I'm skeptical as I slide into the driver's seat of the updated 2017 Mercedes-AMG CLA45. I'm in the heart of traffic-clogged Budapest, Hungary, which doesn't bode well if this CLA45 is anything like the previous ones I've been in. I imagine a clunky-performing seven-speed dual-clutch transmission making stop-and-go traffic a nightmare, and then once on the open road, being annoyed by a choppy ride en route to the Hungaroring racetrack a half-hour away.
Turns out, my worrying is unwarranted. My Benz's gearbox smoothly takes off from stops and fluidly carries out low-speed shifts. Once out of the congested city center on clearer roads, ride quality isn't half bad, with the AMG Ride Control Sport Suspension in its Comfort setting. That's an even bigger accomplishment when considering my test car's optional 19-inch wheels (18s are standard) and high-performance Dunlop Sport Maxx tires.
Make no mistake, the CLA45 doesn't provide S-Class levels of ride comfort, but it's more forgiving compared to when this model first arrived on the scene for 2014. On rougher roads in the Hungarian countryside, impacts are still felt from ruts, but it's tolerable, and much better than the harsh ride offered by last year's model. Is there enough damping to handle the crater-filled roads back home in Michigan? The CLA45's ride is a lot more compliant, but I'm still not sure.
Either way, things have clearly have changed for the better. In addition to a slicker-operating gearbox and a friendlier ride, the baby Benz's 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder has hit the gym, and horsepower climbs from 355 to 375, with torque increasing from 332 pound-feet to 350. The upgrade helps further cement the hand-built engine's status as the most powerful production four-cylinder on the market today. Oh, and it still receives not-too-shabby EPA ratings of 23 mpg city and 30 mpg highway.
The output increase results in a significantly quicker 60 mph time, dropping from 4.5 seconds to 4.1, with the car's electronically limited top speed staying put at 155 mph. Those looking for more impressive top speed to brag about can spring for an available AMG Dynamic Plus Package that raises maximum velocity to 167.
As for the other 2017 driveline updates, the dual-clutch transmission receives shorter gear ratios to make runs through the cogs feel brisker. On the challenging roads making up my drive route just outside of the Hungaroring, with AMG Drive Select system set to Sport Plus, the CLA45's gearbox doesn't miss a beat, rapidly ripping off gear changes in both manual and full automatic mode.
In addition to snappier transmission performance, Sport Plus unlocks more aggressive engine mapping and firmer suspension settings, which are ideal for tackling winding ribbons of pavement. Throttle response at tip-in is nearly instant -- there are no boost lag issues, with power staying strong and consistent throughout the rev range.
Effectively getting power to the ground is Benz's 4Matic all-wheel-drive system, which makes quick work of straights and easily shoot the CLA45 out of corners. Through the bends, the suspension keeps the body nearly flat, while the Dunlop tires confidently plant the small AMG.
I rarely approach the grip limits of the front tires on the street, thanks not only to the solid chassis and sticky rubber, but also to the front limited-slip differential included with the aforementioned AMG Dynamic Plus Package. Will the CLA45 understeer? Absolutely -- if pushed really hard -- but for public roads, the chassis possesses all the front-end bite necessary.
To top things off, steering is responsive and nicely weighted, while the brakes are mega-strong, enabling deep dives into corners.
Of course, a facelift wouldn't be complete without some visual changes. Up front, the CLA45 wears a new bumper, larger front splitter, aero winglets and LED headlights. Other alterations include a different designs, the rear lip spoiler and back bumper are also different.
Minor changes also take place inside, with the addition of red contrast stitching and new gauge cluster. Technology revisions are more substantial: An 8-inch high-resolution center display, rearview camera and Active Brake Assist (which automatically engages the brakes to avoid or lessen the severity of a front end collision), are now standard. A Hands-Free Access trunk system bolsters an options list that already included a stellar-sounding Harmon Kardon Logic7 sound system, navigation, Distronic radar cruise control, blind-spot monitoring and lane-keep assist.
Being a Benz, the company's easy-to-navigate Comand interface is here, using a combo of a central console dial and center-stack hard buttons to handle audio, Bluetooth and navigation functions. Imagery on the new screen is sharp, and the system quickly switches between menus. For customers who prefer Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, both are optional.
Overall, my test car's CLA45's interior, while still possessing some cheap-looking plastics here and there, does look better. Suede dash and door panel inserts along with the available leatherette covered dashboard and Recaro seats give the cabin a more premium feel and appearance.
Without question, all the updates have not only made the CLA45 into a more capable performance machine, but also a better all-around car that's no longer unpleasant to drive on a daily basis. The improvements come just in time, because the small AMG hot rod will finally get some competition here in the US when the 400-horsepower Audi RS3 arrives this summer.
As a big fan of the A3 and S3, I initially figured the RS3 would come to the US and eat this car's lunch. However, my trip to Budapest to drive this updated $50,875 AMG compact four-door has changed my feelings.
I've finally come to terms with the CLA45, and now believe it will put up quite a fight against the new Audi.