Test Drive: 2018 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45

High-performance luxury cars remain one of the most malleable profit generators for their respective houses. By building up the brand’s champions – be they labelled M, V, or RS – and then letting their octane-laden nectar drip down to more affordable models in the form of lowercase badges and packages, not only can development costs be better distributed, but quarterly results can also be buffed to the point where the glinting gold sitting in the corporate coffers takes some of the edge off of inevitable dilution of the original message.

Hammer the gas and [...] the car tears forward as though you’d tilted the road 90 degrees and were suddenly in freefall.

It would be tempting to view the 2018 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 4MATIC as the ultimate manifestation of this attitude, an AMG-in-name-only sitting on the automaker’s most inexpensive platform. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. In actual fact, the CLA 45 earns its uppercase appellation by way of its startling power and legitimate claim to a sporty driving experience.

It’s also yet another example of what can be achieved by a car company when the expectations of its customers and the attitudes of its engineers resemble soft, creative clay rather than market-hardened stone.

Numbers Game

There was never any doubt that the team that delivered such earth-shaking automobiles as the S65 and the AMG GT would be able to take a front-wheel-drive chassis and imbue it with the required speed and skill required to keep up with more established rivals such as the Audi RS3 and the BMW M2; the difference with the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 versus past AMG efforts is that this is a very results-oriented machine.

Whereas the C63 that sits above it in the company’s hierarchy might count on its V8 rumble and rear-wheel drive antics to draw a crowd, the CLA45 sells potential buyers with the spec sheet rather than any visceral display. Oh, and what a glossy hand-out it is: this is a car that sprints to 100 km/h in roughly four seconds, thanks to the 375 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque produced by its turbocharged four-cylinder engine.

All Part of the Plan

That the 2.0-litre’s 26 psi of fury are managed by an always-on-its-toes all-wheel drive system is part and parcel of why driving the CLA 45 quickly feels less like an event and more like a forgone conclusion. Hammer the gas and the car’s seven-speed automatic gearbox displays very little of the hesitation that plagues the base CLA 250 – the car tears forward as though you’d tilted the road 90 degrees and were suddenly in freefall.

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A determined driver may be able to occasionally trip up the AWD and overload the front tires to the point of spin, but on the whole the CLA 45 delivers a very managed and properly apportioned experience regardless of how it is driven. There’s the definite sensation that the AMG engineering team have planned for varying degrees of allowable aggressiveness on the part of the pilot.

For example, moving from Sport to Sport+ to Race driving modes snaps gearshifts that much quicker and discretely embiggens the exhaust note until you’re laying firecrackers in your wake (and becoming the topic of conversation at the next HOA meeting), but the CLA 45 shies away from passing the point of control. The car’s handling, too, feels metered rather than mind-melded with the pavement, with the end result being excellent cornering capability that never quite feels like you’re directly responsible for the elegance of your apex.

In this way, the CLA 45 comes across as being distinctly different from the rivals mentioned earlier, vehicles which are more willing to avert their eyes and let the driver get themselves into a situation that they might not be entirely prepared for. This is a recurring theme at AMG over the past several years, where the in-house tuners have elected to shape the parameters of the drive as much as possible. You will have fun, they promise, but you’ll have exactly this type of fun, and precisely this much of it.

The Right Package for the Right Buyer

Is that really a bad thing? I don’t think so – at least, not for the buyers attracted by the power and promise of performance embodied by the 2018 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45. Dynamically, the car papers over all of the flaws found in the more (much more) affordable base-model CLA-Class, and the aero improvements and additional swooping grafted to the CLA’s shape make it attractive without being over-the-top in the parking lot at work.

Would that the interior have followed the same upward arc, as the materials and design are still not up to the standard one would expect from a Mercedes-Benz product (and the rear seat is actually more confining in this four-door than what one would encounter in the two-door BMW M2). It remains the weakest aspect of the package.

With that caveat in mind, however, for those who are willing to overlook a lack of connection between man and machine (and who don’t plan on looking at much more than the road ahead when positioned behind the wheel), the CLA 45 is a digitally tuned warrior properly executed for German car fans eager to tap into the AMG cachet. Just make sure that you find the drive as alluring as the brochure before you put down your deposit.

2018 Mercedes-AMG CLA45 4MATIC
Engine Displacement: 2.0L
Engine Cylinders: I4
Peak Horsepower: 375 hp
Peak Torque: 350 lb-ft
Fuel Economy: 10.3 / 7.9 /9.2 L/100 km city/hwy
Cargo Space: 470 L
2018 Mercedes-AMG CLA45 4MATIC
Base Price $58,900
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,075
Price as Tested $69,850
Optional Equipment $8,775 – AMG Exclusive Package (red cut leather, illuminated door sills, unique interior trim) $2,300; AMG Performance front seats $2,300; SiriusXM satellite radio $475; Harman/Kardon audio system $1,000; AMG Driver’s Package (performance steering wheel, sport suspension, sport exhaust, red brake calipers) $2,700
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.0
8 Styling
8 Powertrain
7 Quality
7 Comfort
6 Practicality
8 Drivability
6 Usability/Ergonomics
7 Fuel Economy
7 Features
6 Value