Mighty Mite: 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA45 S First Drive Review

A compact class act that packs a potent inline-four and more.

Ed TahaneyWriter, photographerManufacturerPhotos

MUNICH, Germany—On a run through Bavaria and on to snowy Austria in a Jupiter Red example of the all-new Mercedes-AMG CLA45, it's immediately clear the second-generation CLA45 is miles better than the original that Mercedes-Benz rolled out a few years ago. But first things first: We only had access to the S model, which won't make it stateside. Instead, we'll get a less fortified non-S version. Still, there was plenty to learn about our car from the experience.

For example, the latest CLA sees the model growing up—it's no longer the cheapest Mercedes on the block, a title now held by the new A-Class sedan, with which it shares a platform. For 2020, the swoopier compact Benz, at least in AMG guise, gets a special grille with vertical slats, slim headlights, big air intakes, a flat hood with domes, a wider stance, and more aggressive side skirts.

Mercedes's sleek, four-door CLA45 S packs AMG's new M139 turbocharged four-cylinder that delivers an incredible 421 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque from just 2.0 liters of displacement. It mates to an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic, same as it will in our car, which will make do with 382 horses—seven more than America's previous CLA45—and 354 lb-ft. The S variants also sport larger, fatter twin tailpipes (3.5 inches versus 3.2), and four vertical fins on the rear diffuser instead of two. A shear plate is bolted underneath the engine to increase overall stiffness and steering response, and the turbocharger and exhaust manifold are tucked between the engine and the firewall to leave room for intake plumbing up front.

Another difference: The S variant rolls on standard 19-inch AMG wheels versus the U.S. version's 18s. The brakes get a couple of extra pistons up front, too, for a total of six; if our four-piston setup (squeezing 13.8-inch front discs) is 33 percent less effective, they'll still be incredibly capable. Finally, the S's calipers are painted red with black AMG lettering instead of silver with white.

The second-generation CLA45 gets 4Matic+ all-wheel drive and packs a new rear differential that offers not only side-to-side torque vectoring but also a Drift mode that will be optional on our cars. The AMG's suspension upgrades include stiffer coil springs and bespoke dampers for better stability, handling, and body control during aggressive cornering—the car certainly feels more buttoned-down and more eager to turn in than before. The electric power steering is accurate and very responsive, and it provides good road feedback; the weight increases in Sport and Sport+ modes, as well, for those who want a heftier helm.

Our car's optional goodies include an AMG Dynamic Plus package that adds the sportiest suspension tune, the special new AMG steering wheel with mode select knobs that are in fact small screens, even more capable brakes, and Race and Drift modes to the AMG Dynamics software menu. It also bumps the top speed up to 167 mph. Naturally, there are also AMG Aerodynamics and AMG Night packages.

If you've seen an A-class cabin, the CLA's will seem familiar. There are dual widescreen displays, including a 10.25-liter digital instrument cluster, and the center console also receives a new-generation touchpad. Snug and firm black leather sport seats with red stitching and details (S models get yellow instead), chromed air vents, brushed stainless-steel pedals, and 64-color ambient lighting are on the docket, as well.

Among the driving modes are also Slippery, Comfort, and Individual, with the Slippery setting coming in handy as we climbed wet and icy mountain roads by dulling responses and generally causing the CLA45 to comport itself with some decorum. Comfort mode eased the rather stiff sport suspension, while Sport and Sport+ are of course the modes of choice when attacking a dry canyon road or bombing past trucks on the autobahn. The settings also affect the active exhaust flap that's opens depending on throttle position and drive mode, and we'll just say that there are few four-cylinder cars in the world that sound as wicked as this one at full throat.

When it goes on sale later this month, the non-S version of the CLA45 will join the CLA35 AMG, which packs 302 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, and the base, 221-hp CLA250 in Mercedes showrooms. Those that opt for the mightiest model will be pleased indeed, even if it is down on power compared to the one we drove. It's a mighty mite, indeed.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA45 Specifications
ON SALE Late 2019
PRICE $52,000 (est)
ENGINE 2.0L DOHC 16-valve twin-turbo I-4; 382 hp @ 4,750-5,000 rpm, 354 lb-ft @ 4,750-5,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed dual-clutch automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE N/A
DRIVETRAIN Rebuilt F-body T56 with carbon synchros; two-piece driveline; ACT clutch; Truetrac helical limited-slip differential with narrowed 31 splines on 8.8-inch rear differential
WHEELBASE 107.4 in
WEIGHT 3,400 lb (est)
0-60 MPH 4.0 seconds (est)
TOP SPEED 155 mph (mfr)
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