The 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG riffs on the attractively priced, $29,900 CLA250 with a thorough, performance-focused reworking of the compact sedan.

With a starting price of $47,450 -- a considerable premium over the standard CLA250 model -- does the new CLA45 AMG deliver enough driving satisfaction to warrant its 60 percent price hike?

How to Cope With Power, AMG Style

The standard CLA250 delivers solid, predictable handling via a front-wheel-drive platform, which is a first-time offering for North American Mercedes-Benz buyers. While the available 4Matic version delivers sportier, more balanced handling, the AMG version takes full advantage of the 4Matic's all-wheel-drive layout to pump more oopmh onto the road via all four wheels. 

And when it comes to output, the CLA45 AMG's engine is quite the powerhouse, delivering 355 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque, making this pint-sized sedan the most powerful 4-cylinder in the world. As for specific output (that is, the amount of horsepower produced per liter of engine displacement), the CLA45 AMG's turbocharged 2.0-liter mill is the second-highest performer in the world, churning 177.5 hp/liter, second only to the 7-figure McLaren P1 supercar.

According to Mercedes-Benz, the CLA45 can launch to 60 miles per hour in 4.5 seconds. Along with the requisite power boost come other mechanical upgrades, including a reworked 7-speed dual-clutch transmission, tighter suspension and steering, louder engine exhaust and beefier brakes.

... Plus, the Usual AMG Trimmings. Sorta.

An AMG wouldn't be an AMG if it didn't have the looks to match its spec sheet, and the CLA45 backs up its performance with more aggressive bodywork and trim, more heavily bolstered seats and higher-spec finishes.

While red-blooded driving enthusiasts will likely enjoy details such as crimson-on-black stitching and colorful seat belts, luxury fanatics may find some details fall short -- for instance, the plushness of the Alcantara or how the door panel meets the interior edges of the C-pillar.

While the CLA45 is a notable step up from the CLA250 in terms of interior finishes and comes across as a more special experience for the driver and passengers, it doesn't quite compare to its more luxurious AMG stablemates residing farther up the Mercedes-Benz food chain.

Road (and Track) Manners

Our street test of the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG covered the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, which features some of the most militantly policed stretches of public roads in America. As such, we were limited by 35-mph speed limits and a healthy fear of local law enforcement.

While the suspension felt stiff and noncompliant on bumpy city roads, the glassy smooth tarmac of the Parkway revealed responsive handling and impressive grip. Power from the diminutive turbocharged 4-cylinder doesn't feel explosive or untamed but smooth and progressive, with a strong urgency thanks to the flexibility of the 7-speed gearbox. The transmission tends to be jerky during stop-and-go traffic, though its adaptive tuning seemed to soften up gear shifts when we simmered our driving style down. As with many performance-focused gearboxes, harder driving yields quicker shifts, which makes the CLA45 feel more in its element when it's being driven like it was stolen.

To push its limits further than we felt comfortable doing on public roads, we hot-lapped the CLA45 at the Streets of Willow track several weeks later in the California desert. Unlike public roads, where the CLA45 felt quick and competent, on the track the small AMG's capabilities seemed less substantial. Because the all-wheel-drive system is tuned to only divert a maximum of 50 percent of power to the rear wheels (and defaults to 100 percent toward the front unless conditions warrant otherwise), the pumped-up CLA didn't quite feel in its element on the tight turns of the track. The handling that seemed sharp and controlled on public roads felt softer and less sporty at Willow, especially when pushed harder, though engine power was satisfyingly strong. While overall grip levels were still impressively high, the car's performance envelope didn't feel quite as buttoned down as it could have been, due to the body roll and the limitations of the front-wheel-drive platform.

AutoTrader Says

The standard CLA250 enters new territory for Mercedes-Benz, taking a stab at conquest buyers who wouldn't necessarily feel deep-pocketed enough to join the ranks of triple-pointed star owners otherwise. Starting at just under $30,000 before destination charge, the CLA250 is a tempting choice thanks to its strong value proposition and distinctive styling. The CLA45 AMG? Well, that's a harder sell, not only because of its $47,450 starting price, but because the total spend can swell to around $60,000 -- a much richer territory for fast, attractive cars.

While Mercedes-Benz fans will find plenty to enjoy with the CLA45 AMG, driving enthusiasts seeking a more hardcore, track-focused sedan will want to take a closer look at the competition.

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author photo

Basem Wasef is an automotive journalist, author, and photographer with two coffee table books under his belt, and is a regular contributor to Popular Mechanics, Robb Report, and Maxim among others. When Basem isn't traveling the globe testing vehicles, he enjoys calling Los Angeles home.

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