I recently had the chance to drive the Mercedes-AMG CLA45, which I’ve been tremendously excited about, largely because I drove the CLA45 back when it was new and I loved it. For those of you who don’t know the CLA45, here’s a little refresher: it’s the high-performance version of Mercedes-Benz’s entry-level model, the CLA, and it has 355 horsepower and 332 lb-ft of torque — and it’ll do 0-to-60 mph in 4.6 seconds.
This is all very wonderful on paper, especially coupled with a quick-shifting dual-clutch automatic and all-wheel drive, because the whole thing basically seems like the luxury, German version of a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. In other words, here’s a fun, well-sized, high-performance, AWD sedan, and you can toss it around and really push it, except at the end of the day you’re not driving a Mitsubishi with a cheap plastic interior that’s falling apart.
So I drove the CLA45 when it first came out, several years ago, and I was just in love. It was a great car: sized perfectly for actual fun, unlike the always-growing C-Class and E-Class, it was zippy, quick and sharp, and I just really wanted one. Well, five years later, I’ve driven it again, and I’m disappointed.
My drive came courtesy of Turo, which is a service that lets you rent other peoples’ interesting cars instead of normal, boring airport rental cars, and I borrowed it at Denver International Airport for a week in Denver with my family. And my biggest problem came the moment I first started driving the car: it has virtually no equipment.
And I mean no equipment. I can forgive the lack of "keyless go," the system that lets you keep the key in your pocket to unlock the doors. But no sunroof? OK, I can forgive that, too. But no cooled seats? No heated seats? No automatic climate control? No navigation? And here’s the kicker: no backup camera?! The CLA45 I drove was a 2016 model, and the backup camera was eventually mandated by the federal government — and that’s the only reason Mercedes-Benz put it in: to comply with a safety mandate. The rest of this stuff remained optional through 2018, though Mercedes-Benz finally added some of it for 2019 — along with a price increase to $54,000, which puts it within just $3,000 of the Audi RS3.
This soured me on the car from the moment I got in it — that Mercedes-Benz would have the audacity to make the top-end version of any model, even the entry-level model, so low on equipment that it’s only improved when government mandates say it has to. And my opinion didn’t change as I drove it.
Just a few hours into the driving experience, I remembered what I used to love about the car: it’s fast, it’s quick, the steering is sharp. But the problem is that the CLA45 has been out for more than five years now, and the segment has changed radically in that time. The Audi RS3 is out now with better styling, better tech and 50 more hp. The BMW M2 is also up 20 hp — and the new M2 Competition is even further ahead. So the CLA45, while once the segment leader, is starting to show its age.
And it isn’t just that. The lack of tech is appalling, but the driving experience is starting to make its way in that direction, too. The ride quality is far too harsh for a vehicle like this, and several harsh bumps made me let out audible groans of pain and disappointment — something a more modern vehicle would likely overcome. The biggest problem, however, is the immense turbo lag, which is totally unacceptable in a car like this. Back in 2013, when the CLA45 was new and we had no rivals to compare it to, it was the best everyone had seen — better than the Evo, for instance. But now, we’ve seen how power delivery can be smoothed, and this car simply doesn’t have it. Roll on the throttle and you get nothing for a few seconds, then everything, so smooth acceleration is a challenge.
Simply put, the CLA45 needs to get better — and the good news is, it is. Mercedes-Benz has recently announced that a new CLA is on the way, surely with an AMG-tuned CLA45 to follow. Hopefully, that can more closely rival modern segment leaders like the Audi RS3 and the BMW M2, bringing the CLA45 back into contention as a shining star of the growing, and enticing, "small luxury high-performance car" segment.