Mercedes-AMG CLA45S review: a modern day Evo

By topgear, 21 July 2020

OVERVIEW - What is it?

It’s a modern-day Mitsubishi Lancer Evo! Well, it’s not. But the spirit of those early noughties rally reps is here in abundance, even if it’s buried beneath layers of chintz where Japanese sports saloons were plastic (and proud) once you’d clambered inside.

The CLA45 is a wholly natural extension of the A45 hot hatchback, and there’s a GLA45 crossover thing on the AMG price list, too. So it’s yet another teeny (ish) Mercedes spun from the company’s natively front-driven platform, though all the hot AMG versions get four-wheel drive.

And here – as per the A45 – it’s extremely clever. Should you follow the right sequence of button pushes and paddleshifter pulls to activate Drift Mode, it’s a little flamboyant too.

But that’s a slightly gimmicky cherry atop an otherwise very professional cake. The spec sheet of this car gets no less barmy with time. What we have is a roughly Ford Focus-sized thing with 415bhp out of the factory in its more powerful CLA45 S trim, which is all we get in the UK. Enough to deliver 0-100kph in four seconds and a 249kph top speed; remove the electronic limiter and lord knows what lunacy it’d achieve before physics curtailed its velocity.

What’s more staggering is the power is pumped out by a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbo engine – just like those old Evos, but with notably less lag at low revs. It’s an achingly clever engine with a proper tech run-down in our AMG A45 review should you have time on your hands. It’s mated exclusively to an eight-speed automatic with manual paddleshifters.

The CLA45 costs £1,900 more than an equivalent A45 and comes with a largely identical (though apparently slightly less frenetic) set-up to match its classier body shape. It comes in either saloon or estate forms (that’s ‘Coupe’ and ‘Shooting Brake’ in Mercedes parlance), the latter costing another £1,000 while a ‘Plus’ pack is a six grand option. It adds the aerodynamic kit you see here, as well as adaptive damping, punchier looking alloys, posher seats and a more thumping stereo.

It’ll be a £60,000 four-cylinder saloon before you know it, then. But if the A45 is anything to go by, it stands a pretty good chance of living up to its price tag. And if you stick the price of a tricked-up Lancer from two decades ago through an inflation calculator, it ends up in the same ballpark…

DRIVING - What is it like on the road?

We simply have to start with the performance. Because it’s just flabbergasting. You need to keep a constant eye on the speedometer as its natural gait seems to be about 32kph over any limit. Which isn’t alien in the sports car world, but from a four-cylinder saloon it’s just mad. This is proper baby supercar stuff – ever-present, easily accessed power that just flings you mercilessly down the road.

The old CLA45 did a bit of that, too, but this new car operates with so much more sophistication. It’s a rip-roaring engine with no lag worth mentioning and such a voracious appetite for revs, you might leave it in auto even when manually shifting, just to save you the embarrassment of headbutting the rev limiter in its thrillingly sharp second and third gears.

It’s a great gearbox, actually, one that feels like it was made on a different planet to the regular CLA’s seven-speed auto. The eight speeds here are wonderfully judged, with shortly stacked ratios low down to give it a welcome intensity at moral speeds, while eighth gear sits below 2,000rpm and allows a quiet cruise. If you can ignore all the tyre noise rushing in.

But while it’ll grip ‘n’ go with carefree use of the throttle – like the old CLA45 – it’ll also give you more if you’re looking for it. There’s actually finesse and that old-fashioned ‘involvement’ stuff on offer, too, and if you take a deep breath and really go for it and you’re in for a truly mesmerising experience.

It’s the broad range of its character that’s most impressive. You want stress-free point-to-point pace, it’s available. Start fiddling with its (arguably over-complex) suite of driver modes and you can quickly sharpen the 45’s focus, loosen its electronic shackles and unlock something else entirely, feeling more and more power being fed to the rear axle for yet more poise.

It’s never a true hooligan – like a bigger, natively rear-driven C63 or E63 would be – but it certainly has a mischievous side. Especially in the wet. And you don’t even need to use its slightly gimmicky Drift Mode to find it. In fact, I bet you’ll forget that’s even there if you don’t venture near a race track. Which you surely won’t in a 1.7-tonne saloon. It really does carry modern-day Evo genes, its chassis’s behaviour morphing with your own.

