Mercedes CLA45 AMG: Review

Making a sound financial case for buying an AMG over its civilian Merc equivalent is never going to wash. However subtle the visual demarcation motivation has always been there though; matey boy with his AMG Sport embellished C220 CDI might feel Billy Big Balls. Until such point as a C63 pulls up alongside.

AMG or CDI? Let's play spot the difference...
AMG or CDI? Let's play spot the difference...
Has Mercedes splashed too much AMGness on junior members of the A-Class/CLA/GLA though? Park this £42,465 CLA45 AMG alongside a £28,425, 122hp CLA180 AMG Sport and you'd genuinely struggle telling them apart. Traditionally the AMG owner would burble off satisfied with the man maths equation that double the cylinder count and displacement rendered any visual similarity irrelevant. But one step and £9K back in the CLA range and the 211hp 250 4Matic also has a turbo four-cylinder 2.0-litre, four-wheel drive and seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. Bit too close for comfort?

Mercedes wants you to think of the CLA45 as a CLS63 for the upwardly mobile AMG first-timer. But with two near-identical CLAs before you're in the showroom, one at £369 per month and one at £519 per month, and a line-up of 2013-registered C63s outside on the approved used lot for similar money which way are you going to turn? Shoot, you could even have a main dealer 'real' CLS63 with under 20K on the clock for less than the sticker price of this car.

In profile the CLA carries the 'baby CLS'  look...
In profile the CLA carries the 'baby CLS' look...
Unfortunately for the CLA45 it faces a more intense scrutiny than the A45. The hatch-based version is like no AMG that has existed before and thereby freed from any expectation. Because the CLA looks - and is sold as - something of a Fisher Price 'my first AMG' it's got to stand that comparison.

AMG's tactic with the A45 is to go so far beyond hot hatch expectations as to headbutt you into submission. It's way more violent and extreme than anything you'd expect, bulldozing any doubts you might have had about a brand associated with 500hp V8s suddenly having a go at a hot hatch. OK, it's not perfect. But you've got to admire the all or nothing approach.

And in the A45 the punishing low-speed ride, farty exhaust with its ba-ba-bang percussion through the gears and hilariously over-boosted power delivery kind of make sense. It looks like a hot hatch, albeit a very expensive one. But it convinces on that promise with the driving experience too.

...but from rear quarter it doesn't quite work
...but from rear quarter it doesn't quite work
Don't look over your shoulder and life at the wheel of the CLA45 is pretty much identical to the A45. You get an aluminium sweep of dash rather than the carbon look of the A-Class but it's fundamentally the same layout and, indeed, driving experience. The CLA carries an additional 30kg over the A45 and has recalibrated springs and dampers at the rear to compensate (mpg and CO2 figures suffer slightly too) but apart from a retune of the variable exhaust flap to be more refined for rear-seat passengers the two are interchangeable technically.

Boom and bust
So it's marginally more grown-up in tone, aurally and aesthetically. Whether those rear seat passengers will first comment on the reduced exhaust boom or the fact their heads are pressing firmly against the roof will depend on stature. Suffice to say, if you want to carry grown-ups around you'd be better off with the A- or GLA45. Or that barely used C63. Oops, there we go again...

Modern car in exciting engine bay shocker
Modern car in exciting engine bay shocker
The aesthetic gap between the CLA45 and cooking versions may be dangerously narrow but the extra outlay becomes very apparent in the driving experience. Deliberately opting for finely honed passive damping and linear rate steering and going to the trouble of engineering bespoke suspension hardware is the kind of credibility AMG brings to the table. And offers substance where others might choose to distract from prosaic underpinnings with lots of damper modes, user configurable steering maps and other gizmo-based smokescreens.

That one suspension setting is pretty brutal though, especially for passengers and at urban speeds. There is a sweet spot where composure derived from firm springing and damping can actually make speed bumps and the like more palatable than waft and wallow but, hand on heart, the CLA is probably a little beyond it. Above 50mph or so it's less of an issue but if your driving is more 'burbs than B-roads you'll probably be better off with the GLA version.

Seats as firm as the ride, which is to say ... firm
Seats as firm as the ride, which is to say ... firm
Haldex the fun
On the latter the CLA45 is brilliant fun though. It may be based on the Devil's mix of a transverse, FWD derived drivetrain and Haldex based four-wheel drive but AMG has - as boss Tobias Moers promised it would - worked hard to negate any inherent disadvantages. Control harmonisation is pure class and the gutsy power delivery perfectly suited to grabbed overtakes when breaks in the traffic present themselves. Only the gearbox frustrates, especially on downshifts in the Manual mode. Sometimes it refuses outright, sometimes it drops down two or three gears when you only wanted one. Merc UK's PR man told us upgrades to throttle map and gearbox management introduced on the GLA45 will filter through to A- and CLA45s though, and will be updated come the first service.

On greasy roads and winter tyres the more relaxed Sport ESP mode reveals little interest in doing anything exciting in the traditional AMG sense of the word but nor is there any nose-heavy sense of FWD based underpinnings. You can get on the power early, ride the explosion of boost and use all that power to maximum effect safe in the knowledge that the more you give it the more the line will tighten and the faster you'll go. On greasy winter roundabouts that C63 or CLS63 wouldn't see which way it went.

Pop, bang, kapow - sports exhaust v. noisy
Pop, bang, kapow - sports exhaust v. noisy
Conclusions? The '45 family is a big emotional leap for AMG fans and if the A45 was a startling revolution the CLA is a more muddled interim battling compromises beyond the slightly awkward looks. A £4,275 premium over the A45 doesn't help its case either. Not that Mercedes is worried, orders for the whole family exceeding all expectations and punters seemingly not shy of five-figure option spends like the one applied to our test car. Our money would go on the A-, the family buyer would probably be better served by the GLA- but if you're a four-door diehard the CLA might be the one.

But if that was the case ours would probably still have a V8.

 1,991cc 4-cyl turbo
Transmission: 7-speed dual clutch auto, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 360@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 332@2,250-5,000rpm
0-62mph: 4.6 seconds
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Weight: 1,585kg
MPG: 39.8 (NEDC combined)
CO2: 165g/km
Price: £42,465 (before options, £52,365 as tested)


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Comments (60) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Roma101 25 Feb 2014

    What sort of discounts are they doing on the A45 and CLA45 these days? I am tempted by them, but am struggling with the prices, especially considering that another well known German manufacturer is able to offer huge discounts on its pocket rocket.

  • don logan 25 Feb 2014

    EVERY time I see a CLA I think it`s a Chinese copy of a Mercedes due to the odd proportions!

  • XJR500bhp 25 Feb 2014

    Looks so ugly - AMG is so diluted now

  • Amirhussain 25 Feb 2014

    Might sound a bit weird, but the real lights look 'fake'

  • Frimley111R 25 Feb 2014

    Hard to get my head around a smallish car costing so much money...

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