This could be a very good year for performance cars — a banner year, in fact — because we’re seeing the introduction of some compact cars that are set to redefine what compact car performance is all about.
While some observers have lamented the grudge match currently being waged by the big three German “mass-market” luxury carmakers, these same people have to acknowledge that the results, in certain cases, have been outstanding.
In late 2014, Audi announced that the S3 sedan, the high-performance variant of their dynamite compact car, was coming to North American soil for the very first time. Powered by a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder that develops 300 hp, the S3 can spin to 100 km/h in a reported 5.1 seconds. A quick drive through the mountainous roads north of Monte Carlo late last fall proved that the little Audi is, simply, great fun to drive.
Very early this year, we saw the introduction of the BMW M235i Coupe, the spiritual successor to the incredible 1M of a few years ago. The littlest M also has a turbocharged engine — in this case, a 3.0L inline-six that pushes out 322 hp. The BMW conducts the sprint from a dead stop to 100 km/h in five seconds flat. While the M235i may have less power than the 1M, it’s also lighter, larger and a better all-around fit for most people. In other words, another serious player.
To complete this triumvirate of terror, we have the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG, the undisputed powerhouse of them all. The twin-scroll turbocharged, 2.0L four-cylinder nestled under that striking hood is the most powerful production four-banger on the market. With 355 hp, the accent here is clearly on “banger.”
When compared to the BMW and the Audi, the CLA 45 is the clear straight-line champion. Its estimated 0-100 km/h time is a scant 4.6 seconds. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: as soon as a car breaks the five-second barrier for acceleration, it’s like a whole new world opens up — a world where outright performance trumps all other considerations.
This is definitely true of the CLA 45. In addition to that rip-snorting engine, the little sedan features a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, 4MATIC permanent all-wheel drive, AMG sports suspension, a braking system with cross-drilled and vented discs on all four corners, and a sports exhaust system, the means by which all that rip-snorting is released into the atmosphere. The thing even has a launch control system.
Of the three cars mentioned, the Mercedes is, for sure, the least forgiving.
The ride is firm. The AMG sport seats are very firm. The handling is crisp. The AMG body kit, which transforms the base CLA into something far more than the sum of its parts, also gives the car very low ground clearance, meaning care must be taken over speed bumps — or any type of bump, for that matter.
This combination of qualities is great if you happen to take the Mercedes to the nearest racetrack for some all-out lapping sessions. In everyday driving situations, though, this same combination could grow tedious. Another example: the coupe-like shape of the CLA in AMG trim is handsome enough and it hints at performance underneath the skin, but it also makes the back seat very tricky to access for any passengers within the normal range of height. This makes the CLA AMG less friendly than the S4, but more useable than the two-door M235i.
Aside from this spatial issue, the passenger cabin will meet with the approval of many a serious driving enthusiast. The sport seats are, as mentioned, very firm, but they’re also very supportive. On the version tested, the seat belts were vibrantly mismatched with the rest of the interior, which was largely black.
The cabin features a flat-bottomed steering wheel, metallic paddle shifters, an aluminum pedal set and striking metallic touches in various corners. On the downside, there’s a distinct lack of soft-touch materials to be found, which seems to be a reflection of the CLA being the least expensive of the AMG offerings at $49,800.
It shouldn’t be expected that the CLA AMG would match the higher-end Benzes in terms of quality, but there are certainly other cars in this price range that create a better impression when it comes to interior luxury. Of course, this Mercedes isn’t the first car in history to sacrifice luxury materials in exchange for sheer performance — and the engine of the CLA 45 AMG alone is worth the price of admission.
The only question is, at that price, what will the average car buyer think? This is a tough call because an MSRP of around $50K puts the Mercedes into some heady company, including the aforementioned Audi and BMW, as well as the likes of the Subaru WRX STI.
Without a doubt, the base CLA is intended to bring new customers to the brand—they expect this demographic to account for an expected 70% of buyers, according to some reports. Similarly, the CLA 45 AMG is meant to introduce new customers to the high-performance arm of Mercedes-Benz. I think it will do that, no question, I just wonder how much more successful it would be in this endeavour if the car cost, say, $2,000 less.