Preview: 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG
Compact, agile four-cylinder joins the supercharged club
HANOVER, GERMANY?Our drive route takes us through a land of fairy tales. Surrounding us are the towering forests and pastoral villages in which the beloved fables of the Brothers Grimm were reportedly set.
Last December marked the 200th anniversary since the first publishing of Grimm?s Fairy Tales, and the car that we?re driving is also a milestone of sorts.
For the first time in its 45-year history, the AMG performance arm of Mercedes-Benz, known for their bellowing eight cylinder engines, has produced a vehicle powered by a turbo-charged four-cylinder. Not only that, but the 2014 CLA 45 AMG represents another radical departure for this venerable marque: It rides on a front-biased platform and features all-wheel-drive.
Some AMG fans may recoil in horror at the introduction of a compact four-cylinder into the lineup. Let?s take a look at the details. From that humble 2.0-litre engine is somehow squeezed the highest output of any turbo-charged production four-pot in the world: 335 horsepower and 332 lb. ft. of torque. That?s 147 horsepower over the regular CLA. That prodigious torque, available from 2,250 rpm, and turbo boost that?s been cranked up to an astonishing 26 psi, produce an immediate responsiveness that?s virtually free of turbo-lag.
That probably won?t mollify the hard-core AMG crowd, who embrace with great fervour the hairy-chested brute presence that the brand has so far represented.
But it does offer a new alternative for those who prefer a little agile manageability in their sports cars.
Which, truth be told, has been somewhat absent in their large powerful cruisers.
And it offers another first of sorts as well: although Canadian prices have yet to be determined, the CLA 45 AMG will start at $47,000 in the U.S., which makes this premium brand suddenly more attainable for a lot more buyers.
AMG Chairman Ola K?llenius describes the car as a ?gateway to Gen Y,? as it is designed to attract younger folks, who, up until now, were unable to afford AMG.
Visually, the 45 AMG is a more aggressively turned-out version of the regular CLA. Its swooping lines are transformed by side skirts and a more aggressive front fascia featuring the twin-blade grill of the halo-car, gull-wing SLS AMG. Large gaping intakes add ferocity, and the rear fascia frames twin tailpipes.
K?llenius told us designers presented him with ?over a dozen? rim choices before he finally signed off on the 16-spoke examples that show off the optional red callipers. While 18-inch wheels come standard, our testers wore optional 19-inchers that were part of a special ?Driver?s Package.?
The cabin, too, is a cut above the regular CLA, with several features available only as upgrades on the mainstream vehicle. More aggressively bolstered front seats are ?Artico? leather-upholstered and provide more lateral support when cornering. The flat-bottomed sport steering wheel is leather, wrapped with Nappa suede grips, and features 12 multifunction switches.
Ambient lighting, stainless steel foot pedals and door sills, brushed aluminum trim and contrasting red stitching are all standard 45 AMG features.
Optional AMG upgrades include carbon-fibre trim, performance seats and the aforementioned red callipers and larger wheels. There?s also an AMG performance suspension and exhaust package for those who, in K?llenius?s words, ?want to get really crazy.?
On the centre console, the driver-selectable mode button toggles between Comfort, Sport or Manual. The first, and more sedate, option not only returns better fuel economy, but shows consideration for the neighbours by keeping the exhaust note in check. The other two settings open the exhaust flap unleashing a guttural pop and snarl, and add snap to the 7-speed dual-clutch AMG transmission.
The 45?s compact size was perfectly suited to the lovely winding ribbon of pastoral North-Central Germany. The narrow width and lack of shoulder present a challenge to a larger car. The lively chassis makes this one of the more nimble and fun-to-drive models in the AMG lineup. Fitted with the lower and stiffer AMG performance suspension which has front springs that are 20 per cent stiffer and rear springs that are 22 per cent stiffer, our tester is an absolute delight to toss around the curves.
Seats are comfortable and provide plenty of leg room up front, but the swooping roofline provides rear head room. It?s very quiet, with not much wind noise or road noise, and very little of the raspy exhaust note intrudes into the cabin.
While more pliant in Comfort mode, the ride is still taut enough to keep body roll to a minimum.
Switch it over to Sport, and the twisty forest roads become a thing of joy. If the 45 AMG doesn?t bellow like its 8-cylinder counterparts, the 4-cylinder?s pop and burble is still quite satisfying. Paddle shifters can be used in any of the three modes. Only during ?Manual? does the gearbox rely on them fully.
We were able to fully appreciate the CLA 45 AMG?s sure-footed-ness over several laps of the Bilster-Berg, a brand-new private racetrack inspired by the formidable N?rburgring.
Almost four and a half kilometres featuring off-camber blind turns and dramatic changes in elevation, the track was an extremely challenging test for car and driver.
While the 45?s default mode is as a front-wheel driver, the 4Matic AWD kicks in at the first sign of slippage. Normally, this will constitute a 50-50 split, but extreme loss of grip, such as on high-speed cornering, can send 100 per cent of the power to the rear. Despite being a front-driver, the 45 shows little tendency to understeer.
Although the stability system can be completely shut off, I was happy to leave it on; feeling the car?s end grow light during some of the Bilster-Berg?s more precarious off-camber turns left me more than grateful for their intervention.
A rather forgiving car, the CLA 45 AMG is well-positioned as a conquest vehicle for AMG. As it is not too big, nor too expensive, the millenials, in the manner of Goldilocks, may find it?s ?just right.?
2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG
Price: TBA, but probably about $50,000
Engine: 2.0L turbo-charged four
Power/Torque: 335 hp; 332 lb. ft. of torque
Fuel Consumption L/100 km: 6.9 to 7.1 combined
Competition: Audi S3, BMW I35i M
What?s Best: Impressive power output.
What?s Worst: Limited rear head room.
What?s interesting: With launch mode engaged, it goes 0-100 km/h in 4.6 seconds, which is faster than some supercars.