It's hard to ignore the Mercedes CLA. The all-new sedan is delivering new, younger buyers to the Mercedes brand thanks to an exciting combination of reasonable pricing, bold styling and the same high-end appointments you'd find on a Mercedes that typically costs twice as much. That formula has made the base-level CLA250 a clear success in its first few months on the market. 

But the CLA lineup doesn't stop with the CLA250. We recently had the opportunity to spend time in the all-new 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG, which adds sports-car-like performance to the CLA250's long list of attributes. Here's what we thought. 

Very Fun to Drive 

The CLA45 split opinions on a few topics, such as interior space and styling. But every person who spent time in the car agreed on one issue: It was incredibly fun to drive. 

Acceleration is one strength. Thanks to standard all-wheel drive and a 7-speed dual clutch automatic, the CLA45 speeds off the line with impressive velocity. In fact, the CLA's 0-to-60-miles-per-hour time -- somewhere around 4.3 seconds -- is only slightly behind the V8-powered C63 AMG, Mercedes' other (and more expensive) small sport sedan. 

But it's not just acceleration that impressed us. The CLA45 also shines around corners thanks to perfectly balanced steering, well-tuned sport suspension and immense grip. There's none of the understeer you might expect from a chassis with front-wheel-drive architecture, and oversteer is similarly nonexistent. 

A few other factors also made it enjoyable to get behind the wheel. One was the muscular exhaust note, complete with a race car-like "pop" noise whenever the car would upshift under hard acceleration. The other was the CLA45's transmission, which is one of the best dual clutches around. It's so good, in fact, that you almost forget about how nice it would be to have the car with a stick shift. 

Not Perfect 

While the CLA45 was very enjoyable to drive, it had a few flaws. Some staffers -- and passengers -- didn't love the car's styling, as it's hardly as aggressive as other AMG models. Yes, there's a body kit, big wheels, quad exhausts and flared fenders, as you'd expect from an AMG car, but the CLA's starting point is a small sedan with sweeping lines. That means even the AMG version doesn't look as bold as some sport-minded drivers might want. 

Another issue was interior space. There's no doubt that tall drivers will have to make a lot of adjustments to the seat before finding a comfortable position. Otherwise, it's easy to hit your head on the headliner when going over a bump or turning to check your blind spot. Meanwhile, the back seat is certainly smaller than rivals such as the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes' own C-Class. 

Some drivers also felt that the interior wasn't quite up to Mercedes-Benz standards -- especially given the $55,000-plus price tag of our test vehicle. While we all agreed the red seat belts were a fun novelty, some drivers thought the car's panel gaps were too large, and certain surfaces felt -- and looked -- inexpensive. And there were a few complaints about the center-mounted infotainment screen, which looks like it was tacked on rather than fully integrated into the car's center stack. 

Overall Impressions 

Most of us came away impressed with the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG. Its price tag -- $49,000 to start, or more than $55,000 equipped like our test car -- is a bargain compared to vehicles such as the BMW M3 or Mercedes' own C63 AMG, which cost tens of thousands more but don't offer much better performance. Most rivals don't include all-wheel drive, either. And while the CLA45 certainly has a few flaws, shoppers interested in a high-performance sedan with an upscale image will have a tough time making a better choice than the CLA45 AMG.

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Doug DeMuro has a wide range of automotive industry experience, from work at a Ferrari dealership to a manager for Porsche North America. A lifelong car enthusiast, Doug's eclectic vehicle purchases include a Porsche 911 Turbo, an E63 AMG wagon, an old Range Rover and a Mercedes Benz G-wagen.

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