SI recently had the opportunity to spend the weekend driving someone else’s car. I enjoy this kind of opportunity, and I tend to take advantage of it whenever I can. This is largely because it means I don’t have to put miles on my own car, which is British and therefore might break down if, for example, it senses laughter.
Only this particular car didn’t belong to just any someone else. It was owned by Mercedes-Benz USA, noted creator of holiday-themed television commercials and, occasionally, luxury automobiles. But that’s not even the cool part. Anyone can get a Mercedes-Benz press car. All you have to do is call them and say: “I’m Matt Hardigree. Can I get a press car?” The next day, it’s at your doorstep, and you’ll drive it around for a few hours until it’s time to go retrieve it from the police impound.
So this wasn’t your typical Mercedes-Benz press car. Oh, no. I spent the weekend in a Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG, which is the turbocharged, all-wheel drive, dual-clutch, high-performance version of the entry-level Mercedes in those ads where Willem Dafoe has pointy fingernails. More importantly, it’s one of the best cars I’ve ever driven. And now I’ll explain why, using my typical automotive review strategy: half-truths and poorly researched facts. Here goes.
I’m going to start by talking about the CLA45’s single most important attribute. I know what you’re thinking: exterior styling? Interior styling? The fact that everyone else on the road knows you got the cheap one? No. It’s none of those. The CLA45’s most important attribute is its size.
Why is size so important? Because the CLA45 reminds me of a heyday, back in the late 1990s, when the modern sport sedan was oh-so-perfectly proportioned. Do you remember it? We had that gorgeous “B5” Audi A4, the one that lasted from 1996 to 2001 and included a sporty S4 version that was incredibly cool, provided that you didn’t own it out of warranty. There was the E36 BMW 3-Series and its perfectly balanced M3 variant. And even the C-Class had that handsome, boxy shape and those subtle, understated AMG models. Things were good.
But oh, how times have changed. Today’s 3-Series is the same size as the mid-‘90s 5-Series. Today’s A4 uses a CVT that manages to suck out the last bit of character the stylists didn’t get with their obscenely bland design. And today’s C-Class is driven by the kind of people who don’t really care about anything, except for the lease rate. The sport sedan world is bleak. It’s slow. And it’s large.
And that’s where the CLA45 shines.
No, the CLA45 isn’t built for every possible outing you can think of, like all the others. You won’t want to use it on long trips with your family. You won’t want to buy it for your teenage daughter to take to college. Your grandparents won’t feel comfortable driving it to the grocery store. Plain and simple, this is a sport sedan, built for the kind of people who want sport first, and sedan second.
In fact, when you drive the CLA45, you get the feeling that someone finally zonked Mercedes engineers on the side of the head and told them: Hey you idiots! No one on earth actually uses an M3 sedan to transport four people on a daily basis! And the Mercedes engineers woke up from this in a daze, whereby they decided not to extend every little interior dimension as far as possible so the passenger side rear occupant would be comfortable even if he has a football-shaped goiter on his elbow. The result is that the CLA45 doesn’t have any excess bulk. It’s the old S4 and the old M3 that we all loved so much. It’s a car that gives up nothing in a quest to become as nimble as possible.
And boy, is it ever nimble. When you get behind the wheel of this thing, you won’t be most surprised by the exhaust note, which is fantastic, or the acceleration, which is another word that’s different from fantastic but means the same thing. Maybe tremendous. Instead, you’ll be most surprised by the fact that a car so incredibly fun to drive was built by Mercedes, the same people who approach the M-Class engineering process with the goal of creating a) a handy spot for women to put their purses, and b) a running, driving luxury SUV. In that order.
So the CLA45 handles pretty damn well. And it’s sized like a modern-day E36 M3. So then why, you might ask, would I buy this thing instead of an E36 M3? After all, you can pick up an E36 M3 on Craigslist for like nine grand. In fact, I once did pick up an E36 M3 on Craigslist for like nine grand, and the headliner was kept in place by Office Depot thumbtacks. So you have to be careful with those Craigslist transactions. And if you’re out there driving my old M3, you have to be extra careful, because one of the tacks might fall down and poke out your pupil.
And anyway, there’s a reason you’ll want to pay the huge premium for the CLA45 AMG: technology.
Now, when I say technology, I know a few of you probably get a little nervous. Maybe you’re aware, as I recently learned, that Toyota is now offering an in-car infotainment system that’s capable of purchasing movie tickets. Really. You’re driving down the street and you say: “Camry, I really want to see 3:10 to Yuma tonight!” And the Camry replies: “You idiot, that movie came out six years ago.” So it’s clearly not a perfect system, but I think it’s probably more helpful than an American Express concierge.
But I’m not referring to that kind of technology. I don’t know if the CLA45 AMG can buy you movie tickets, though I do know that it still includes a telephone-style keypad next to the stereo, in case you remember that it’s 1997, and you absolutely must place a call. Be sure to wait for the dial tone.
No, the sort of technology I’m talking about here is the good kind: all-wheel drive. Tight steering. Sport suspension. A dual-clutch transmission that fires off truly instantaneous upshifts. Shift paddles. A thick, flat-bottomed steering wheel. An iPod interface. Navigation. Dual-zone automatic climate control. Heated seats. Curtain side airbags.
What I’m saying here is that the CLA45 manages to do something that no car has ever done before: it takes the best things about the old guard sport sedans – size, handling, performance – and combines them with the best things about modern cars – technology, equipment, safety. It’s the E36 BMW M3 you’d create for yourself, if you had the chance. Except it happens to wear a Mercedes badge.
And that brings us to the best part: the fact that it starts at just $49,000, or $53,000 equipped with every single feature you’ll ever want or need. Forty-nine grand… for a brand-new AMG Mercedes with a dual-clutch transmission, all-wheel drive, and a 0-to-60 time in the four-second range. These are the kinds of things that usually send the MSRP up to a level where you say: “I can’t wait to buy one of those in three or four years, when the prices come down.”
Of course, fifty grand may still seem pricey – until you start looking at the competition. You can hardly get a C63 for under $70,000. Same with a new M3. And while the S4 costs about the same as a CLA45, the Benz has more power, more torque, and – in my opinion – far better handling. Who ever thought we’d live in a world where a Mercedes handles better than an Audi?
Some will bemoan the lack of a stick shift, or the fact that the CLA45’s styling is a bit unusual – and those are certainly legitimate complaints. After all, no car is perfect. But when you consider the big picture, the CLA45 is a truly excellent car. So excellent, in fact, that I think it’s the best car I’ve driven since the time, two years ago, when I got to spend a night with the BMW 1-Series M. And you know what? If given the choice, I might even pick the CLA. After all: it’s nice to have a little practicality in your fun car. Especially if your daily driver is British.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He operates PlaysWithCars.com. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.