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2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA45 S Shooting Brake review: Mega hot hatch

A blast down the German autobahn and through some spectacular mountain passes revealed a lot to love about this delicious piece of forbidden fruit.

2020-mercedes-amg-cla45-s-shooting-brake-promo

The CLA45 Shooting Brake is a fabulous performance car that we'll never get. 

Daniel Golson/Roadshow

The new Mercedes-AMG CLA45 is a freakin' monster of a compact performance car, with sleek "four-door coupe" styling, a trick all-wheel-drive system and a crazily powerful turbocharged engine. But in Europe, Mercedes offers a different version of the CLA45 that's even faster, and a second body style that looks even better.

The Shooting Brake wagon offers a roomier interior and more cargo space while retaining the rakish profile and fashion-forward vibe that the regular CLA is known for. And, not to sound like a broken record, wagons are just plain cool. Sadly, there's basically no hope for the Shooting Brake to come to the US, even despite the A-Class hatchback not being offered to us, either.

The CLA45 is only available in the US in "base" form with 382 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque from a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four, but Europe also gets a CLA45 S model with a bunch of powertrain modifications that results in a whopping 416 hp and 369 lb-ft. Mercedes says the CLA45 S Shooting Brake will do 0-to-62 mph in 4 seconds flat, a tenth better than the non-S, but it feels even quicker than that. In addition to the boosted engine, the S model also gets features like larger brakes, additional driving modes and a higher top speed. Most of the S model's upgrades will be available on the base CLA45 in the US as part of a package -- just not the extra power.

So when I was planning a weeklong vacation to Stuttgart in early March, I knew that for my first time visiting Germany, I wanted some sort of forbidden fruit, a lustworthy Euro-spec car that we don't get in America. And man, this CLA45 S Shooting Brake did not disappoint.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA45 S Shooting Brake

Despite some cheap materials, the CLA45's interior was a lovely place to spend time.

Daniel Golson/Roadshow

This particular CLA45 was pretty loaded, coming in at the equivalent of around $80,000 thanks to over $17,000 in options. The most expensive option was the performance bucket seats, which were heated, power-adjustable and finished in two-tone gray and black leather with yellow accents. All that alone cost nearly $5,000. The gorgeous matte-finish paint was another 2 grand, and I think it's well worth it; even on a gloomy, rainy day in a parking lot full of other grayscale cars, the CLA45 stood out. While much of the wagon's interior definitely felt entry-level, especially when it comes to some of the plastics used, it's well-built, and important bits like the steering wheel and main controls felt appropriately premium.

After getting myself acclimated to the car -- and doing some Googling for a refresher on German road signs and laws -- I set off into the city. The roads in Stuttgart were narrow, so even though the Shooting Brake is only a bit longer and wider than a new Toyota Corolla sedan it felt absolutely massive. The MBUX infotainment system's augmented-reality navigation came in handy, but everything was in German so I mostly stuck with Apple CarPlay.

Even in Comfort mode the CLA45's powertrain was pretty high-strung in normal driving, which got a little tiring in the city, but it never felt too jerky, even when pulling away from a stoplight. And I never got tired of its rowdy exhaust note, keeping the optional variable exhaust on the loud setting at pretty much all times. The CLA45 emits lots of good pops and bangs and turbo whooshes, and US-spec cars are even louder (Euro-spec cars require a particulate filter that dampens the fun).

I wanted to take the car on an adventure during a day that I had free, so I decided to head to Freiburg, a city founded in the 12th century that's on the edge of the Black Forest, about 120 miles southwest of Stuttgart. I had been told there were amazing driving roads in that area, and crucially I could take the autobahn on the way there. Driving on an unrestricted section of German autobahn is probably on the bucket list of every auto enthusiast, and I'm no exception.

Most highways in Germany have supersmooth surfaces and speed limits somewhere between 60 mph and 80 mph, where it was easy to settle into a good cruising rhythm with the CLA45. Those bucket seats were shockingly comfy even after hours in the car, and not much road or wind noise penetrated the cabin. This CLA was fitted with the adaptive dampers, and even in Sport the ride was composed and never got too choppy. The 18-inch wheels surely helped -- the optional 19s would've been harsher.

The unrestricted stretches of the autobahn are marked by circular white signs with five black diagonal lines, which helpfully appeared in the CLA's head-up display. I was nervous to reach that first no-limit area -- not only had I never driven on the autobahn before, it's just generally nerve-wracking to drive in a new country for the first time, and at high speeds nonetheless. But I was pretty used to the car at that point, so when the first white sign appeared and I had no traffic in front of me, I floored it.

