I have to hand it to the folks at Benz. Perhaps anticipating that some would dismiss their new front-wheel drive, entry-level 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 sedan as being "not a real Mercedes," they decided to send it off to the automotive equivalent of Ranger School that is tuning by AMG when it launched.
There's none of this "Wait three years for the M version" like those jokers at BMW. Not at Mercedes. You can get the hottest version of their new small car right out of the gate.
In creating the 2014 CLA45 AMG, Mercedes has done what Subaru, Mitsubishi, Volkswagen and others have done for decades: take a humble front-wheel drive, four-cylinder economy car and crank it up into something turbocharged, all-wheel drive, extremely powerful, and completely insane to drive.
But while the result is very, very good in some areas, it's decidedly uneven in others.
(Full disclosure: Mercedes needed me to drive the 2014 CLA45 AMG so badly they dropped one off in front of my house with a full tank of gas and let me keep it for a whole week. The truth is I had been asking about driving one for months.)
When it's shipped off to The AMG Academy For Benzes That Want To Utterly Humiliate Lesser Cars, the CLA250's 2.0-liter, 208 horsepower turbo four gets swapped out for a hand-built AMG style 2.0-liter twin-scroll turbo four known as the M133. (Don't ask me why it's called CLA45 now. Probably the same reason a BMW 328i doesn't have a 2.8-liter engine anymore.) This mighty engine puts out a whopping 355 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque.
You might now be thinking, "Dear God, that's a lot of power for such a little four-banger," which is a perfectly reasonable thing to think. The turbo spools up a whopping 26 psi, about twice what you get in the average stock WRX, so basically it's been turbocharged to hell and back. It is the most powerful four-cylinder engine currently in production.
Let me repeat that: This car has the most powerful four-cylinder engine currently in production. It's good enough to propel the CLA45 from rest to 60 mph in as low as 4.2 seconds. Four point two seconds! In a car based on a simple front-driver that starts at under 30 grand! What an age of performance we find ourselves in.
The AMG swaps out its front-wheel drive setup for Mercedes' 4Matic all-wheel drive instead. (That feature will be available on the base CLA 250 later this year too.) But here's where things get a little dicey — the front-wheel bias is still very strong with the CLA45, and the car handles as such in the corners. See, once you get beyond that bonkers little powerplant, there are a lot of other ways it shows its economy car roots, like certain aspects of the driving experience and the overall quality of the interior.
Honestly, as much as I loved driving the CLA45 in as manic a fashion as I could on public roads, as a whole it was more of a mixed bag than just about any car I have ever tested for this website. There were some things I liked very much about it, and some areas where I really felt it came up short.
So is it worth, as tested here, its nearly $60,000 price tag? I'm still trying to figure that one out myself.
The trend of automakers insisting on calling their sedans "four-door coupes" is getting tiresome, but there's no denying that that CLA is a great-looking car, no matter what Mercedes wants to call it. Some people will say it has a "melty ass," but they're just hatin'. I think it's sleek, clean, attractive, and most of all, interesting. After decades of stately but boring cars, it's nice to see Mercedes let their hair down a little.
In AMG guise, the CLA gets a silver front air dam and side skirts, as well as "AMG Turbo" badges on the front fenders. My tester didn't include the exterior carbon fiber package, so it looked relatively understated, even sleeper-ish as far as AMG cars go. I liked that.
The CLA's style extends into the inside of the car. From a design perspective, everything inside looks great, especially the toggle switch gear shifter, the suede-wrapped steering wheel, the aluminum pedals, and the cross-shaped air vents. The problem is the materials. It looks cool, but it's all hard, cheap plastic. There's nary a premium-feeling material to be found inside the car. The gauge cluster and tacked-on infotainment system screen are disappointing too.
The interior of this car is okay at the CLA's base $29,000 price. But on an expensive AMG car? Not so much.
I also have to note that thanks to the car's sloping roofline, the rear headroom is a little tight if you're on the tall side; I'm 5'11 and I had to crane my neck when I was back there. You do get red seat belts though! That's kind of fun.
This engine, you guys. Hooooooly crap, this engine. This is the CLA45's killer app. This little motor is ferocious killer of giants.
If you underestimate the 355 horsepower turbo four, or if you're dumb enough to rev on it at a stoplight, you will find yourself in a lot of trouble. After a bit of lag right off the line, acceleration is hard, fast and angry all the way to its 6,700 RPM redline. It provides a seemingly endless well of highway passing power, and it's always quite eager to help you get some points on your license.
The car starts out in Comfort/Eco mode, and in this setting it's not refined — it's restrained. Put it in Sport or Manual mode, and it takes off the chain and unlocks the gate. Then it's pin-you-back-in-your-seat, batshit crazy fun time. It almost feels like a racing motor in a street car. I don't toss descriptions like that around lightly, but it does.