There’s stuff it could do better, though. Chiefly the ride. The car’s body movements are astutely controlled but my word, is it firm. On a challenging road it feels unrepentantly stiff even in Comfort mode, which is why the numerous driving modes on top of that can soon feel superfluous.

I’d argue there’s as much need for this level of firmness as there is for its outrageous 415bhp output, and perhaps this car wouldn’t be the larger than life character it’s grown into in its second generation without either. But no matter how enthralling it is when you’re in the mood, it’s hard not to wonder what a 20 per cent softer, 20 per cent less powerful version would be like. Mercedes does make a 382bhp CLA45 (non S), but it doesn’t make it to British shores, and we suspect it won’t feel much less batsh*t in a straight line than its burlier brother.

ON THE INSIDE - Layout, finish and space

Spun from the latest Mercedes A-Class, it’s a bit of a tech fest inside the CLA. If it’s your first time poking your head into a Merc for a while, we wouldn’t blame you for being astounded by the vast array of screens and their head-scrambling breadth of customisation. And the slightly head-scrambling process of working out how to control them all. Though it’s actually fairly intuitive once you’ve adapted.

Being the AMG, the CLA45’s displays possess a whole heap of extra functionality too, with the usual array of G-meters and suchlike that’ll impress car geeks, but arguably few others.

It also gets an extra pair of switches on the steering wheel’s left side, which cycle through different functions via a tiny little screen. So choose two things you’ll frequently switch on and off – the ASBO exhaust mode and the stability control, perhaps – and you’ve suddenly a quick and easy way of doing so. But you’ll have likely also collated all your favourite chassis, engine and gearbox settings into the ‘Individual’ mode, too, which you can easily access with a quick prod of the new circular dial on the other side of the wheel. It cycles through the preset Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus modes when you twiddle it.

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The front sports seats are great – as they should be if you’ve ticked the six grand ‘Plus’ option pack – and broadly the materials are really nice in here, though there’s a few errant clangers dropped (like cheap plastic stalks) and our test car exhibited an annoying rattle that was agitated just excellently by the über-stiff ride. Hopefully it’s a quibble of a hard-used press car, and presumably your dealer will be only too happy to fix yours if it starts rattling so early in its life.

Life in the back of the four-door CLA isn’t as poky as you might expect, and most adults should be able to squeeze in for a short journey, with anyone under 5ft 9in likely to be genuinely comfy despite its rakish roofline. If you’re worried, then the Shooting Brake adds an extra layer of practicality, especially if you flip its seats down for double the carrying capacity of its saloon sibling.

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OWNING - Running costs and reliability

Sports saloons are traditionally that ‘one car fits all’ solution people like us like to extoll the virtues of. The only thing that potentially gets in the CLA45’s way of such hallowed praise is its firmness, but then it’s a long way from being the only German performance thing that’s absurdly stiff. Which suggests most buyers simply don’t mind.

Otherwise, this’ll be a fine thing to use every day, whatever the weather. Especially if you spend an extra £1,000 on the Shooting Brake and its extra versatility.

Mercedes claims pretty impressive numbers at the opposite end of the scale to its 415bhp and 4.0sec sprints, too; 8.4 litres/100km and 191g/km of CO2 from the four-door, 8.6 litres/100km and 195g/km if you go for the estate. Quite how realistic those will prove in everyday driving we’re not sure, but given how long top gear is, then motorway miles ought to be reasonably frugal at least.

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VERDICT

Heavy-handed in its performance and ride quality, but with way more depth and finesse than its predecessor

This is a car transformed. The old CLA45 wasn’t exactly shoddy, but once you’d got over its head-scrambling acceleration it felt like it didn’t have too many layers left to peel back. This second go possesses much more depth and sophistication; it’ll play the all-weather practical card when you want it, and something altogether sillier when you’re in the right mood.

Just like the finest examples of the Evo and Impreza did fifteen (or more) years ago. Alright, this is quite different in its demeanour: you’ll do well to keep it below £60k, and there’s a focus on interior comfort and tech that Mitsubishi and Subaru rarely bothered with. But nevertheless, this is proof that AMG’s engineers have got their head around making a saloon car that isn’t possessing RWD and a big burly V8 actual fun to drive. And you can have an estate…

The outlandish performance remains, but there's way more finesse than its predecessor

 

FOR AGAINST
Mesmeric power delivery allied to a breadth of handling behaviours A £60k four-cyl saloon is potentially a tough sell
SCORE 8/10

 

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