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2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 4Matic Test Drive: A Sport-Compact Car as It Should Be

This pint-sized performance sedan turns on the charm, even if Mercedes says it’s a coupe.

Billy RehbockWriter, Photographer

Before we even get to the test of the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 4Matic, let's acknowledge the general fact that automotive categories have become rather arbitrary. Another general fact: Humans' desire to apply taxonomy to virtually everything clashes with automakers' desire to define their own products as unique. Case in point, I've just recently gotten over the headache of explaining to commenters across all of Automobile's social media platforms why we called the Cadillac CT4 a BMW 3 Series competitor and not an Audi A3 rival: The CT4 is priced to compete with a segment below its size class— which throws off traditional classification, so there's no single correct answer to such a debate.

Take the notion of a coupe, a body style once defined simply as a two-door vehicle with a sloping rear roofline. The coupe in recent years has come under attack by manufacturers who want to sell sedans to consumers who seem repelled by them. Thus, we bring you the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 4Matic Coupe, a compact sports sedan.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 4Matic Test: Stylish and Sporty

I recently drove a swoopy-roofed Mercedes' rival, the somewhat awkward-looking but also somewhat cool-looking BMW M235i Gran Coupe xDrive, and walked away rather disappointed. But this stylish Mercedes four-door left me with the opposite feeling. Enamored by its elegant bodywork and its bright Sun Yellow paint, I hoped the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 4Matic  I tested would be good the moment it arrived on my street.

Brushed aluminum trim and optional, matte-black 19-inch AMG multispoke wheels ($800) complemented the curvy bodywork with a sportier edge. Mercedes found a way to make the chrome on the backside of the door handles so subtle, it took me days to notice. Inside, the leather seats have cool, dual-tone Nova Gray inserts to match the lighter brushed-aluminum tones and gray door panels.

Although this compact rocket comes across as being quite flashy, it also delivers solid performance. Its 302 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque get to all four wheels by way of a snappy seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. Despite only 1 extra horsepower compared to the M235i xDrive but down 37 lb-ft, the AMG CLA 35 4Matic manages the 0-60-mph sprint in 4.6 seconds, the same amount of time as its cross-country rival.

This acceleration is thrilling and exciting: the exhaust sounds fantastic despite being connected to a 2.0-liter, turbocharged engine. Some may howl this isn't a "real" AMG, and though they may be right in the old "One man, one engine" sense, the CLA certainly has some commendable bad-boy attitude.

The car's steering feels precise, with great weighting that requires just the right amount of effort from a driver; on a winding road, it's easy to tell exactly how much input you need. However, the steering ratio itself feels a bit slow on city streets. It requires more than a half-turn to make 90-degree maneuvers, which I realized was the case when I had to turn wider than I usually do for such moves.

The 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 4Matic rides on a front-wheel-drive-based platform, and it exhibits a whiff of resistance when turning into a corner during more aggressive driving. Otherwise, it's an absolute joy on smooth, twisty roads. "Smooth" is important, though, as bumpy pavement shakes this AMG's occupants to their core. Indeed, the suspension can feel stiff to a fault on imperfect surfaces, with the upside being how much fun the car is to drive in other circumstances.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 4Matic test: Tech and Options

Now's a good time to mention that a stripped-out CLA 35 starts at $47,895; this test car was laden with extra goodies to bring the price up to $61,335. That's a whole lot steeper than the $51,295 2020 BMW M235i xDrive Gran Coupe I tested. The BMW starts at $46,495, but it needs the optional extras to feel complete. Based on the spec sheet, the AMG seems like a solid buy without almost any additional equipment.

A lot of the add-ons were aesthetic or for the interior, such as the AMG steering wheel ($500), complete with microsuede, AMG Night Package ($750) which blacks-out the supporting trim, and the $3,270 AMG Performance Seat Package which seems like a superfluous expense when the standard chairs look plenty supportive. The aluminum trim with longitudinal grain is a free customization, so it's conceivable to build a personalized 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 4Matic without splurging. Special-order customization also incurred a $250 charge.

Standard safety equipment is limited to ABS, active brake assist, and electronic stability control, but our test car had plenty of additional equipment in this department. The upgrades included the Driver Assistance Package ($2,250), a pricey add-on suite that employs what seems like every conceivable precaution outside of full autonomy. Parking assist, however, is a standalone option for $970. Weirdly, side rear airbags are a $420 option.

Mercedes-AMG added additional technology such as wireless charging and NFC pairing for $200. The beefier version of the multimedia package was included for $1,150, but it's probably unnecessary since the 10.25-inch display accommodates Android Auto and Apple CarPlay as standard. The $720 Premium Package also came along for the ride and added keyless entry, auto-dimming, and auto fold-in mirrors. Depending on what you require from a car, these are either must-haves or wastes of money.

Despite this CLA having some equipment I could live without, our test car also came with things for which I would absolutely tick the box. The adaptive AMG Ride Control Sport Suspension, for example, is a must since the ride is so stiff. I'm an avid Sirius XM listener, so I'd probably be a sucker for the $460 SiirusXM inclusion and possibly the $850 Burmester surround system. With those options, my total CLA 35 MSRP comes to $50,055, which is less than the BMW I found so unappealing.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 4Matic Test: No Taxonomy Without Representation

Is the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 4Matic a coupe? No. But put aside the goofy taxonomy, and it's easy to see the CLA 35 as a great choice for those looking to stand out in traffic without forgoing too much practicality. It's unusual today to find vehicles with zero options that seem like complete wins for buyers, but the base starting price for this car delivers the go to match its show.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 4Matic Pros

  • Attractive design
  • Proper pocket rocket
  • Stylish interior

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 4Matic Cons

  • Options quickly make the total price expensive
  • Stiff suspension
  • Slow steering ratio
 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 4Matic Specifications
ON SALE Now
PRICE $47,895 /$61,335 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/302 hp @ 5,800 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 3,000-4,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 21/31 mpg (city/hwy) (est)
L x W x H 184.8 x 72.2 x 55.3 in
WHEELBASE 107.4 in
WEIGHT 3,505 lb
0-60 MPH 4.6 sec
TOP SPEED 155 mph