Strategic precision in a compact four-door “coupe”
BY MARK MAYNARD
Highland Valley Road is a tangled black shoelace of two-lane country road in northeastern San Diego County. It’s a favorite for car-club runs and leisure drives to get some fresh air. The meandering road leads past acres of growing land for landscape nurseries and pine-tree farms before ascending to an area of vineyards and wineries. Mature scrub oaks form shaded canopies along stretches amid a background of boulder-strewn mountainscapes.
The road is unforgiving of reckless driving but a strategic 13 miles or so with blind corners, decreasing radius turns and rollercoaster drops and rises. (Midday and midweek will have the lightest traffic.)
In this environment, the compact Mercedes-AMG CLA35 carves the road with surgical precision. The fortified focus of Sport and Sport-plus modes opens the pipes, tightens the shift points and lets the horses run. The 302-horsepower, AMG-enhanced turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder pulls with breathy force, digging into its 295 foot-pounds of torque from 3,000-4,000 rpm.
The seven-speed AMG Speedshift transmission, a dual-clutch automated manual, clicks off sequential shifts with Formula One intensity. And the variable 4Matic all-wheel-drive system provides the push-back of rear-wheel drive and in aggressive cornering lays down a quick and consistent pull to redline. Mercedes-AMG cites 0-60 mph in an estimated 4.6 seconds — it just feels quicker. A hard launch brings a bristling response.
About the CLA
The compact-class CLA is now in its second-generation after a major update in 2019 for the 2020 model year. Launched in 2013, it was the first compact Mercedes sold in the U.S. and its first front-wheel-drive model.
Because of its arching roofline Mercedes refers to the CLA as a four-door coupe — and it feels the part with its frameless door glass and a cockpit driver area.
With seats for five, it was intended to be a segment disruptor with appeal for its sporty lines, which Mercedes-Benz says pulled many younger buyers from competitors. On average, CLA customers in the U.S. are around 10 years younger than the brand’s typical buyer, the company says.
Sizewise, the CLA slots above the subcompact A-Class, the brand’s smallest and less-expensive sedan, and below the midsize C-Class.
The redesigned CLA is 2 inches wider and almost 2 inches longer and a whisker lower on a wheelbase stretched 1.1 inches, now at 107.4 inches.
The styling is more cohesive now and smoother with a GT stance ready to pounce. The revised size is especially notable in the front seats with 38.5 inches of headroom, legroom of almost 42 inches and more shoulder room. Back-seat width is now family-class comfortable with more legroom (33.9 inches). Trunk space is down but still wide and roomy at 11.6 cubic feet. And the trunk opening was made 10.3 inches wider.
The CLA is sold as the CLA 250 in front-drive or 4Matic all-wheel drive with high-performance versions in the AMG CLA 35 (today’s tester) and the AMG 45.
All models have versions of a turbocharged 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Pricing starts at $36,650 for the 221-hp CLA 250 or $38,650 with 4Matic AWD.
The 302-hp AMG CLA 35 starts at $46,900 and the CLA45 (382-hp and 0-60 mph in 4 seconds) at $54,800. The CLA35 tester was $61,355 with options, including the $995 freight charge from Kecskemet, Hungary.
Find pricing incentives here.
The cabin is dressed to impress with MB-Tex leatherette and Dinamica microfiber upholstery and contemporary materials and trim. Recaro sport seats in front are power adjustable with lumbar and a manual thigh extension.
Sightlines are open and there is enough cabin width to smartly place all controls. The functional center floor console integrates a forward e-bin for wireless or corded phone charging, a pair of deep cup holders and a touch pad to page through the various vehicle systems. It has a steady haptic touch and its use becomes relatively intuitive after a couple hundred miles into ownership. Gear engagement is by a stalk on the steering column.
