Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4Matic (2016) Review

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Mercedes-AMG's compact performance sedan recently underwent a facelift and we got to drive it. The Benz is a more elegant prospect than its A45 sibling, but can it justify the price premium?

We like: brutal off-the-line performance, brusque gearshift blips, looks, decent boot

We don’t like: expensive, ride is too firm, rear legroom won't be comfortable for tall people

Alternatives:

  • For a fast German sedan: Audi S3 sedan. The Audi RS3 sedan would be a more logical rival (because it produces similar outputs), but it is not in South Africa yet. The S3 sedan is not as fast as the CLA 45 but boasts impressive levels of build quality and refinement. The boot isn't as capacious as the Benz's. 
  • For a stylish and fast alternative: the BMW M2 is arguably the finest performance vehicle to emerge from BMW in years. Although it's a coupe, it's more than a match for the CLA 45 AMG in terms of driver thrills. 
  • A similar AMG: Mercedes-AMG A45. This review is not meant to be a head-to-head comparison, but the CLA 45 and A45 arguably appeal to the same target market. At R100 000 cheaper than its booted sibling, the A45 makes a strong case for itself.

Compare the CLA 45 to the Audi S3 sedan and BMW M2 here


Even in its sportiest iteration, the CLA 45's styling is divisive, those who like the micronised performance sedan looks.  

How does it fare in terms of…

Performance?

The CLA 45's 4-cylinder turbopetrol engine is said to be the most powerful production 2.0-litre powerplant in the world. How do peak outputs of 280 kW and 475 Nm grab you? Consider the 5.5-litre V8-engined Mercedes-Benz C55 from 2004 (with its snarling exhaust note) produced only 270 kW. Therefore, with half the cylinders and less than half the displacement, the CLA 45 represents the latest in compact performance from AMG. If it's not a poster child for downsizing, what is?  

Power reaches all 4 wheels via Benz's all-wheel 4Matic system, but the system is front-biased, with the rear wheels providing additional propulsion depending on how much traction is available at the nose. The best way to demonstrate the compact AMG’s performance capability is with a race start (a full-bore acceleration run from standstill). Essentially this is where the car’s hardware gets the CLA 45 off the line in the fastest possible manner by balancing traction and power perfectly. It’s straightforward to execute; turn the driving mode dial to Race, press the stability control once to engage ESP Sport, pull both shift paddles towards you and the dashboard displays "Race Start, pull right paddle to confirm".

Put your left foot hard on the brake, depress the accelerator and the engine revs climb. Release the brake and off you go. The way the Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 scoots off the line is remarkable and the claimed zero-to-100 kph sprint time is 4.2 seconds. While we didn’t go that fast, we definitely broke the 5-second barrier. It’ll go on to a limited top speed of 250 kph.


The CLA 45's purposeful rear-end styling is complemented by eye-catching alloys that fill the car's wheel arches. 

Straight-line decimation is not the only thing the CLA 45 can do well, however. Its steering accuracy and handling prowess is, if not the best in the business, certainly from the top shelf. You can effortlessly carve up a mountain pass thanks to the vehicle's abundance of confidence-inspiring stability and the 7-speed dual-clutch transmission works best in manual mode (when you’re in complete control of cog-shifting and can ensure the performance motor remains in optimal boost range).

While 4-cylinder motors are not normally renowned for evocative, throaty soundtracks, this particular powertrain featured a sports exhaust which opened up around the 3 000 rpm mark and each gear shift was accompanied by a terrific brahp courtesy of out the quad exhausts. We may (or may not) have driven through a few underpasses repeatedly to enjoy the artillery sound effects. The downside is that these fireworks can be a bit tiresome and the engine note drones, but you can dial the driving mode back to Comfort so that the car regains some sense of civility and daily-driver friendliness.

 

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Ride refinement?

The previous CLA 45 (and its A45 hatchback sibling) suffered from one key issue. While they were both stupendously quick and agile machines, a lack of ride comfort on anything other than A-grade tarmac was a major concern. For the 2016 model, however, Mercedes-AMG attempted to address the shortcoming. The CLA suspension is claimed to feature improved damper settings and spring rates, which should, in theory, improve matters.

Is the difference noticeable? Well, sort of. The ride is still firm and sporty (and just short of crashy in Race mode, to be fair), but. fortunately, you can customise the vehicle 's adaptive suspension settings through the Individual mode and leave everything in Sport, but the suspension in Comfort. We found it the best compromise.

Practicality?


The seats are supportive and well bolstered, while the rest of the cabin is dripping with sporty touches

The CLA 45 is claimed to offer 470 litres of boot capacity, which is quite reasonable and compares favourably with its rivals. The Audi S3 sedan and BMW M2 offer just 390 litres, for example. But despite the sedan body, the rear space and legroom is only suitable for shorter-than-average adults. Our test unit featured beautifully crafted and supportive front sports seats which hinder the rear legroom a little, but in a driver-focused performance machine, rear passenger comfort is not a priority.

Standard specification is fair, but we’d expect a bit more considering we’re in the R800k territory. COMAND satellite navigation is a R26 600 option, which is a bit cheeky. As per all German manufacturers, you can go town with options and packages to make your CLA 45 AMG more comfortable and desirable. We’d suggest investigating AMG Exclusive package which includes heated front seats as well as the AMG Dynamic Plus package, which gives you the adjustable suspension.

Price and after-sales backup

The Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4Matic retails for R838 714, which includes a 2-year/unlimited km warranty, as well as a 6-year/100 000 km maintenance plan. 

Verdict

There’s no denying the CLA 45 AMG is a blistering performer; we're sure that very few cars could keep up with it on a tight and winding section of road, let alone in slippery road conditions, where the Benz impresses with its prodigious all-wheel-drive grip. It’s also unlikely to punish driving mistakes too aggressively, which is a trait we like. What's more, the Benz is ballistic off the line; some high-end machinery had better be on their guard when a CLA 45 AMG pulls up alongside them.

Things look less rosy when you look at the CLA 45 AMG in relation to its hatchback sibling, the A45 AMG. Does the addition of a boot and distinctive "4-door coupe" styling in a mechanically similar vehicle justify a R100 000 premium? We don’t think so, and it becomes a tough sell when you start throwing in some extras. The A45 AMG is the better car, but in the case of the United States where the hatchback isn’t sold, the CLA 45 will have to do. Luckily we’re in South Africa and have the freedom of choice and while the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine is faultless, we’d prefer it to be nestled in the bay of the A45.

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Read a review of the Mercedes-AMG A45 4MATIC
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