Did you know that after Mitsubishi discontinued the Evo, Mercedes started making the Evo instead? Well, not exactly, but this CLA 45 AMG is Mercedes’ bonkers hopped up awd turbo 4 banger econobox. It only really got good later in its model run, and it’s not really the smart choice for me, but I dig it anyway.
The CLA was Mercedes’ attempt to turn the fwd econobox A-Class into a swoopy 4-door “coupe” like the CLS. Taking the styling from the long, wide, rwd CLS and applying it over the proportions of a fwd compact sedan doesn’t quite work, but over time, Mercedes refined the look of the first gen CLA to the point where the last couple years of the 45 AMG version actually look borderline good. This particular car has the optional aero package with the obnoxious canards on the front bumper and the other assorted black painted tacked on aero bits. In white, it actually somehow kinda works!
The CLA 45 AMG has a turbocharged-within-an-inch-of-its-life 2.0 liter turbo 4 that makes 375 hp. It’s a real AMG motor hand-built by one technician, this is no AMG Lite car. When it first launched it made “only” 355 hp, but in 2016 the motor got the 20 hp bump and the 7-speed DCT also got shorter gear ratios and quicker shifting logic. 2017 brought the facelifted styling with revised fascias, lights, and interior pieces. Its awd system is a pretty basic transverse engine fwd-ish system, but the AMG Dynamic Plus package adds a mechanical limited slip differential to the front axle. Its ECU tune makes silly pops and bangs that don’t actually do anything but sound fun, and the optional 2-mode AMG exhaust amplifies the silliness. (Basically all aftermarket exhausts for this car have their own 2-mode systems for owners of cars without the AMG exhaust to get a similar function.) It weighs 3,457 lbs which is not that light, except that bigger, rwd-based, performance-ier compact-ish luxury competitors weigh a good bit more than that nowadays.
The childish AMG styling bits of the facelifted 1st gen CLA go a long way towards making the overall proportions of the car work. Also, white with black accents is very much this car’s best color combo. Here’s a pre-facelift version with the same color scheme. Looks pretty similar, not too bad, right?
But here’s what most of the pre-facelift cars look like. Those black accents above are part of the AMG Night package. Without that package, most of the 2014-16 cars have chrome window trim, and these horrible silver accents along the bottom of the car that clash horribly with red or black paint.
Earlier versions were also heavily decontented, but by the time of the facelift and with the right options boxes checked that’s no longer the case. Doug however savaged an early car for its alarming lack of content for its price. The car he reviewed also lacked the adaptive shocks so it has a punishing ride all the time.
The 2017-19 facelifted version, in white, with the AMG Night package for the black accents, and AMG aero package for the stupid canards and lips and whatnot, and the quasi-pano roof (it’s a pano roof front sunroof with no glass over the rear seats) are the move. Just need to get the little painted roof panel wrapped black to complete the full pano look.
Meanwhile, the 2nd gen CLA that came out for 2020 cleans up the proportions of the car to look a little more cohesive overall, but unfortunately comes with Mercedes’ new corporate face with squinty headlights and upside-down grille. I personally thought the final evolution of Mercedes’ right-side up grille was a great corporate face and this new one is a step down. But Mercedes decided all its cars have to look like the AMG GT so here we are. Meh. Not like I can afford a new one anyway. Optioned up the way I like, it’d be at least $69k! I can afford a used one, thanks to massive depreciation.
One cool thing about the 2nd gen CLA 45 in particular is it has a torque vectoring rear diff and the AMG Dynamic Plus package adds Race and Drift modes. Very cool. It probably makes for a more rwd-feeling driving experience than the 1st gen Dynamic Plus package’s front LSD but at least the 1st gen has a lot of mechanical grip, if not tail-happiness. It also has a much better interior than the 1st gen, which in AMG form with the right options gets classed up but is still at its core a European-market econo car with some hard plastics and cheap controls no matter how much AMG gaudiness gets layered on top of it.
Why is the 17-19 the car I shouldn’t buy? Because it only sorta kinda aligns with my priorities for a new car. I want something fun but also better as a DD than my modded 335xi coupe. I’m working from home now, and will be for the foreseeable future, but whenever the world is right side up again I’ll be back to slogging through DC beltway traffic, and sometimes-crap roads when I go into the city. I want a performance-y car with an automatic transmission (yeah yeah I know boo), some room to spread out inside, active cruise control, surround view camera, a comfy ride (ideally from adaptive suspension), vented seats, and as many LSDs as possible. The car that absolutely checks all these boxes is the Kia Stinger GT2, especially the rwd version which is lighter than the awd and has a proper helical gearset rear LSD. The surround view camera was added to that car for 2019, which is a knock against the 2018s on the used market.
The CLA 45 theoretically checks most but not all of my boxes, except vented seats and surround view camera are totally unavailable. The 2018-20 GLA 45, which is the “crossover” (but really more just hot hatch) version of the CLA, does offer an optional surround view camera, but for whatever reason Mercedes didn’t offer that on the CLA. I actually like the GLA 45 a lot too, but finding one with my desired options including that surround view cam is similarly difficult as on the CLA.
There are a couple problems though. The adaptive suspension in comfort mode isn’t as bumpy as the base suspension, but many reviewers have called it somewhat stiff. I’d have to see for myself. I haven’t driven one so I don’t know how well it’ll tolerate the roads around here, but it’s a concern. Also, because of Mercedes making all their options very a la carte, it’s tough to find an example with the options I want. Luckily there are a couple good VIN decoders which will show every option on a Mercedes, but the cars just don’t appear to have been built with the options that I want.
The specific breakdown I want is the sunroof, AMG Dynamic Plus package, AMG performance exhaust, base non-Recaro seats (the Recaros are too confining), and the Driver Assistance package which includes active cruise. One of the upholstery options has alcantara-like suede in the middle of the seats which would be a little cooler in summer. So far I’ve been able to find a small number of cars with the Dynamic Plus package, exhaust and non-Recaro seats, but but none of them have the alcantara or Driver Assistance package. In theory a car with those options could exist, but it’d be an exercise in waiting around for it to hit the used market and for me to VIN decode it.
I’ve been ping ponging between settling on the Stinger as the for-sure comfy, rational, thoroughly practical, all-my-desired-options choice. It’s got plenty of aftermarket stuff for me to play with, and it just makes a ton of sense. But there’s something about the CLA that keeps drawing my interest, in spite of its depreciation, stiff ride, and lack of certain options. Out of the box it’s already quicker than the Stinger and it’s 15” shorter in length. Even with the crazy 375 hp number from a 2.0 liter 4 banger, it’s still plenty tune-able, and it’s a much more compact zippy little car where the Stinger is almost as big as family sedans like the Accord & Camry. Also, I showed my wife the pics at the top of this post and asked her whether she likes the looks of it or the Stinger more and she was CLA all the way. I think the Stinger looks cool too but I may very well have to agree with her assessment.
The irony is not lost on me that in this particular comparison, the Kia is the better-optioned, more comfortable and luxurious car with a better interior than the Mercedes. At least the Benz gets better mileage...