I’m at a complete halt; left foot on the brakes, right foot at the ready over the throttle. Twist the drive mode selector on the centre console to Sport+, prod the ESC switch to engage Sport ESC mode, and wrap my hands around the leather and Alcantara clad steering wheel. My thumbs relax into the Alcantara thumb grips as if they were made for me. Squeeze both aluminium paddles for a second, pull once on the up-shift paddle to ‘confirm Race Start’ and mash the throttle through the fire wall. The engine winds up, a series of pops rattle off from the exhaust in quick succession. Left foot off the brake and the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 rockets away off the line.
No tyre squeal, no plumes of smoke, no fuss. The Haldex-based 4MATIC 4WD system makes Race Start completely uneventful as the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 races toward the horizon, smashing the 100km/h mark from standstill in 5.08 seconds. That’s 0.88 slower than the claimed 4.2s – 1400 metres above sea level and loaded up with 95-octane petrol.
Past 100km/h and on to 150km/h in a flash; each quick up-shift from the 7-speed DCT accompanied by the sound of shredding aluminium. I keep expecting to see bits of exhaust thrown about in my rear-view mirror, but no, that’s how Mercedes-AMG has tuned the performance exhaust to sound – like metal being torn to shreds. It’s vicious. Visceral. Animalistic.
Yet I feel divorced from the rawness of it all; like watching a wild animal hunting on the TV screen as opposed to being in the bush on safari when it suddenly happens. All the noises are there, in glorious Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, but the adrenaline isn’t.
The truth is the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 never feels as quick or potent as 280kW and 430Nm would suggest. Perhaps it’s because in South African conditions, but I highly doubt those figures are genuinely what’s being churned out, or perhaps it’s just the nature of the beast – an incredibly rapid, yet cold point to point machine rather than a sharp, involving driving tool.
Rapid it is though. Through just about any scenario or any stretch of tarmac, the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 absolutely devours distance. The 4WD system, now aided by the optional, and present, limited slip diff grips and turns better than ever. Perennial AWD understeer is kept under wraps by the LSD, but you still need to drive it like a FWD car to maximise the handling abilities.
Trail-brake into a corner to make sure the front wheels are pinned, dip it in smoothly and give it some throttle and the rear end will even rotate – genuinely rotate too, not a mere twitch of lift-off oversteer.
But, it’s at precisely this moment you’ll realise the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 is truly lacking involvement. Through corners with the front end pinned and the rear end coming alive, you want to feel what’s going on – you want the steering to feed you bits of tactile information to allow you to decide upon your next move. Only there is none, and you’re left relying on what you can feel through your backside and your backside alone.
The steering has ample weight, but even twitching Alcantara fibres do little to excite my fingertips. It’s numb, completely anaesthetized.
Because of this, you rely on driving the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 by what you expect to happen rather than by feeling what is happening. You predict – based on past experience – how the car will behave under duress and in certain conditions. It all goes according to plan for the first attempt too, and the second, and the third. But on the fourth it starts responding a little less linearly.
The brakes don’t bite as much – they’ve no doubt been worn out by the brake-based torque vectoring which is still heavily relied upon, albeit less obviously so since the face lift. The tyres don’t quite hang on to the tar like a cat’s claws to a blanket. Sure they’re warmed and taking wear after a few hard corners, but these are high quality Michelin PilotSport 3 tyres, 235/40 in profile on standard 18-inch alloys – they should have grip for days.
Perhaps it speaks more of the suspension which uses the tyres as a shield against the road surface. Even with the adaptive dampers equipped to this particular Mercedes-AMG CLA45, the ride is obnoxiously firm. There’s little give, especially over mid corner bumps, and I fear the tyres giving way speaks more to the suspension’s stubbornness than outright cornering pace taking its toll.
Firm springs, as they are, paired with more forgiving dampers would arguably improve not only the ride quality, but the road-holding at the Mercedes-AMG CLA45’s limits. They’d likely improve the consistency of the CLA45’s responses too, instead of leaving me second guessing whether it will respond how I expect it to.
Following hard driving – even for brief sprints – it’s not just the tyres and brakes that feel less reliable. Race Start – the Mercedes-AMG CLA45’s launch control system – is a truly temperamental piece of kit. It’s a lengthy process to engage, and the slightest deviation, hesitation, or early prompt sees the whole process cancelled. It needs the stars to align too – if the gearbox oil is a degree too hot or too cool, it won’t engage, and if you launch it twice in a row, the gearbox is too hot for a third attempt.
Drive it spiritedly, and once again it may well be too hot to launch. So you need to drive it around gingerly if you hope to beat a Golf R at the next traffic lights, because failure to engage Race Launch sees a glacial limp off the line until the engine reaches full song.
On the more practical bits:
Perhaps with the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 being so cold, it’s for the better that the interior has enough flash and pizzazz to keep you occupied. It looks opulent inside, despite my recurrent gripes about the attachment infotainment screen and trim bits that don’t feel of the utmost quality.
The sports seats look lovely, although do little to curtail the strain on my lower back caused by the suspension. The black leather with red stitching accentuates the same cladding on the dash, whilst the red and black air vent surrounds and red seatbelts complement the whole picture for a rather sporty finish.
The steering wheel is glorious – in this segment I doubt there’s anyone making a steering wheel that feels as lovely to hold as this does – and the AMG branded gear shift lever is pure class – leather clad and hollow through the centre.
But while it looks, and for the most part feels impressive, the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 is a lesson in lack of usability mattering more than theatrical inclusions. Equipped with navigation, 360° cameras, heated fully electronically adjustable seats, cruise control, and items like adjustable dampers and performance exhaust, it’s notable that a basic function like accessing Bluetooth telephony is a tedious task.
Sure, Apple CarPlay is featured, requiring a cable link to use – but Android phones are nigh impossible to connect without spending some serious time working through the system.
In other practical aspects, the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 weighs up fairly averagely. Fuel consumption on the highly strung 2.0-litre turbo motor is about average – consuming a steady average of 9.8l/100km under sedate circumstances. However like all high performance motors, hard driving sees that figure climb substantially. In a Jekyll and Hyde turn of events, the figure climbs to over 20l/100km – again proving how turbochargers really affect fuel economy.
It’s entirely uninvolving to drive, but my word is the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 a rapid point-to-point machine. Between A and B, the roads in between are mere formalities dealt with in the blink of an eye. In the real world rather than a race track, I doubt there are many ways to get about quicker than this – even with the substandard performance in our climate.
There’s much theatre – both of sight and sound. The face lifted visuals complete with faux vents and gaping air intakes matched in excessiveness to the constructed sound that emits from the falsified quad tailpipes. But the theatre is skin deep as the final drive leaves much to be desired in terms of involvement. Hot on the surface, but cold to the touch.
Devoid of feel, but utterly devastating on the road, the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 may well be the most potent point-and-shoot machine this side of the R1-million mark. It’s just a pity it’s so sterile – I’d much rather be driving than manning a gaming console with real life consequences.
Words: Roger Biermann
Pictures: Roarke Bouffe