How Is This a Real Car?

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LOS ANGELES—If you take away just one thing from this test, or any test of the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45, let it be the fact you can waltz into your local Mercedes-Benz dealership—a painfully modern monolith of swooping metal trim and slick black surfaces clogged with a neatly arranged legion […]

LOS ANGELES—If you take away just one thing from this test, or any test of the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45, let it be the fact you can waltz into your local Mercedes-Benz dealership—a painfully modern monolith of swooping metal trim and slick black surfaces clogged with a neatly arranged legion of black, silver, or white SUVs—and drive out in an all-wheel-drive, Corolla-sized AMG sedan. A sedan with a 382-horsepower, four-cylinder engine under the hood, and a 50,000-mile warranty in the glovebox. Why is no one talking about this? Am I going crazy? Maybe I’ll start wearing a sandwich board scrawled with “Two-point-oh turbo, three-eighty-two,” and scream through a bullhorn at people attending my nearest Cars and Coffee.

The easy answer as to why there isn’t an ongoing uproar over the climbing four-cylinder figures is likely due to power saturation across the board. When most performance-oriented four-cylinders are at least at the 250-hp mark, with a good portion climbing close to or beyond the 300-hp barrier, 382 hp in a pricey AMG toy is a foregone conclusion. Heck, extend the timeline out far enough, and there may be a time when we’re ho-hum at the latest 550 hp three-cylinder Honda Civic. Unlikely, but try and explain our current nonchalance to time travelers who just arrived from 1980, and take note of the looks on their faces.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45: It’s Real—Somehow

Regardless, the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 exists right now, and it’s wild—even if you understand the goalposts are already in motion. For now, the Mercedes-AMG CLA 45, GLA 45, and not-for-Americans A 45 stand tall on the podium for the most powerful production four-cylinder engines, ever. If you’re going to topple it, 382 hp isn’t even the goal—the rest of the world is having a ball with the wacko Bizarro World A 45 S tune of the M139 engine that boosts output to a mental 416 hp, giving it a bonkers 208-hp per liter, or 104-hp per cylinder.

Remember—all of this in a car with roughly the same footprint as the aforementioned Toyota Corolla. Now that I’ve wiped the froth from my mouth, here’s the full drivetrain breakdown before we get into how this bundle of M-80 firecrackers actually drives. Indeed, the M139 turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is the CLA45’s party piece, putting out a tremendous 382 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque. Power goes to all-four wheels through an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission, and the latest version of Mercedes’ 4Matic+ AWD system.

All of this is, of course, accompanied by the requisite speed-enhancing hardware, including sticky Michelins, AMG-spec suspension and chassis reinforcements, and beefy, cross-drilled four-piston 13.8-inch brakes in the front and 13-inch single-piston brakes in the rear. All of this weaponry adds weight, as do all of the CLA platform’s interior finery that’s mostly befitting of the tri-pointed star up front. As a result, the CLA is heavier than you might expect a car of this size, with base curb weights coming in at around 3,700 pounds.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45: Who Is It For?

Ah, but don’t fret—this is where all of that power comes into play. According to Mercedes, the non-S CLA 45 like the one we tested cracks 0-to-60-mph in 4.0-seconds and crests 155 mph, and 168 mph if you opt for the AMG Driver’s Package that raises the speed limiter. Stellar stuff for something that is Volkswagen GTI-sized, but despite my hair-tearing and teeth-gnashing, is apparently right-on-the-money for the segment. Remember, the Audi RS3 is still kicking around as of this writing. As sucky as it feels to not get the CLA 45 S for a test drive here in the U.S., the RS3 and its 2.5-liter turbo-five clears an impressive 400 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque, splitting the difference between the two trims of this Mercedes. BMW brings up the rear of the pack with the 301-hp M235i Gran Coupe, but that’s the half-caff version of the M2 Gran Coupe that’s surely on the horizon.

These are weird cars, these (relatively) expensive, pint-sized four-door hotshots. You have to wonder who’s buying them, especially since the fully loaded 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 I tested carried a $77,000 sticker price—roughly $9,000 more than a stripper C 63, and around $2,000 more than a base C 63 S. Sure, you get a whole lot more bells and whistles in the loaded-out CLA, but if you’re an enthusiast, wouldn’t you rather have the 4.0-liter, twin-turbo V-8 C 63?