The flat-bottom, three-spoke AMG steering wheel ($500) wrapped in Dinamica fits sweetly in the hand and also functions as an alternate desktop. The left arm groups cruise control and autonomous drive features. The right arm gives redundant access to navigation and phone. And both groups have a touch-sensitive thumb button to scroll through various screens of information.
The cabin is highly electrified with a widescreen-cockpit presentation to facilitate the Mercedes-Benz User Experience — MBUX. The driver faces a 10.25-inch-wide digital gauge array with a choice of configurations for a traditional layout, a supersport mode or a muted presentation. Supersport focuses the performance with a central, round rev counter and other information in graph bars to the left and right. Via the AMG menu, the driver can call up various special displays such as Warm-up, Set-up, G-Force and Engine Data.
Cabin controls are accessed by another 10.25-inch touch-screen display with voice control or even hand gestures. The “Hey Mercedes” keyword for voice control has been refined to focus on the driver and to filter out other conversations in the cabin.
There also is a tier of manual controls for often-used adjustments, such as fan speed, temp and air flow, plus a console controller for audio volume.
AMG puts a fistful of secret sauce into that turbocharged 2.0-liter to wring out 302-hp (or the CLA 45’s 382-hp), when the base engine has a capable 221-hp.
I like that the CLA 35 experience is not all ate-up with horsepower, which can blow past the pleasures of feeling the suspension transition through cornering and how the transmission holds gears through the esses and uphills.
The structure of the car feels tight and nimble, which makes it accommodating for throttle-steering with the accelerator pedal. The roll-on of acceleration is visceral but balanced. Downshift into a corner to raise the revs and then push the nose out a bit or pull it back by subtle lifting. The refined control will make you smile.
Around town, there will be a delay in forward motion as the turbo spools and the dual-clutch engages, but Sport or Sport-plus modes will cut the delay when powering up. The auto stop-start at idle function can be cancelled.
Braking, is immediate but measured for absolute control without grab or lunge. A hard response is flat and composed. The front brakes have four-piston, 13.8-inch vented rotors, backed by single piston, 13-inch vented discs rear.
Even with the bigger brake discs and AMG upgrades, the curb weight is up just 22 pounds compared with a CLA 250 4Matic. Fuel economy estimates are 23 mpg city, 29 highway and 25 mpg combined on the recommended premium fuel.
The tester was optioned with 19-inch matte black AMG wheels ($800) and Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires (245/35) with a ZR rating. The tires are very sticky with a 300 treadwear rating and resisted squeals of complaint in my backcountry run.
The AMG Ride Control suspension, a worthy $850 upgrade, has three firmness control modes. The Comfort setting can be too firm for the non-enthusiast, but Sport and even Sport-Plus, give impressive turn-in and control.
New in the redesign is the option for semi-autonomous driving. Using map and navigation data for assistance, elements of the Driver Assistance Package ($2,250) allow the CLA to steer, stop, brake and resume speed, in certain highway configurations — and with the driver’s hands on the wheel. The system functioned with precision to keep the car centered in the lane, while many systems are less precisely calibrated, which will allow the car to wander before a correction is made.
The package adds active brake assist with cross-traffic function, Active Distance Assist Distronic, active steering assist, active blind-spot assist, active lane keeping assist, active lane assist, active speed limit assist, active emergency stop assist, evasive steering assist, Pre-Safe Plus, Route Based Speed Adaptation, and extended restart in stop-and-go traffic.
Active speed limit assist is useful to automatically adapt the car’s speed to an identified speed limit. I discovered this while on the Interstate and was driving through a construction area that was to the far right in merging lanes. When I drove past the reduced speed sign of 55 mph, the cruise control immediately dropped my set speed to 55 mph from 69 mph. And we all know that speeding fines are increased in construction zones.
The effect of Route Based Speed Adaptation is the eye in the sky of GPS and the adaptive cruise control system. The system uses map data ahead to reduce speed in anticipation of curves, junctions, roundabouts, toll booths, exit roads, etc.
