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km : First Drive

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23 September 2014

“Entry Level” luxury cars can be a precarious thing. Part of the very nature of a luxury brand is that it’s something which, for most people, is out of reach. It’s something to aspire to, something to work for. Something to earn. The question is, how hard do the luxury marques want people to work for that badge? How far do they want people to have to reach? If they make people reach too far, they’ll lose sales. If they don’t make people reach far enough, they’ll lose that coveted aspirational status. If everybody has the same badge on their car as you do, it’s not as special any more. It’s a fine line to walk, a delicate balancing act, and one that for many brands has resulted in plenty of ill-fated past attempts at producing an entry level vehicle and finding that “just right” market position where it’s within reach of enough people, but not too many.

The latest attempt at this balancing act (in the US, at least) for Mercedes-Benz is the CLA-class. With the CLA, Mercedes have expanded upon their “four door coupe” idea which premiered and sold so well in the CLS and has spawned a whole gaggle of imitators, some of which (the Audi A7) pull off the style better than the CLS and some of which (the Porsche Panamera) don’t. The CLA250 is Mercedes’ new entry level product for the USA, and they’ve proudly positioned it with a starting price of less than $30,000. While having a Mercedes with a price that starts with a “2” and isn’t followed by at least five more figures is a risky move from a brand image perspective, the CLA250 is squared off directly against the Audi A3, (and undercuts the BMW 2-series by a few thousand dollars) and so far they’re selling as fast as Mercedes can crank them out.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG

The base CLA250 comes fairly bereft of options to hit that low price, and is powered by a 208HP turbocharged 4 cylinder that drives the front wheels. In short, though it’s a beauty to look at, it’s a little lacking when it comes to serious performance and luxury feel. So what to do if you want a small car and like the CLA styling, but you want something with a little more power and a little more exclusivity? That’s where the CLA45 AMG comes in. As much as people have tossed the term “baby Benz” around in discussing the CLA250, Mercedes is quick to dispel that kind of talk about the CLA45 AMG. Sure, it’s still got a turbocharged 4 cylinder, but this one is handbuilt by the guys at Affalterbach, just like the big V8s that power the larger AMG models. At 2 liters and 355HP, it boasts the highest output per liter of any production engine on sale today. Instead of front wheel drive, the dual clutch transmission puts the power to all four wheels through a system that includes rear torque vectoring. In short, the CLA45 AMG has all of the requisite numbers and checks all the boxes on the required spec sheet, but how is the “baby AMG” to drive?

I had the chance to sample the CLA45 last week on both road and racetrack, and in short, there’s nothing “baby” about it. That impression starts when you approach the car. The example I drove was painted in “Mountain Grey” ($720) and was equipped with the optional 19″ sixteen spoke black wheels ($850) and a panorama sunroof ($1,480). The dark grey paint, combined with the black wheels, compact stance, and the huge three pointed star in the front grille give an overall impression of dynamism. On the inside, the example I drove had the optional “Red Cut” black leather interior with AMG performance seats ($3,750), aluminum interior trim ($0),  premium package (ipod cable, garage door opener, compass, auto dimming mirrors, satellite radio, dual zone climate control, Harmon / Kardon sound, and heated seats for $2,300), multimedia package (navigation, rear camera, voice control, 6 disc changer, 10GB hard drive, and SD card slot for $2,370) and a driver assistance package (blind spot assist, distronic, and lane assist for $2,500), parktronic parking assist ($970), and the AMG performance steering wheel ($500). All of this, when tacked on to the base price of $47,450 adds up to a not inconsequential $63,815 with destination and delivery charges thrown in. That’s just about exactly the price of a base C63 AMG, and though you’d have to throw on another $10,000 or so of options on the C63 to get equivalent features the CLA sure has a lot to live up to.

2014 CLA45 AMG.

When I slide down into the AMG performance seat, though, and reach up to grasp the AMG steering wheel with the alcantara patches at 9 and 3 o’clock, I realize that the CLA45 doesn’t give anything away to the bigger AMG cars in terms of the quality and feel of the cockpit. It’s still got that silly “iPad glued to the dashboard” navigation screen that’s shared by the CLA250 and the new C-class sedans and which is akin to a giant wart right on the nose of a supermodel, but the rest of the cockpit is beautifully designed and executed with quality materials and a precision that demonstrates that someone at Mercedes took note of how Audi has been doing things lately.