That's when I involuntarily shouted some expletives. Man, the CLA45 is quick. I had the engine in the most-intense Race driving mode and the eight-speed dual-clutch automatic in Sport (one rung below the manual mode), and the car quickly dropped a handful of gears and rocketed forward when I put my foot down. There was an absurd amount of torque available no matter the gear I was in, and turbo lag wasn't in the CLA45's vocabulary. Just squeezing the throttle meant I'd suddenly doubled my speed.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA45 S Shooting Brake

How does 416 hp sound? (It sounds very good.)

Daniel Golson/Roadshow

Because this CLA45 was on winter tires as mandated by the German government, the top speed was limited to 149 mph instead of the car's normal top speed of 168 mph. I was fine with that. The sensation of hitting a speed limiter when the car obviously can still keep going was odd; the gauge cluster gave me a warning when I was within a couple mph of the limit, and at 145 mph the CLA45 was still accelerating hard. 

All of your senses are heightened when traveling at such high speeds, especially when you're the one in control of the car. It's like a rollercoaster, or the mile-long Superman zip line I did last summer: terrifying at first, but then very exciting and even a little calming once you've gotten used to it. The CLA45 felt planted even at nearly 150 mph, with steering that wasn't twitchy and a fairly composed ride. Good brakes, too. Really good brakes.

After getting off of the A81 autobahn I got on the B31, a smaller highway that runs east-to-west and cuts through the Black Forest. That led me to Neustadt, a gorgeous town nestled in the mountains. After having some lunch and checking out a massive ski jump, I pointed the CLA45 toward the twistiest roads I could find on Google, which turned out to be a wonderful decision.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA45 S Shooting Brake

I can't overstate how good these mountain passes were.

Daniel Golson/Roadshow

While the CLA45 was happy to blast down the autobahn at maximum velocity, it really came alive in the mountains. After leaving Neustadt I took the B500 and B317 highways through the Feldberg Pass, then cut north on the L126 and L124 past the Schauinsland mountain to get to Freiburg. This route passes through a number of ski towns and offered incredibly good, tight curves, long sweepers and hairpin turns. There were elevation changes, spectacular views and lots of good photo ops. Seriously, it was like a rally special stage -- just with more diesel vans to get stuck behind.

In the Sport and Sport Plus modes the steering was direct and just heavy enough, and it offered more feedback than I've come to expect from modern luxury cars. The CLA45's all-wheel-drive system is fully variable, able to send up to 100% of torque to either axle or to each side of the car. The AMG Dynamics system has four different modes that adjust the stability control, AWD and steering based on the engine's mode, and there's even a Drift mode. (I didn't try it.)

The CLA45 blasted around every corner with ease, never leaving me wanting for more grip or power despite the winter tires and slick roads. Race mode made a lot more sense in these twisties than it did in the city or even on the autobahn, and the transmission was quick and satisfying in manual mode. Most importantly, I had a giddy smile on my face the whole time. The CLA45 is just plain fun.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA45 S Shooting Brake

The Shooting Brake is better looking and more practical than the standard CLA "coupe."

Daniel Golson/Roadshow

After spending a few hours wandering around Freiburg and drooling over Renault Twingos and old Volkswagens, I decided to head back to Stuttgart. By the time I left it was getting dark out, so I took the faster way back both in terms of time to get there and speed. The route was almost all highway, much of which was unrestricted autobahn yet again. All of the sensations I had felt before were heightened -- it's one thing to fly past other cars doing twice the speed they are during the day, but at night it's a whole lot more intense.

I came away from my trip having fallen totally in love both with the country of Germany and the CLA45. This little car is an absolute monster, and it's a damn shame we don't get the Shooting Brake in the US. It's more practical than the standard CLA (but still less practical than a "real" wagon) and even more stylish, and it gives up almost nothing in terms of performance.

I also came away feeling optimistic for the future of AMG. Recent rumors have pointed to models like the next-gen C63 ditching their twin-turbo V8 in favor of a hybrid four-cylinder, which obviously sounds like blasphemy to many (including myself). But after driving the CLA45, I don't think we have much to worry about. 

Sure, the death of another V8 will be extremely sad, but the CLA45's turbo four has just as much character as the C63's V8 -- albeit in a different way -- and, most importantly, it feels special. Performance cars aren't going away any time soon. They're just evolving, and I say bring it on.