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2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA45 first drive review: Over the top

With around 400 horsepower on tap, this compact sedan embodies the bonkers spirit of modern AMG cars.

This CLA45's matte gray paint might not be for everyone, but its driving dynamics will definitely appeal to enthusiasts of all shapes and sizes.

Mercedes-Benz

It's a wonder what a few years and some reflection will do. The first-generation Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class felt a bit compromised -- it aimed to introduce younger (and less moneyed) buyers to the storied automaker, but its plastic-fantastic appointments and cramped interior didn't really feel indicative of traditional M-B quality.

Now, in its second generation, the CLA-Class finally feels like a true Mercedes-Benz. And its top-performing variant, the AMG CLA45, takes the mild insanity of the previous one and turns the knob so far to the right that it breaks clean off.

A real kick in the pants

The CLA45 utilizes the most powerful four-cylinder engine ever made for a production vehicle: the M139. This two-liter screamer puts out 382 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque in the standard CLA45, with an even more disturbing 416 hp and 369 lb-ft in CLA45 S guise. Both variants are estimated to accelerate to 60 mph in about 4 seconds, which is good because we'll only get the lower-output version in the US.

My time with the CLA45 is limited to the S variant, and let me tell you, holy crap. Under light throttle, it's as mild-mannered as any other AMG engine, but pushing my right foot closer to the firewall rewards me with acceleration that borders on excessive. The M139 makes the CLA45 sound more like a liter bike than a car, carrying just a bit of bass in its howl as it quickly makes its way through every gear in its eight-speed, dual-clutch transmission.

That cog-swapper is nice and smooth, rattling off upshifts so quickly that you won't feel anything but forward motion. It's equally precise on downshifts, doing little to unsettle the car except in low-speed shifts between second and first gear, but that's the same qualm I have with most other AMG transmissions these days.

While the M139's note is entirely its own, there's a smidge of smoke and mirrors involved in these theatrics. The exhaust comes standard with a flap that opens, depending on engine speed and load, to increase the noise. But that's not all: There's also an optional system that uses a sensor to pipe more of that sound into the cabin through the speakers. From the passenger seat, it almost sounds like there's an exhaust pipe jutting out from the front fender, which seems a little unnatural at first, but the clamor is so endearing that I find myself not caring where it comes from.

Of course, the whole package wouldn't be worth a damn if lateral motion wasn't accounted for, but it is. My CLA45 tester is equipped with AMG's optional three-mode adaptive dampers, which can soften or stiffen at the push of a button. The ride errs on the stiff side no matter the mode -- not surprising given that it's not an air-based system -- so I find the softest mode still sufficiently sporty for spirited driving within legal limits. On a track, I can see plenty of reason to sharpen things further, but there's not much of a point for using these modes on the road, unless you're a glutton for punishment.

When equipped in the right fashion, the CLA45 packs six different vehicle modes, in addition to an Individual setting that lets me mix and match. I find a perfect blend when sharpening the throttle, exhaust and steering while leaving the suspension in a more relaxed fashion. The result is a car that wants to hustle without hustling right to the chiropractor.

Up in the Alps between Munich, Germany and Innsbruck, Austria, the CLA45 feels right at home. Its compact footprint makes it easy to snake my way down tight roads in quiet mountain towns, but it's ready to party once the roads open up and hairpins and switchbacks make an appearance. Even though the outside temperature hovers around freezing, the car feels planted, thanks in part to fresh Michelin Alpin winter tires and an all-wheel-drive system that can deliver torque to the wheel that needs it most. When the going gets truly wintry, there's a Slippery mode that mollifies my inputs to keep me from ham-fisting my way through a guardrail.

Better use of space, better materials

The previous CLA-Class felt just a little too cheap for me, but the second-gen model rectifies that. There is still some hard plastic inside, as is expected for a car whose base model is below $40,000, but it's surprisingly hard to find. Most touch points on the CLA45 are commensurate with its position atop the CLA-Class lineup, from the soft leather on the seats to the aggressive suede on either side of the steering wheel.

My tester's design was perhaps a bit too boy-racer for me, with bright yellow stitching on the seats and dashboard, as well as some aggressive graphics to the right of the large "surfboard" that houses both dash screens. But, on the whole, this new CLA feels far more like a proper Mercedes than it used to.

The CLA45's interior is a major step forward.

Mercedes-Benz

The same can be said for its exterior design, which retains the swoopy-coupe roofline from before, albeit more refined. My tester's matte gray paint adds an angry touch, especially in conjunction with its bright red brake calipers and gloss-black front bumper canards.

The best part of the CLA45's new look, though, is that it doesn't sacrifice much for its shape. The trunk is still large enough for a few weekend-trip suitcases or golf bags, and while rearward visibility is lower than you might expect from a four-door, it's still more than enough.

All the tech trimmings

Like its more pedestrian A-Class sibling, the new CLA-Class picks up the latest iteration of Mercedes-Benz's infotainment system. MBUX is fast, attractive and easy to get used to, whether I'm using the touchpad on the center console or directly tapping the 10.25-inch screen itself. It's loaded with the most recent techno-frippery, from a digital voice assistant that all-too-eagerly responds to any use of the word "Mercedes" in the vehicle to an augmented-reality display that overlays turn-by-turn directions onto a front-facing camera feed.

Just to the left of the MBUX display is a second 10.25-inch screen that acts as a gauge cluster. Like other AMG vehicles, the CLA45's cluster can display its information in a variety of different styles, including a new "Supersport" layout that looks futuristic as heck but can be a little much when it comes to processing information quickly. I prefer one of the older-looking styles, which is easier to read when hustling down the road. There are a few AMG-specific tricks in here, too, including readouts of the engine and transmission oil temperatures, lap times and engine output. It's really easy to nerd out in the cluster without even leaving the driveway.

The CLA45 is also loaded with a whole bunch of safety systems. In addition to the usual stuff like automatic braking, my tester comes equipped with active blind-spot monitoring, which can prevent a person from accidentally changing lanes into a vehicle. It's surprisingly touchy, though, assaulting me with beeps if I dare attempt to enter a lane with less than two vehicle lengths between the CLA45 and the car behind. While it might seem unnecessary for a sports car like this, the adaptive cruise control is smooth and smart, keeping pace with traffic and helping reduce the tedium of long, dreary highway drives.

The "Supersport" gauge design is trick, but it's also a little tough to read quickly.

Mercedes-Benz

Down to brass tacks

The CLA45 is one of a few different high-output compacts coming down the pipeline. If this car is perhaps a bit too bonkers for your preferences, the CLA35 will provide 302 hp worth of motive force, which is just a bit more approachable. If the car's rakish roof doesn't meet your aesthetic preferences, there will also be an A35 sedan. While Europe will be able to mix the best of both worlds with the A45, that won't be an option for us Yanks.

The 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA45 is a big step forward. Mercedes-Benz did a great job improving upon the parts of the CLA that were... less than palatable in its initial iteration, while still retaining the style and driving dynamics that will undoubtedly entice younger buyers. When it goes on sale later this year, anyone who takes one of these for a spin will find something to like. Pricing isn't out just yet, but considering the old CLA45 started at $53,100 before destination, I wouldn't expect the latest and greatest to roll out the door for anything less than $55,000, if not a grand or two more.


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.

The CLA45 is so quick, this is probably the view you'll see of this car the most.

Mercedes-Benz