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2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA35 first drive review: Just enough fun

The latest AMG is compact and zippy, with luxury and tech in spades.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA35

Mercedes calls it a coupe, we call it a sedan. Either way, the CLA is a looker.

Mercedes-Benz

If there's one automaker that's no stranger to filling niche segments, it's Mercedes-Benz. With coupes, sedans, crossovers, coupeovers, SUVs and wagons of all shapes and sizes, there's something in its range for everyone. And that's before you get to the AMG performance variants.

AMG's latest creation is a not-too-hot take on the CLA-Class sedan, itself a coupe-ified version of the compact A-Class. It's called the CLA35, which slots above the CLA250 and below the CLA45, and with its excellent blend of performance, tech and style, it's a worthy addition to the lineup.

Power comes from a boosted version of Mercedes' 2.0-liter, turbocharged I4 engine, producing 302 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. In its most aggressive Sport+ mode, the seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission rips off quick shifts, downshifting eagerly upon braking, and holding gears through long stretches of curves. The transmission is so nicely tuned that I hardly feel the need to use the paddle shifters.

Now playing: Watch this: 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA35 is ready to carve some corners
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Mercedes-Benz estimates the CLA35 can accelerate to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, with power going to all four wheels via standard 4Matic all-wheel drive. However, the variable all-wheel-drive system can send as much as 100% of its power to the rear when needed, so the CLA35 is plenty playful. The quick steering makes this car a joy to toss around, and while the standard steel-spring suspension is fine for most folks, I prefer the slightly better adaptive setup -- an $850 upcharge.

In addition to the Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus settings, the AMG CLA35 has a Slippery mode, which comes in handy on the twisty, high-elevation roads near Prescott, Arizona. Rain, fog and cold temperatures aren't exactly ideal AMG-driving weather -- especially with a car wearing summer tires -- but the Slippery mode keeps things from getting too cray-cray, putting the transmission into more docile shift logic and making sure throttle inputs are applied progressively.

When I'm done getting my jollies on great, winding roads, Comfort mode softens up the ride quality while the excellent adaptive cruise control and steering assist systems do their thing. Both work to make highway driving a whole lot easier, handling the heavy lifting, though you still need to keep your hands on the wheel at all times. Navigation-based speed adaptation will automatically slow the CLA35 when the speed limit changes, and will reduce speed if the car knows it's approaching sharp turns, roundabouts or toll booths.

Speaking of tech, the CLA35 gets Mercedes' excellent MBUX infotainment system, with a standard, 10.25-inch central screen that can be operated by touch, via a touchpad on the center console or with the thumbpads on the steering wheel. The natural-speech tech means you can say, "Hey, Mercedes," to ask the AI assistant to turn on the air conditioning or change the radio station. Say, "I'm cold," and the car will turn on the heat. Still, the system has plenty of bugs, and it'll wake up every single time you say "Mercedes," so try not to talk about the car to your passengers, I guess.

The navigational system has a few techy additions not seen elsewhere. While I'm not sure how useful it is, drivers can use the What 3 Words system to search for a 9-square-meter point on Earth using three seemingly random words. Ask the system to navigate to "stark, reporter, fiesta," and you'll find yourself at the Wild Iris Coffee House in Prescott, Arizona. Of course, you could just ask the car to take you to the place by name or address, but what fun is that?

I dig the augmented-reality overlay in the navigation system that tells me exactly where to turn, with arrows laid directly over the digital video display on the center screen. It will even display house numbers -- helpful when cruising to your new pal's place for some Netflix and chill. Still, the audible prompt to turn is just a tad too late for my liking.

To the left of the infotainment screen is another 10.25-inch display that functions as a reconfigurable gauge cluster. There is plenty of information drivers can choose to show here, including performance stats, efficiency, trip info and so on, and you can have it displayed with different layout designs.

Overall, the interior is lovely, with Mercedes' cool air vents, a flat-bottom steering wheel and contrast stitching all over the place. Extra supportive Recaro seats are on tap, though they add $3,390 to the bottom line, and keep my hindquarters and shoulders planted firmly in the seat. Standard 64-color ambient lighting brings a touch of sophistication or whimsy to the interior depending on what colors you select. I'm a sucker for the purples, but the range of blue shades are nice, as well.

The CLA35 packs a lot of fun into a small, svelte package.

Mercedes-Benz

I kind of like the way the AMG CLA35 looks on the outside, too, despite the whole "four-door coupe" weirdness. I'm still a firm believer that coupes have two doors, but in a world where even crossovers are getting swoopier by the day, the CLA35 fits right in. At 5-foot, 9-inches tall, I have adequate headroom in the rear seats, despite the low roof, but taller folks might need to arm wrestle for shotgun.

Having said that, if that coupe look isn't for you, you could wait for next spring when the AMG A35 will go on sale, packing the same powertrain and styling, minus the swoopy roofline. You'll be a teensy bit slower in the 60-mph sprint, but I can't imagine quibbling about a 4.8-second time versus a 4.6-second run -- especially when the A35 is expected to cost a bit less, too.

Looking for more power? Try the Mercedes-AMG CLA45. It also has a 2.0-liter turbo engine but it ups the power to 382 hp. Yowza.

The 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA35 starts at $46,900. My tester has all the cool advanced driving aids, a fancy-pants appearance package and a $1,030 heated and ventilated seat package, bringing it to a cool $65,765, including $995 for destination. That's a good chunk of change, but then again, the CLA35 is a lovely package.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.