And for the directionally challenged — even when using a navigation system — the Augmented Video/Reality for Navigation feature is a hand-holder to guide the way. When using the navigation system, a camera in front of the rearview mirror captures a video image of the surroundings and displays arrows or house numbers onto the image in the media display screen. The helpful blue arrows point the way to a street or house number, traffic signs or street names.
And when stopped at a traffic signal, the system uses the front camera to display live video of the intersection on the center screen. It helps the driver see if anyone or anything is in the crosswalk.
Standard safety features include eight air bags, hill-start assist and brake-hold function, crosswind assist and attention assist, for driver awareness.
The CLA 35 can be as hands-on or as hands-off as the driver desires. Hands-on was my preferred mode — and none of the assist systems got in the way of a good time.
But if $60K as-tested is too rich for the budget, the same powertrain option and engineering are also available in the subcompact AMG A 35 sedan, starting at about $45,000, and it has access to all the options and upgrades of the CLA 35.
2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 4Matic
Body style: compact, five-seat, four-door coupe with variable torque AWD
Engine: 302-hp, AMG-enhanced turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder with cancellable auto stop-start at idle; 295 lb.-ft. torque from 3,000-4,000 rpm
Transmission: 7 speed AMG Speedshift dual-clutch automated manual
0-60 mph: 4.8 seconds, estimated
Fuel economy: 23/29/25 mpg city/hwy/combined; premium fuel
Fuel tank: 13.5 gal.
Trunk space: 11.6 cu. ft.
Front head/leg room: 38.5/41.8 in.
Rear head/leg room: 35.7/33.9 in.
Length/wheelbase: 184.8/107.4 in.
Curb weight: 3,505 lbs.
Turning circle: 37 ft., estimated
Standard equipment includes: Keyless Go locking with push-button ignition, panoramic sunroof, M-B Tex leatherette upholstery, electric parking brake, rearview camera, 10.25-inch touch-screen display, 10.25-inch digital gauge array, power front seats with lumbar and memory presets, Apple CarPlay or Android Auto Bluetooth connectivity, 40/20/40 folding back seat, LED headlights and taillights
AMG 35 special features, include: Speedshift 7-Speed (dual clutch transmission with performance 4MATIC AWD, sport suspension, sport exhaust, 3-stage electronic stability program, Recaro sport seats with integrated headrests and metal-trimmed pedals
Safety features, include: 8 air bags, active brake assist, adaptive braking with hill-start assist and brake-hold function, crosswind assist, attention assist (for driver awareness)
CLA 35 competitors: Audi S3, BMW M240i xDrive; front-drive CLA models compare to the BMW 2-series and Acura ILX
Base price: $47,895, including $995 freight charge; price as tested $61,335
Options on test vehicle, included: AMG performance steering wheel in Nappa leather and Dinamica $500; 19-inch AMG matte black alloy wheels $800; Parktronic with advanced parking assist $970; AMG ride control sport suspension $850; satellite radio trial subscription $460; Burmester surround-sound audio $850; wireless charging $200; rear side air bags $420 (with a one-time $250 special order fee);
• Driver assistance package, $2,250, includes active brake assist with cross-traffic function, active distance assist Distronic, active steering assist, active blind-spot assist, active lane keeping assist, active lane assist, active speed limit assist, active emergency stop assist, evasive steering assist, Pre-Safe Plus, route based speed adaptation, extended restart in stop-and-go traffic;
• Multimedia package, $1,150, includes navigation and services, including map updates for 3 years, MBUX augmented reality for navigation and speed-limit assist;
• AMG Night package, $750, includes front splitter, grille trim and louvres in outer air intakes, AMG side panel inserts, beltline and window line trim strips in gloss black, black side mirrors and tailpipe trim;
• Performance seat package, $3,270, includes multicontour, heated Recaro seats
Where assembled: Kecskemet, Hungary
Warranty: 4-years/50,000-miles bumper to bumper with roadside assistance