It sounds like heresy, but the Mercedes-Benz CLA has a better grip on the modern sport sedan than the C-Class. The C-Class has taken its time to get in better shape, to approach the athleticism the 3-Series used to have. The CLA has it out of the gate--a strong, firm handshake with the driver that's frankly a surprise, given the easy temptation to make it all things to all new Mercedes buyers.
As a CLA 250, it also can be a little shy to shift, and can seem musclebound when it rides on big wheels and tires--impressions that dissolve when you fling the kinetic CLA45 AMG down a straight track or a two-lane bend.
By the numbers
If you've been dreaming of a 190E 2.3-16 since the CLA first broke cover at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show, there's hope you'll come away from a first drive happily entertained, maybe even thrilled. With 208 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque burbling up from its new 2.0-liter, direct-injected, turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the CLA 250 doesn't lack for power. The engine's from the same family as the four-cylinder in the C-Class, bigger in displacement, with different engine mounts and its cylinder head turned for transverse installation. It puts out a grotty, agreeable fahrt-noise (it's German, look it up), and spins out enough low-end torque to beat the four-cylinder C-Class to 60 mph--in about 6.7 seconds, Mercedes says. Top speed will be limited to 149 mph.
The CLA 45 AMG takes a chainsaw to those numbers, cranking up boost and lowering compression on the four-cylinder's twin-scroll turbo to scream-machine peaks. We reported its 0-60 mph time of 4.6 seconds first, and since then it's been recalibrated to 4.5 seconds. In this case, we love being wrong. Redline is up 200 rpm to 6,700 rpm, the torque peak arrives later and stays later (that's why they call it a party), and a specially designed, optional, active-exhaust system fiddles with a butterfly flap to play punk sax with the exhaust note. It's quiet in normal driving, crazy hot at full boil.
The numbers get hit via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, one engaged with paddles and a column shifter on the CLA 250, with paddles and a console-mounted shift lever on the CLA45 AMG. On either, a flip of the paddles engages a manual-shift mode for 30 seconds, after which the transmission clicks back into a comfortable program. On the CLA 250, the low-end torque can put lumps in the shifts, and the gearbox upshifts rapidly to obtain the best possible gas mileage numbers; it can be cycled out of Eco mode into Sport or Manual shift modes, which clean up the responses to the point where some turbo lag becomes evident. Shifts are cleaner over 30 mph or so, where the action melts into the momentum.
The CLA45 AMG's shift pattern is completely different; it's equipped with a trio of driver-selectable modes (comfort, sport, and manual) and rev-matching, making shifts much quicker and neater. In manual mode, the only intervention is in your hands, as AMG wants it.Stop/start is integrated into the CLA drivetrain, and it sends a shiver through the drivetrain when it shuts off the car and restarts at pauses longer than a couple of seconds. The all-wheel-drive system adjusts torque from almost 100 percent front to up to 50 percent rear through a multi-disc clutch, and it's responsible for a smoother launch and shifts, we think, than the front-drive car.
Ride and handling
Mercedes' stated goal was to make the CLA feel "not like a front-drive car." That's a choice that could skew the CLA away from those not so young at heart, and it's entirely intentional.
Whether it's front-drive or all-wheel drive, the CLA 250 is set up nearly in mono-spec form. All versions have electric power steering and all U.S. cars will come with the lower, shorter-sprung "sport" version of the CLA's front-strut, four-link-rear suspension. An option to upgrade the standard 17-inch run-flat tires to 18-inch wheels (with or without summer tires and perforated disc brakes) are the only choices left to American drivers, at least at launch.
The end product is a car that's brash and a little bratty in the way it refuses to lean into corners, almost in defiance of the traditional Mercedes reputation of comfort and compliance. The so-called "Direct Steer" system's V-shaped steering rack increases ratio and effort off-center; it's pretty hefty, and gives the CLA a quick call to change. Jazz hands are kept to a minimum, though the typical electric-steering numbness hasn't been erased.
There's no sport mode to change the steering feel or quickness, but that may be beside the point in a sedan aimed by and large at new Mercedes buyers.
There's no adjustable suspension either, and the European "comfort" suspension is being held back from U.S. customers. The CLA 250s we've driven, front- or all-wheel drive, all rode on 18s--and on the roads outside St. Tropez, had a very taut feel that occasionally went rumbly when the road went rough. Those 18s are the bane of suspension engineers everywhere, and probably don't help the otherwise compliant ride lose its composure over small but sharply broken surfaces. But they'll probably be on every American CLA 250, since the stand-alone price is just $500. Either way, we'd give a slight dynamic edge to the all-wheel-drive version--and we'll watch out for a car with the base 17-inch wheels and tires.
For the CLA45 AMG, the suspension, steering, and braking hardware get another drive-by, with even flatter cornering and more flattering steering the result.
The changes are vetted for maximum return on the performance/price curve. The electric power rack has a fixed ratio, though weight still varies with vehicle speed. The suspension's retuned with three distinct links for each front wheel and with stiffer bearings, since the torque and traction loads are much higher. At the rear, there are four links, coil springs, and a body-mounted subframe. Thicker anti-roll bars are used front and back, and the CLA45 AMG rides nearly an inch lower, on a rear track nearly a half-inch wider, than the CLA 250.
For additional grip, the 18-inch wheels ride on performance tires as standard equipment, with 19-inchers an option; they cloak uprated AMG brakes tweaked with electronic torque vectoring, activated in ESP Sport mode.
What we found, after an afternoon trolling smooth German surface streets and almost-new track tarmac, is a car that's practically slathered in stick, nearly unwavering in its neutrality. It erupts from a stop with AMG's Racestart launch control, and works every rib in its treads to make you forget it's based on front-drive running gear.
Slide into high-speed esses, and the CLA45 AMG is splitting its power equally to brush off faint understeer; dive hard into a steep left-hander and it takes a neatly chosen set while you decide if third or second gear has better legs for the next stretch of straightaway. It can't summon a miracle of sensation from its electric power steering, but doesn't mask the surface of the road the way Direct Steer can, either.
All the while, it's flapping its exhaust. The gutter rumble of AMG's V-8s can change your reality--but the CLA45 AMG's syncopated beat has its own butterfly effect.