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2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC+ Review: Master of the track, or high-performance luxury coupe?

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Auto123 reviews the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC+.

There’s no denying that one of the several trends simultaneously roiling the automotive industry at present is a move towards ever-bigger vehicles. To wit, the popularity of large SUVs and full-size pickups. Even among sedans, today’s BMW 3 Series, to name one example, is about the size of yesterday’s 5 Series.

But another trend has been proving the maxim that good things do come in small sizes. Consider the Mazda MX-5, Hyundai Veloster N, Volkswagen Golf GTI, Subaru WRX STI, Audi RS 3, BMW M2 Competition… and the Mercedes-AMG CLA. All of these models – and there are more than just these – have one primary, over-riding mission, which is to glue a big fat smile on those who drive them.

These days, fuel consumption, occupant safety and electrification dominate industry headlines, but there's still another - smaller I must admit - portion of the public to seduce: those performance enthusiasts who don't hesitate to spend much more than average on a vehicle that brings them that daily joy.

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2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC+, profile
Photo: V.Aubé
2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC+, profile

A budget-muncher
And this 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 does claim more than the average pound of flesh from buyers. With its $59,700 starting price, the most explosive model in the CLA lineup is barely more economical to purchase than a C 43 AMG with its base price of $59,900. Note that the total price (with options) of our CLA tester is $77,540.

The comparison between the two models bears pushing farther, actually: the CLA 45 benefits from the industry's most powerful 4-cylinder turbocharged engine with 382 hp, while in the C 43 sedan, engineers instead inserted a 385-hp twin-turbo V6. The CLA 45's engine is hand-assembled, but not the C 43's V6. Both sedans are also equipped with 4MATIC all-wheel drive (4MATIC+ in the case of the CLA 45), as well as a dual-clutch transmission to transmit power to the four-wheel drive system. The CLA's has eight gears, the other’s nine. In short, it’s a valid exercise to compare these two models, if only to see if you're more of a 4-cylinder turbo or twin-turbo V6 type of motorist.

Better built than its predecessor?
I had occasion previously to test the previous CLA 45, which hit the market for the 2014 model year. There’s no doubt that the new edition is much more attractive. The CLA 45 still lines up on the more "affordable" side of the ledger in the Mercedes lineup, but there's clearly a higher standard at play with this 2.0 version.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC+,  headlight, front grille
Photo: V.Aubé
2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC+, headlight, front grille

The first CLA delivered the goods in terms of performance, but it lost points because of wobbly assembly compared in the brand's more upscale sedans. In addition, there were certain cheaper materials that had no place in a car designed by AMG.

Fortunately, all that's behind the model, the new CLA 45 having corrected most of the shortcomings of the old. I had already been seduced last winter by the CLA 250 4MATIC, which offered a level of quality worthy of the brand, and the "hot rod" of the family did not disappoint at this level.

Compared to its predecessor, the new CLA 45 is wider, an impression amplified by the AMG grille - which some people also call Panamericana - and its slimmer headlamps. The available AMG Aerodynamics Package adds a hint of motorsports, with added front bumper vanes and a functional rear diffuser. The matte black wheels are also a great addition ($500) to this sedan, which proudly wears a denim blue finish.

The same can be said inside, where the dashboard follows the lead in the majority of the brand’s sedans, which is to say there’s a wide screen that extends from behind the steering wheel to the centre of the dashboard. The coupe's ventilation nozzles are also great to look at, especially at night when lighting adds to the sound and light show in the cabin. The CLA 45 exudes quality, starting with the wraparound seats and the multi-function steering wheel that provides a comfortable grip for backcountry drives on winding roads.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC+, interior
Photo: V.Aubé
2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC+, interior

I was even surprised to find a touchpad installed where a traditional shift lever would normally be housed. Like a smart tablet screen, this pad is very easy to use, even to change the radio station. If that’s not your thing, the touchscreen is a more traditional option to access desired applications.

In my opinion, what's most important in a sports car with close to 400 hp to play with is the driving position, and the CLA 45 doesn't disappoint in this regard. In short, this small AMG is a nice place to spend time in… as long as you're sitting in the front row, because it's not as nice in back. Space there is tight, as it is in the trunk for that matter. Let's not forget, this is a four-door coupe, not a practical SUV.

Behind the wheel
Like the first CLA, the new CLA 45 offers an outstanding driving experience, starting with the raspy sound that emanates from the four exhaust pipes at startup. A small knob on the steering wheel allows you to adjust the performance level, with electronic adjustments that offer no fewer than six modes (Slip, Comfort, Sport, Sport+, Individual and Race). The Slip and Comfort modes are perfect for going unnoticed, but as soon as the Sport mode is engaged, the 4-cylinder turbocharged engine starts to sing, and the gear ratios stretch a little more. The suspension also stiffens, which for some might mean moving to Individual mode, which allows for adjusting specific settings to their taste.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC+, three-quarters rear
Photo: V.Aubé
2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC+, three-quarters rear

Next comes Race mode, which turns the coupe into a track monster: in this setting the suspension is super-dry and the mechanics are sharp, while the transmission forces the driver to switch to manual mode using the paddle shifters mounted behind the steering wheel. Needless to say, accelerations are blistering and shifting is simply enjoyable with the banging noise I hear every time my fingers command a gear change. Braking isn't bad either with discs as big as an extra-large pizza.

The (alas) last word
The 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 is a formidable sports car, much more compelling in fact than the C 43 mentioned above. That C-Class relies on the power of a big engine and the comfort of an extended platform. The CLA 45, on the other hand, is designed for twisty roads and closed-circuit sessions.

The fun really does grow with use, but unfortunately, on-edge driving has no place on our roads in 2020, and closed-circuit driving is no longer much of a common sight in Canada. Don't think the CLA 45 is out of the question of daily use, far from it, but it's difficult to exploit its full potential, especially with our highway speed limits. For that reason, I hate this German automotive marvel as much as I love it!

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC+, spoiler
Photo: V.Aubé
2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC+, spoiler

We like

Mechanics boosted to the max
The efficiency of the dual-clutch gearbox
Quality of execution

We like less

Limited space in back
The price!
The curt suspension

The competition

Audi RS 3
BMW M2 Competition

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC+, rear
Photo: V.Aubé
2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC+, rear

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