No longer just a cool engine with some seats and a steering wheel (although the engine is still cool)
Words by: Adam Allen
How can we say this politely…the last CLA 45 was a bit rough around the edges.
Let us put diplomacy aside for a moment, shall we? When we first sampled the CLA 45 back in 2013, we can recall that it had a fantastic engine under the hood, and that it was the first time Mercedes had applied their ‘one man/one engine’ hand crafted philosophy to anything other than a V8 or V12. We also remember that it was fast, and it was manic. But when we looked back at our Road Test notes, our logbook was filled with underwhelming comments like “it feels like the gearbox was programmed by an engineer who was massively hung over” and “the ride makes my spleen hurt.” The interior also seemed to be somewhat of an afterthought, not out of line with the CLA’s entry level vibe but not what you might expect with a full-blown AMG model. Also, the car felt way too tightly wound which was unbecoming when you just wanted to relax on your commute home after a long day and the baby Benz always felt like it was staining at its leash. This time around, we are thrilled to report that Mercedes has fixed these issues and that the only thing that followed the CLA 45’s inaugural generation to the one you see here is the tremendous engine- actually, it’s even better.
How would you sum up the experience imparted by the M139 engine, the world’s most powerful 4-cylinder?
Let’s talk numbers for a moment. The spec sheet says our tester makes 382 horsepower and 354 pounds feet of torque and to be sure, those figures almost border on the unbelievable. If you want your mind blown even more, how does this metric grab you: it makes 208 horsepower per litre, or 104 horsepower per cylinder. It took a while for that to fit through the doors of our perception. This engine is all ate up with boost, to the tune of 30.5 psi. If you can imagine a can of pop that has been vigorously shaken for hours and then transferred to an industrial grade paint shaker for good measure you have the right idea- the contents are under extreme pressure. Yet somehow AMG engineers have managed the feat of taming this colossal amount of boost pressure into something that feels completely normal, imminently drivable and all backed by a full factory warranty. We think that is nothing short of brilliant. Those who hail from the Fast and Furious generation may not be so impressed when they accurately recall that ten, even twenty years ago this kind of output was possible from a humble four banger, but they may conveniently forget that that came with a few major caveats. One, they were usually boosted to within an inch of grenading themselves- which they often did- and two, the massive turbos slapped onto them made absolutely no power below 4,000 rpm at which point there would be an unmanageable explosion of power channeled into the drivetrain. There is a reason why light switches are not an engineering benchmark for engine power delivery characteristics so you can see why these were best left to bragging about outputs than actually putting themselves to use on the road. Sercan Adjaman, the chap who built the engine under the hood of our tester, deserves an extra little something from Santa this year-the dude has earned it.
How does this gem of an engine fare on the open road?
Much better than you might think. Engines with this much boost crammed into them shouldn’t be civilized, they shouldn’t be flexible across a large portion of their rev range and they definitely should not be efficient. Yet the M139 laughs in the face of all that and sounds terrific while doing so- we will go on record here as proclaiming the CLA 45 has the best exhaust note of any 4-cyliner currently for sale. You can select how loud you want that sound to be with cockpit adjustable settings, but trust us, you want the exhaust in Powerful mode for every trip you take. The first time you really open the taps of this beguiling powerplant you will not be able to supress the silly grin that becomes plastered across your face. Using launch control, this car accelerates with a ferocity that would give many sports cars a real run for their money aided by its 4Matic all-wheel drive. Even once underway, passing on the highway and rural two-lane roads is a cinch, you just pick the spot you want to be in, give your right foot a healthy flex and you’re gone. But the mood to constantly lay down a scorching qualifying lap isn’t as omnipresent as it was in the previous CLA 45, so this generation will relax somewhat and let you commute in relative peace. When you do that, you’ll note that it is commendably efficient, and we turned in an overall fuel consumption figure of 10.7L/100km which is kind of crazy for a car with this much snort.