2014 CLA45 AMG.

Then it’s a stab of the “Engine Start” button and off we go. One result of the recent trend toward smaller turbocharged engines is that the engineers have gotten very good at making small engines sound great. The exhaust note of the CLA45 is deep and bassy without being brash or shouty and is just perfect for the car. Despite being turbocharged to a gasket-popping 26.1 PSI, there is also very little sense of turbo lag. Combined with all wheel drive and the dual clutch transmission, the engine delivers a seamless surge of acceleration all the way to very extra-legal speeds. The suspension is finely tuned as well, giving good road feel without allowing the intrusion of the many pavement imperfections of the mountain roads on which I’m driving. The overall impression when driving the CLA45 on the street is one of solidity without mass or heaviness but with speed whenever you want it. In short, it drives just like a small AMG car ought to.

After the road drive is finished, I have the opportunity to drive the car around the wonderful main course at the Monticello Motor Club, and who am I to refuse that? The track at Monticello is one of the best “driver’s courses” in the country. It was designed with the help of racing legend Brian Redman and it contains a little bit of everything – elevation changes, off camber hairpins, long sweepers, chicanes, and some decent straightaways for pure speed. Today parts of the course are coned off to keep top speed under control and there is a strict “no passing, no aggressive driving” rule in effect, so I’m forced to take it a bit slower through parts of the track than I otherwise would have to avoid driving right up the tailpipe of a C300 sedan that’s in front of me. Still, the CLA45 shines on track. While it’s a street biased car wearing street biased tires it really comes into it’s own when given the chance to run without fear of other traffic, deer crossing, or The Law. The broad, even power curve means that torque is available nearly everywhere, and the engine continues to pull right into the high end of the tachometer. Turn in and steering feel are very direct, and the car responds incredibly well to being trail braked late into a corner and then getting on throttle and allowing the all wheel drive system to pull you through the apex and on out. The effects of the rear torque biasing differential are readily apparent, and if you happen to need to tighten your line a bit through a curve an application of throttle will do the trick, which is something that few front wheel drive based cars, even when fitted with all wheel drive systems, manage to pull off. The feeling of solidity and stability that were apparent on the street continue on the track, with the car never feeling light or unstable, even when asked to do things that would overwhelm some rivals.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG

At my favorite corner of the track, a left hand off-camber hairpin with an extremely late apex I coax the car into a broad, eminently controllable slide, push hard through the final two turns, and then I have to wait for that white C300 sedan to trundle down pit lane so I have a minute to assess the car one last time. My verdict remains just what my initial impression of the car is – this is no “baby” AMG, it’s the real thing. It might not boast a V8 engine, but it develops plenty of power, delivers that power in a way that allows you to make extremely rapid progress on the street or on track, and does it all while enveloping you in one of the finest driving environments out there. Were it my car to spec, I think I’d skip over some of the electronics and driver aid packages, but two boxes I would definitely tick would be for the AMG Performance Seats and AMG Performance Steering Wheel. The seats are both beautiful to look at and hold you in place perfectly for spirited driving, while the steering wheel provides a real sense of occasion from when you first see it to when you grab those alcantara surfaces, and it’s earned itself a spot right up in the top few of my favorite wheels ever. The rest of the gizmos might be nice to have, but the seats and wheel genuinely enhance the driving experience, which is what this car is all about in the first place.

Here’s some GoPro video of the lap at Monticello. Yes, I know the line isn’t always perfect, and I took several sections rather more slowly than the car is capable of, but we were under restrictions that day and that white C300 is just off camera for most of the lap. Driving six feet behind someone who’s much slower than you are isn’t much fun, so I tried to give him some space where I could so that I had a chance to really attack the good sections in the CLA45.

My thanks to Mercedes-Benz for the photography, as time was tight enough to not allow for shooting the car, either. The car in the pictures is Polar Silver Metallic, and our test car was the darker Mountain Grey Metallic.


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