The C-Class is also more comfortable, refined, and retains a higher level of material use throughout the cabin. After all, no matter how much you dress the CLA up, it’s a glitzy version of an entry-level car. The $55,000 base model of the CLA 45 makes a whole lot more sense, even if you start to add some options to it, so I’m going to assume the loaded example I drove is an extreme case, and most CLA 45s are mid-grade-spec lease vehicles.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45: Backroad Smasher

After spending a week testing the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 by blitzing around Southern California, the mouth-frothing begins again. The 2.0-liter is far and away the angriest, tautest, most high-strung production engine I’ve driven in the past decade. It feels positively spec-ops in nature—that is, decidedly non-production. After one particularly aggressive charge through the Malibu canyons, I pulled over and popped the hood, half expecting to see a bay filled with a dull metal valve cover, braided hoses, and anodized aluminum fitments as you would on a grimy Group B special. That, or a recently shaken mason jar filled with hornets and meth smoke.

For lack of a better term, this car rips when put to the test. There’s discernable turbo lag from the no-doubt sizable snail providing all that juice, and when it finally spools and peak torque arrives around 4,750 rpm, you set off like a spooked rabbit. The dual-clutch gearbox  smacks-off predictably wicked-quick shifts, regardless if you choose to shift it yourself via the steering-wheel paddles or if you let the computer do the thinking. Speaking of computers, the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45’s drive systems are the same as those found in the rest of the AMG family, as are the max-attack Race and Drift modes that come as an optional extra with the AMG Dynamic Plus package, accessed in this case through the trick AMG Drive Unit with integrated microdisplays mounted on the steering wheel.

In the best way possible, beating on the CLA 45 feels like it’s about to blow a piston straight through its hood. Like all other AMGs, it spits, snorts, and cracks on the overrun; I’m sure it’s programmed-in, but this throat-clearing seems more genuine than those burps from the C 63 et al. Dynamically, it lands on the more digital side of the spectrum, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a whole heap of fun. Steering is light and lacks great feel, but turn-in is sharp and intuitive, as are the overly grabby but powerful and mostly fade-free brakes.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45: Compact Crusher

Man, you can cover some serious ground in this little thing. Ferocious grip from both the Michelins and all-wheel-drive system encourage late-braking corner dive-bombs deep enough to short-out a WRX bro’s favorite vape and curl his flat-brim hat. Like the aforementioned Subaru WRX—and WRX STI by extension—much of the CLA 45’s enjoyment comes from the ridiculous cornering speed and frenetic small-displacement mill under the front hood. Once on the straight and narrow, bury the throttle and detonate all over again.

Things aren’t as fun once you take a few breaths and move back into the slurry of testing day-to-day traffic. Even with this example’s optional adaptive suspension, Los Angeles’ craggy, broken roads and strange mid-road drainage ditches overwhelm any soft-sprung damping, and lend a somewhat crashing ride to the short-wheelbase, low-profile CLA 45. In bumper-to-bumper congestion, the transmission is prone occasionally to rough shifts and minor confusion, especially when you brake hard for a changing light or a stopped car.

Inside, the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 certainly looks the part, even if you take a magnifying glass to the spaces in-between the AMG-specific trim and perforated upholstery. Entry-level luxury cars—even when loaded-out—often betray their roots when approached at a granular level, but this generation of both A-Class and CLA-Class are tidy little vehicles with a minimal amount of hard plastics and obvious cost-cutting measures. Really, the interior of this $77,000 example appears as well-equipped as a $90,000 C 63, with some minor trim differences.

It didn’t take long during this test to figure out the most powerful production four-cylinder engine is big, big fun on a small, angry scale. Please, Mercedes—give us Yanks a crack at the CLA 45 S. If it helps, I promise double-duty shifts in the sandwich board on the street corner of your choice.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA45 Quick Facts

  • Features the most powerful production four-cylinder engine of all time
  • S. gets shafted, doesn’t get the full 416-hp S version
  • Wicked-quick, eight-speed dual-clutch transmission
  • Rally-bred cornering speed
  • Fun comes from absurd grip, tiny angry engine
2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 Specifications
ON SALE Now
PRICE $55,795/$77,685 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 2.0L twin-turbo DOHC 16-valve 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 20/29 mpg (city/hwy)
WHEELBASE 107.4 in
WEIGHT 3,660 lb
0-60 MPH 4.0 sec
TOP SPEED 155 mph

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