Yeah, the CLA 45 has a seriously potent turn of speed. And like any good sommelier will pair your entrée with the best wine in the cellar, so too have the AMG engineers paired this engine to a nearly perfect gearbox. It’s no manual (and this car would be off the hook with a manual gearchange) but it is a terrific dual-clutch unit that is so much better than the one that proceeded it you wonder if they were designed by the same company. It will crack of lighting fast shifts when its play time and then become the model of civility around town. It is not as good as Porsche’s PDK but it’s close. The other bits of chassis hardware are equally as impressive. The suspension and performance rubber bite tenaciously when you show it some corners and the brakes are indefatigable. The CLA 45 has another cool trick up its sleeve, although we didn’t get a chance to try it out. That would be Drift Mode, and once you figure out how to activate it- think entering a cheat code on a video game and you’re on the right track- lurid, smoky power slides are available to you for as long as your rear tires holdout for. We first encountered this on BMW’s M5 and if there is a better way to offer drivers the best of both worlds, we would like to see it.
Has the interior come as far as the drivetrain?
The CLA 45’s cockpit is pretty much like any Mercedes. That is a good thing, folks, because these days Mercedes is crafting some exceptionally beautiful interiors. Back in 2013 we complained that there were simply too many signs of cost cutting on the CLA 45, entry level car or not. Plus some of the plastic pieces were creaking and rattling on our tester which had not traveled many kilometers at that point and reinforced the feeling of cheap. Those tasked with developing the current model’s interior have done an about face because this time it’s lovely. The digital screens might be smaller than what we have seen on some of the brand’s higher end stuff but work just as well and are equally brilliant to behold. The carbon fibre trim looks the business, and all touchpoints leave you feeling satisfied. The best part are the seats up front. You get two very aggressive AMG buckets with cut-outs for a racing harness, and that usually spells a week of discomfort sitting in seats that are meant for holding you in place in high G cornering, not going to the shops. We are happy to report that we were wrong. On a long trip north to cottage country, we arrived at our destination feeling fresh and not in agonizing discomfort.
What might go wrong?
Since Mercedes addressed so many of the shortcomings of the previous CLA 45, there isn’t much to complain about. We have therefore boiled down our bellyaching to just two gripes, but they are rather significant. The first is the ride quality. Yes, in Comfort mode is it much more subdued that it has ever been, but it is still seriously firm. You couldn’t describe it as harsh, but if the roads are as horribly surfaced as the ones we regularly travel on you might want to take some time to think about whether you can live with that day in and day out. The other issue? Price. Given how much this car is capable of, you would expect a window sticker on the higher side. Instead, you may become apocalyptic when you see what this baby costs. To gain some context, the fire breathing C63 with its stonking twin turbo V8 starts at $3,740 less than the CLA 45 you see here.
Should I buy a CLA 45?
If the stiff legged ride and lofty price tag don’t deter to you, then yes, you should buy a CLA 45. It is well appointed, is both rear and all-wheel drive and it’s devastatingly quick. The only other competitor we would entertain as an alternative would be the BMW M2. It is not only more affordable, but it can be had with a manual gearbox. Audi’s RS3 is a no go- its engine is superb, but the rest of the car isn’t as engaging as the little Bimmer or the CLA 45. We wish Mercedes Benz saw fit to import the wagon body style to our shores- it is not only a terrifically looking car, but it ups the practicality quotient quite a bit. Take one for a drive and it will become abundantly clear that this little firecracker firmly belongs amongst the AMG company it keeps.
2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 4MATIC+ Coupe- Specifications
- Price as tested: $80,640
- Body Type: 4-door, 5 passenger sedan
- Powertrain Layout: Front engine/all-wheel drive
- Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch automatic
- Engine: 2.0 litre turbocharged inline-4, DOHC, 16 valves
- Horsepower: 382 @ 6,500 rpm
- Torque (lbs-ft.): 354 @ 3,000 rpm
- Curb weight: 1,590 kg (3,505 lbs)
- Observed Fuel Consumption: 10.7L/100km (22 mpg)