We’ve seen the future for the Mercedes CLA. It’s the Concept CLA. Mercedes may be using the ‘c’ word for now, but the showroom spec won’t be an awful lot different. Chiefly because, even allowing for the appropriately silly motor show wheels and OTT interior, it just looks like a CLA. It feels like the natural evolution of a familiar, handsome, well-proportioned small saloon shape. It’s dramatic now, but you can bet something like the Concept CLA will feel like a very logical next step come 2025 or so. Hopefully the same is true for the AMG versions, too…
In the hot hatch-obsessed UK market, both the saloon and shooting brake CLAs never get the same sort of attention as the A-Class equivalent. Shame, really, because there’s something traditionally appealing about a fairly subtle premium saloon with more than 300hp. Where the A hatch wears its prominent AMG armour on its sleeve, it arguably suits the four-door better. And much more convincingly than something like an M235i Gran Coupe.
This most recent update has refreshed the CLA’s interior as well, in a near-identical fashion to that found in the A45 we drove recently. Those unfamiliar with the Mercedes way of doing things will be perplexed; those with some experience will have their choice of head-up display, dash and drive mode sorted not long after starting up. Some lovely lighting and neat features can’t entirely distract, however, from a car that probably doesn’t feel as solid as a £50k Mercedes should.
Having not driven a 35 AMG for a little while, it’s nice to be reminded how purposeful it feels - a proper 45 understudy rather than an extension of the regular lineup. The brake pedal is firm, the gearshift paddles feel great, the ratios of the dual-clutch are tightly stacked, and the launch control is great for rally driver impressions. It feels like a serious performance car, from the sternness of the damping to the steering’s rate of response, not just a slightly quicker CLA with gimmicky bits (though don’t knock the launch control until you’ve tried it).
With the end of petrol-powered junior AMGs looming large, it seems churlish to criticise the engine too much. Especially as the sector is hardly blessed with standout 2.0-litre four-cylinders, from VW’s fairly ordinary EA888 to Hyundai’s Theta (despite the latter consuming fuel like an Airbus A380). But the fact remains that the M260 turbo is just a bit plain, even with new (and extremely subtle) mild hybrid assistance; all the blazing shift lights and exhaust artillery fire in the world can’t hide that. It gets the job done, for sure, and it’s a mad world where saloons that accelerate this fast aren’t universally praised, but without incredible throttle response, a monstrous mid-range or a ferocious appetite for revs, the engine doesn’t really shine. It’s probably the biggest point of difference between the 35s and 45s; the M139 2.0-litre, its similarities notwithstanding, is a much more exciting prospect. The eight-speed DCT, as in the more senior cars, is broadly very good indeed, only tripping over itself slightly changing right at the 6,500rpm redline.
To drive, the CLA does what these ‘35 AMGs have always done: providing an assured, capable, enjoyable all-wheel drive experience. Sure, it isn’t the last word in thrills, though nor is it a fun-free zone. Sport feels like the best compromise of the Dynamic Select modes, with Comfort a little less firm but not as well controlled. Perhaps the sound is overdone, though that feels almost par for the course these days. There’s a nice sense of all four wheels powering the car out of tighter bends, and it turns in enthusiastically. Put it this way - not that long ago a compact four-door with this sort of performance and handling prowess would have been unprecedented. Now it’s just another variant in a sprawling range.
That doesn't make it bad, of course - it's significantly better sorted than the last Audi S3 PH tested - but in creating some of the best compact cars in years (think RS3, CLA45, M240i/M2) Audi Sport, Mercedes-AMG and BMW M have made the half-mast derivatives that sit beneath them harder to love. The flagship models have a sense of occasion at low speed that never quite crosses over, and the more affordable cars are denied the emotional appeal of a more exotic engine and the chassis hardware (including sophisticated rear differentials) that make them properly exciting to drive. Just as the CLA’s feathers become ruffled - i.e. when it finally nudges into understeer or the damping can't quite keep up - you know the ‘45 equivalent would be carving things up like a boss. And that's not easy to forget.
So more expensive AMG delivers greater thrill than less expensive AMG - not unexpected, right? But the gulf is as real as it is unavoidable, and with the end times moving into view, it's hard now to resist the lure of a brilliant engine over a merely capable one. Not when any compact AMG is markedly pricier than it was before (the CLA starts at £50,000), making it a significant financial commitment either way. If that advice sounds much easier to write than act upon, then suffice it to say that the '35 is still a well-sorted and generally welcome presence in the lineup, and is probably one of those cars we'll eventually look back fondly on when we feel the need to reminisce about all the stuff that managed to be discreet and rapid and decent to drive all at the same time. But anyone after a bona fide, blue-chip AMG experience, would be better off climbing one additional rung up the ladder, be it with fewer options or as a lightly used example without the refreshed interior. Because that car is a future classic, and this one isn't.
SPECIFICATION | MERCEDES CLA35 4MATIC PREMIUM PLUS
Engine: 1,991cc, four-cyl petrol turbocharged
Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 306@5,800-6,100rpm
Torque(lb ft): 295@3,000-4,000rpm
0-62mph: 4.9 secs
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,680kg (Mercedes Benz kerbweight)
Price: £54,145 (price as standard; price as tested £54,770 comprising Spectral Blue metallic paint for £625)
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