the main screen but also through the AMG buttons on the left side of the steering wheel. They both have a touchscreen to change function and button to adjust level of that function. There is also an Individual mode where all the functions, including exhaust sound, transmission, engine and suspension can be modified and some have 2-3 levels of adjustment.
The Performance seats are different than the outgoing model, featuring more adjustment. They now have proper lumbar adjustment, heating as standard but have cooling as an option (which works very well). They also have better padding than the previous model. I’m not a small guy but they fit fine and are not too tight. I have had no issues being in the seat for two hours. The rear seats are fine and despite some concerns, my tall 16 and 13-year old girls have no issue with headroom. The wireless charger works well and has no issue with larger phones like the Samsung Note 10+.
The column mounted transmission stalk takes a little bit of time to get used to, but it is actually fine. To be honest, it's actually better than the previous model. The Start button should be on the centre console as it is occluded by the steering wheel. The Burmester sound system is only okay, and is not much of an improvement over the Harmon Kardon in the previous model and is far too quiet at max volume. It is clear and works well with the usual Apple CarPlay/Android Auto functionality (both wired only).
This brings me to Mercedes-Benz quality control. Cabin rattles had plagued the first two generations of CLA and this isn’t any better. There are rattles from the B-pillar, the front passenger door and also around the windows. It's rather poor for the money Mercedes-Benz is charging for the car.
Suspension has three levels of adjustment and comfort, and while hard it is still better than the previous model and far better than first gen CLA without adjustable suspension. There is no hiding that the suspension errs towards sportiness and the most “Sport+” setting is organ-jiggling hard. I don’t think that setting would be suitable for anything but a racetrack. The handling of the car is much more planted than the outgoing model, the steering is a little heavier and front end is much more precise. I have not pushed it to the limit to test understeer (or oversteer) but the CLA45S feels more balanced than any of the earlier models. The current model also comes stock with 19-inch wheels shod with Michelin Pilot 4S tyres; a massive improvement over the Dunlops that both the previous models came with. The tyres are also wider at 255mm vs 235mm for the previous CLA. Interestingly the CLA45S has slightly wider tyres than the A45S.
Brakes are bigger than on earlier models, at 380mm and 6-piston at the front, and boy do they stop. Weaving around mountain roads showed no fade but I suspect they are using aggressive pads and so they do squeal occasionally when cold.
The exhaust note is very different than with older models. Previous models had more “pops” even in Comfort mode, but they sounded forced and almost fake. Due to EU noise regulations, the CLA45S exhaust note has been somewhat neutered. This is unless you use Sport+ mode in which case the car sounds insane with a much deeper “gruff” note and exhaust pops. Overall, I think the car sounds much more mature than earlier models. The AMG sound is an option which amplifies the exhaust note in the cabin, unlike BMWs which fake a sound inside the cabin. Apparently AMG uses a microphone in the exhaust. It does work but it does add a little drone which isn’t necessary in Comfort mode.
The boot is same size but looks bigger because the opening is much wider. It’s surprising what you can fit in 460 litres. The headlights are now full-adjusting LED and they are amazing in the dark. It’s cool seeing how half of the road stops being illuminated to not dazzle an oncoming car. The interior LEDs are far brighter than before and endlessly adjustable.
Tech is plentiful. Distronic Plus works amazingly well on the freeway to keep distance from cars in front, and it now features an autonomous driving mode - though you still need to touch the steering wheel, otherwise it freaks out after a minute and eventually will come to an emergency stop. The autonomous mode will even change lanes for you. The 360-degree camera is great and there really isn't any issue with visibility around the car. The images are very clear and crisp. I understand the Augmented Navigation is going to become an option with MY21 models, although for plenty of extra dollars. The newer Mercs also have Mercedes ME connectivity which notifies you if the car has been left unlocked, if there has been a collision, fuel lids or windows have been left open and you can even start the car remotely. The car will also save the driver specifics to the ME account so driving position and favourite screen setup can be restored if someone else drives the car.
Reliability has been fine so far but I have only done 4000km.
So, coming back to my question posed earlier; is the CLA45S worth the money? AMG/Mercedes-Benz have really created a new car which is, in every respect, far better than the previous model. It is a joy to drive and while there are QC issues, the CLA45S is now matching the C63S for performance. We were are also entering previous model M3/M4 level performance. Around $130,000 there are lots of car options, so I suggest prospective buyers drive the CLA45S first to ensure they are happy with the room in the back and the hard suspension. I absolutely love the car and consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to own all the models so far and see the progression.
Notice, so far, I have not mentioned the looks because all the CLAs so far have been polarising in their design. I have had no issue with the previous models, and I think the current design is by far the most mature and balanced. The aero kit does add to the looks but even the plain CLA45S looks great. I would suggest that the CLA45S is a car for a particular customer - it will not suit everyone, and the A45S is a cheaper way to experience the same engine. So far, I have no regrets.