With its raucous turbo four-cylinder and fiery performance, the compact CLA45 started off as the entry-level punk of Mercedes-AMG’s sedan range when it debuted for 2014. But much has changed as it enters its sophomore generation on Benz’s latest CLA-class platform, including the introduction of less-extreme A35 and CLA35 models at the bottom of AMG’s lineup. For the redesigned 2020 CLA45—and its 2021 GLA45 crossover sibling—evolution has allowed it to finally mature out of its adolescent hot-rod phase without losing its sports-car-like abilities.
Keen eyes will notice that an S, which denotes the new 416-hp S model, is not included on our test car’s trunklid badge. While the S is available in other markets, buyers in the United States only get the standard tune for the hand-assembled M133 2.0-liter inline-four, which still benefits from a new twin-scroll turbocharger delivering more boost (30.1 psi versus the previous 26.1), revised internals, and a new port and direct fuel-injection system. Peak horsepower is now 382 at 6500 rpm, up from the previous CLA45’s 375 at 6000 rpm. Torque creeps up from 350 pound-feet at 2250 rpm to 354 at 4750 revs. The standard dual-clutch automatic transmission now has eight speeds instead of seven, and the updated 4Matic+ all-wheel-drive system gains a torque-vectoring rear differential to help the car rotate around corners more easily.
A new front-axle disconnect allows for tail-out antics on the racetrack, provided you opt for our test car’s $4300 AMG Dynamic Plus package. Along with redundant steering-wheel-mounted controls for the drivetrain, chassis, stability control, and the overarching AMG Dynamics vehicle management system, this comprehensive bundle adds Race and Drift modes to the standard Comfort, Sport, Sport+, and Individual setups. Dynamic Plus also brings a sportier suspension setup with adaptive dampers, larger brake rotors with red-painted calipers, a leather- and suede-wrapped AMG steering wheel, a 167-mph top-speed governor (up from 155 mph), an active performance exhaust and AMG’s Track Pace data-logging system.
Our scales say that the second-gen CLA45 put on 180 pounds, thanks mostly to its added features and larger dimensions; it’s two inches wider than before and an inch longer both overall and in wheelbase. Yet, our 3743-pound test car posted roughly the same performance results of the last CLA45 we tested: a launch-control-enabled 3.7-second 60-mph time, 0.99-g grip on the skidpad, and a 154-foot stop from 70 mph. What’s more, despite the weight gain, our observed fuel economy jumped from 20 mpg to 24, and the return on our 75-mph highway test improved from 31 mpg to 34—a solid 5 mpg greater than the CLA45’s EPA estimate. Apparently that extra gear makes a big difference.
Although the M133 four has a relatively high-rpm torque peak, AMG’s revisions make it impressively tractable and short on lag. Aided by the new transmission, its 5-to-60-mph time (5.1 seconds) is 0.2 second quicker than before. There’s a fair amount of clutch slippage from the transmission when setting off, as well as some clunky downshifts at low speeds around town. But the new dual-clutch box is otherwise ultrasharp and smartly programmed to downshift and hold gears when it should. Launch the CLA45 down the quarter-mile in Race mode and rapid upshifts come with firm kicks to your backside. Just don’t expect to beat an Audi RS3 in the other lane, as the CLA45’s 12.2-second pass at 114 mph can’t match the Audi’s high-11-second run.
Our test car’s active exhaust produced plenty of snorts and pops when driven aggressively, pinging our sound meter with 90 decibels at full throttle in Race mode, up from the previous model’s 88 decibels. Leave the new car’s system in the standard mode, and it calls noticeably less attention to itself. But it’s way more fun to hit the loud button and take in the sweet growl from the new AMG 2.0-liter. Compared to the flat, buzzy engine note of most four-bangers, including the previous CLA45’s, there’s a pleasing richness to the updated engine’s tone that had us constantly searching out its 7000-rpm redline.
The CLA45’s maturation is most significant in its chassis, which enjoys increased suspension travel and better isolation from the angry four-cylinder under the hood. Riding on short-sidewall 255/35R-19 Michelin Pilot Sport 4S summer tires (18-inchers are a no-cost option), AMG’s compact sedan still rides poorly on rough roads when its dampers are in their stiffer settings. But there’s now enough flexibility and ride compliance to traverse smoother pavement without smacking the bump stops. The new CLA45 will relax a little if you want it to, something its predecessor simply never did. Body control through corners remains excellent, and the direct and firmly weighted steering does convey some feel as lateral forces build. Loads of grip from the sticky Michelins results in little of the stubborn understeer in tight corners that we generally expect from transverse-engine sports sedans.
Take a seat in the CLA45’s firm, heavily bolstered AMG Performance thrones ($2690) and the new CLA’s extra width is as apparent as it is welcome. Along with a more accommodating back seat (although one that is still tight on headroom for taller riders), the overall environment feels much more inviting. No longer does every interior surface vibrate to the thrum of the engine, making it easier to enjoy a cabin fit for an entry-luxury car. You can still get your fill of red accents and contrast stitching, and red seatbelts remain standard. (Black belts are no charge.) But our example’s subdued grey-and-black upholstery and black wood trim looked restrained and sophisticated, complimenting the plentiful brightwork and vibrant 10.3-inch instrument and center displays. Benz’s latest MBUX infotainment system, with its center touchpad and tiny steering-wheel controllers, still requires more involvement to operate efficiently than we’d like. But ergonomics ultimately are not this AMG’s weak point.
The CLA45’s greatest issue remains its pricing. The second-generation’s improvements and features have increased its entry point by $1700 over last year, to $55,795. However, all of our test car’s performance options—along with the $1700 Driver Assistance package, $1150 embedded navigation system, and more—inflated its window sticker to $73,850. At which point speed junkies will be more satisfied with AMG’s $69,095 C63 sedan and its 469-hp twin-turbo V-8. Stretch and you can land the 503-hp C63 S four-door for $76,695. But go easy on the CLA45’s upgrades and you’ll find that AMG’s punk is now a compelling small sports sedan, one that demands far fewer tradeoffs for its youthful exuberance.
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