Mountain Wheels: Mercedes-Benz’s high-output AMG CLA 45 is a barn-burner

With the world record for power from a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, the AMG performance version of the Mercedes CLA is a fast little vehicle.
Photo from Daimler AG

With more than 20 different AMG editions of Mercedes-Benz’s extensive family of automobiles, the purity and exclusivity factor has become maybe a little iffy with so many grades of super-fast, coupe-style crossovers.

But I found that perhaps the purest version of that high-performance badge comes in a compact-sized and otherwise unassuming sedan with just a 2.0-liter engine under the hood.

That’s a really bland way of describing the otherworldly fury and ferocity of the AMG CLA 45, Mercedes’ quasi-bargain-priced speed machine from hell. In an automotive world that now sees 2.0-liter engines practically everywhere, this one is also notable because Mercedes has cranked an unbelievable 382 horsepower out of that tiny, turbocharged, four-cylinder using Formula 1-derived technology.

That results in a diminutive vehicle that careens, glues itself to corners and can hit Autobahn speeds in the most surprising of places.

The CLA 45 I drove was also outfitted in a day-glo Sun Yellow paint job, clad at every corner with stuck-out aerodynamic bits that seem likely to be knocked off in parking lots, not unlike those on last week’s Supra. You also get big quad exhaust pipes; matte-black, 19-inch race wheels; and red brake calipers.

In a more downtempo shade, such as the vehicle pictured above, you might not even notice it as it passed you at double the speed limit. Oddly, bright yellow apparently affords super-fast vehicles some sort of psychological camouflage mechanism: They are so eye-glaring that you don’t actually see them.

CLA is the coupe-styled model that first debuted in 2013. It’s mostly known for its affordable, low-key status: the first front-wheel-drive sedan offered by MB in North America and only equipped with varieties of four-cylinder engines.

That special AMG engine is the true secret here, however. The hand-assembled M139 motor holds the world record for 2.0-liter output in any mass-scale production automobile, including 354 pound-feet of torque. Driving the AMG version makes you wonder, out loud, why other automakers can’t get this much bang out of a 2.0-liter engine. It’s got a turbocharger that goes 169,000 rpm, with overboost available.

Pure race appeal also meant that the CLA 45’s ultra-low profile, high-performance tires were perhaps the loudest I have ever experienced on a long drive, even prompting me to put in racing-style ear plugs after four hours on the road. But they provide the ability to hang and stick on corners that’s glue-like, intensely, all the time.

Extra grip also comes from a performance version of MB’s 4Matic all-wheel drive system, which can throw all the power to the rear when pure acceleration is required.

Or, if you don’t want to stick at all, and have a budget for tires, there’s also a drift mode to entirely loosen things up, all courtesy of a rear axle differential with multidisc clutches on each side.

Shift paddles are of the light-supercar variety and actually work, ultra-fast, allowing you to work through eight gears as you need them. I manually kept it in third or fourth gear during curvy driving and at about 3,500 rpm, and the roar of the exhaust and occasional pops during upshifts was absolutely awesome.

CLA 45’s ability to handle cornering, brake hard and keep going is all quite impressive, even more so considering the vehicle retails at $55,350. Mine had another $15,000 in options, including ride control and sport suspension, upgraded brakes and the aerodynamics package.

You might not be a fan of the optional Recaro race seats, which are the real thing, but also include automatic kinetic movement to help squeeze you during hard cornering. They’re mighty rigid, and on top of the road noise, you are reminded this is more race car than family vehicle.

Like most modern Mercedes, the cabin is a pretty giddy affair, with a flat dash, black and silver aluminum stripes on the dash face, a perforated leather sub-dash, the optional double-wide instrument and infotainment screens, five air conditioning jet nozzles and a manual-only, Alcantara suede-covered race wheel.

Mine featured a tasteful two-tone color scheme, including light leather inserts in the doors and seats, plus aluminum pedals that got used a whole lot, all day long.

CLA’s family-friendly, four-door size means a substantial rear seat area with fixed, very tall, almost race-styled rear seats; ample rear leg room; and almost no visibility issues in the rear glass. The rear roof is low, yes, and the door sills are pretty wide, but access is still easy, and there is considerable rear head room.

Andy Stonehouse

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