Braking - 8/10
The AMG take on the CLA gets 13.8 inch cross-drilled, ventilated rotors up front and 13 inch rotors in the back. The brakes are worthy of the AMG name. They're strong, confident and offer plenty of stopping power. I'd feel good about putting them to the test on the track.
Ride - 5/10
The ride is harsh. There's no two ways about it. You're gonna feel pot holes and bumps in the road and you're gonna feel them hard. On the plus side, my tester's MB-Tex fake leather, non-Recaro seats were comfortable and provided a decent amount of bolstering. You can get leather and Recaros if you so desire.
Everyone kind of anticipated the CLA45 would be a German Mitsubishi Evo killer in the corners. It's not. It doesn't handle like some hard-edged, all-wheel drive corner destroyer; it handles like an extremely competent front-wheel drive sedan with a little something extra you experience during hard cornering.
That something extra would be the up to 50 percent of power that goes to the rear wheels, but only when the fronts start to slip. All of this makes for a car that can be thrown into corners with a good degree of confidence, even if it's not mind-blowing. I did encounter more body roll than I would have expected.
The electric steering is kind numb, but it's very tight and direct and has a good weight to it. Also, the car is totally free of any torque steer, which is an impressive feat.
The only transmission you can get with this car is a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. When it's in Comfort or Sport mode, you can go up and down a gear with the paddles on the wheel whenever you want, or you can set it to Manual and it's all on you. In this mode it works just fine. Gear changes are very quick, downshifts more than upshifts, and it's a willing partner during spirited driving.
When you're just driving around town, going to the grocery store or whatever, not so much. In full auto mode it's grabby and jerky and tends to hang. Also, it takes a while to switch between drive and reverse modes. Need to pop a quick three-point turn in the middle of the street? It's gonna take longer than a conventional auto.
Whatever. I forgave the CLA45's tranny for these issues because it's so good at manual shifting, which I found myself doing most of the time.
The exhaust note is loud as fuck-all, and it's fantastic. Turn the ignition and it immediately lets you know it's not just an ordinary CLA. The car emits a raspy, furious sound that is ever present, even in the calmest of driving. At wide open throttle it's hilariously loud.
When you hit redline, or when you work your way down the gears with the paddles, the exhaust emits a deeply satisfying brraaapp-BRRAAAPP-brraap sound, a kind of high five to your soul, a noise that reaffirms that you have made, and continue to make, awesome life decisions.
The Harman Kardon speaker system my tester came with sounds clear and crisp, but it could use a bit more bass. Still, the CLA45 provides for a great auditory experience. Maybe people on the street won't think so because the exhaust is so loud, but you will.
Let's see, toys on my tester included launch control, bi-xenon and LED lamps, and a backup camera. It wasn't the most well-equipped CLA45 you can get, but it wasn't lacking.
The COMAND infotainment system isn't anything to write home about. It's not a touch screen, which means it's reasonably quick and responsive, but it does mean you have to do everything with the center-mounted knob and two buttons. That makes dialing in an address for the navigation system a serious pain in the ass. Graphically, it feels about a generation behind the competition.
The base price on a CLA45 is $47,450, but like its plebeian brother the CLA250, you're going to be hard pressed to find one at the base price. My moderately-equipped example came in around $57,000. Were it $45,000, I'd be telling you to mortgage your house to buy one immediately. Or sell one of your kids. The only thing they're good for is throwing temper tantrums at airports anyway.
But for nearly $60,000? That's a tougher argument to make. As sweet as this car's engine is, the rest of the car left me wanting more. I wish its interior felt more high quality. I wish its ride was better. Most importantly, I wish its handling was equally on par with its horsepower. Then it would be a truly devastating competitor.
It certainly has competition. There's the BMW M235i, which is a little bit down on power but has rear-wheel drive and an available stick shift. Then there's the new 2015 Audi S3. It's quite a bit less powerful so it's not a direct rival to the CLA45, but with a more potent all-wheel drive system, a better interior, and a much lower price, it could make for the better buy.
Regardless of its flaws, the CLA45 is ridiculously great fun to drive. If you do end up deciding it's the one for you, the sound and feel of the most powerful four-banger in the world will probably erase any lingering doubts you may have.
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged, direct injection inline four
Power: 355 HP at 6000 RPM/ 332 LB-FT at 2,250 RPM
Transmission: Seven-Speed Dual Clutch Automated Manual
0-62 MPH: 4.2 seconds
Top Speed: 155 mph
Drivetrain: All-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 3,494 LBS
Seating: 5 people
MPG: 19 City/25 Highway
Photo credit: Patrick George/Jalopnik