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2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 First Drive

Mercedes-Benz News South Africa

Posted Dec 13, 2019  
26328 Visits
The White Spar Highway in Arizona features long, pristinely paved sweepers carved through mountainous high desert terrain. It even has four lanes in certain places, which is perfect for passing the parade of horse trailers leaving the nearby equestrian paradise of Wickenburg, but also pretty clutch for keeping your speed through that aforementioned sinuous collection of turns. The 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 is made for roads like this.

It's small, feels balanced and stays flat, while its all-wheel-drive system achieves a neutral, drama-free attitude while powering through and out of corners. Its 302 horsepower turbo-four is plentiful for this hilly terrain, while the AMG-tuned dual-clutch automated manual smartly downshifts exactly when it should when braking hard into corners. There's even a bit of audible razzle-dazzle courtesy the standard AMG exhaust that gets louder as the selected driving mode gets sportier. You can and will have some fun in this car.

The trouble is, the rest of the time is less peachy. The CLA 35 is the first AMG car introduced with the number "35," and like other AMG-lite offerings in recent years, represents a less hardcore (and expensive) variant for those who don't need or want the mas caliente model, in this case, the CLA 45. By comparison, the CLA 35 will undoubtedly be the more livable, civilized car – but it's still unpleasantly loud, transmitting abundant tire noise into the cabin when driven on all but the sort of pristine pavement found on White Spar Highway. That's not the case with the CLA 250, also on hand here in Arizona.

While the 35's suspension isn’t as harsh as other hardcore AMG offerings, or any flavor of the previous-generation CLA, the CLA 35 could never be described as plush. You feel every road imperfection, and poorly paved roads get old quick. Note that we tested a car with the optional Adaptive Damping System that constantly varies itself to meet road conditions and provides three firmness settings. Among those, Comfort just didn't live up to its name.

There's also the matter of the CLA's principal functional flaw – a dearth of rear headroom – but many will view that as an acceptable tradeoff for a sleek, tapered roofline that contributes to truly fetching styling. However, the main issue is price. As tested, our CLA 35 cost $64,455. Good grief. Could some of the copious options have been left off the order sheet? Sure, but even a more modest selection of extras above the $47,895 base price would leave the CLA 35 running smack into the territory of a base Mercedes-AMG C 43, which is bigger, quicker and not exactly sparsely equipped. Now, to be fair, the newer 2020 CLA-Class is more technologically advanced than the C-Class, benefitting from the superior new MBUX infotainment system and Mercedes’ latest array of safety tech. And the CLA is arguably prettier outside and more modern inside. That said, it's still a lesser model, and buyers in the luxury segment tend to be very conscious of model hierarchy.

Well, if your answer to that is, "Who cares, I'm not a snob!" then here's a deeper dig into what you'll be getting from the AMG-fettered CLA. Visually, it gets a double-strake grille bar rather than a single one, complete with accompanying AMG badging. There's a subtly different front bumper and rear diffuser insert, and a pair of round tailpipes. Honestly, it can be a difficult telling CLA 250 and CLA 35 apart. The interior's a little easier. There are AMG-specific designs for the all-digital instrument panel and a chunky flat-bottomed AMG steering wheel that can be upgraded with a Porsche-like rotary drive mode selector. "Dinamica" suedecloth comes standard on the seats, and can be added elsewhere to the interior along with red piping, stitching and seat belts. We'd highly recommend the $3,390 AMG Performance Seats by Recaro that are grippy, supportive and perfectly lower the base CLA's too-high driving position.

Mechanically, the 2.0-liter turbo inline-four is based on the same new "M260" engine found throughout Mercedes' latest front-drive-based lineup, but is tuned for AMG use to produce 302 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Mercedes says it'll go from zero to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, with a standard "Race-Start" launch control setting there to help you achieve it. By contrast, the CLA 250 produces 221 hp, 258 lb-ft and will hit 60 mph in 6.3 seconds. On the other end of the bookshelf, the CLA 45 pumps out 382 hp, 354 lb-ft and crosses the finish line in 4 seconds. Basically, the CLA 35 is "ample" to the 250's "sufficient" and the 45's "nutty." Goldilocks? Maybe.

If anything, though, the AMG rendition of the CLA's dual-clutch automated manual is the more beneficial performance-oriented enhancement than just the extra power. The Sport+ mode is so good about downshifting when you want it to that the AMG-exclusive galvanized metal paddle shifters are basically moot. The result is a more visceral experience than a CLA 250 can achieve.

The AMG Performance 4Matic variable all-wheel drive system can operate purely as a front driver or send as much as 50% of available power to the rear, a variation controlled through an electro-mechanically controlled clutch in the rear axle intended to react quicker to sensor inputs. There's also the AMG Dynamics system, which effectively creates torque-vectoring at the rear axle by pinching the inside rear brakes when cornering. The amount of that pinching increases in the Sport driving modes.

The AMG 35's front body shell was strengthened with an aluminum plate mounted under the engine and two additional diagonal braces to ensure better turn-in ability and chassis stability. The basic MacPherson strut design up front remains the same, but the wishbone is aluminum to reduce unspring mass, while the front steering knuckle is unique to the AMG. The rear suspension is shared with the AMG 45. The brakes up front are new four-piston monoblock fixed caliper units with 13.8-inch discs, while the rear gets one-piston sliding calipers and 13-inch discs. All discs are ventilated and perforated, while the calipers are painted silver and festooned with "AMG" in black.

The variable ratio steering rack is also different from what you'd get in a CLA 250, and although the differences between the two weren't evident when driven two days apart, we can at least report that the AMG's precise, consistently weighted set-up transmits sufficient info from those grippy-yet-loud tires. Mercedes knows how to do steering well, and that acumen has been transferred just as ably to the CLA 35.

From a dynamic perspective, then, the AMG CLA 35 succeeds at being a more exciting and interesting upgrade over its CLA 250 sibling. And like every 2020 CLA-Class, it's massively improved over what came before, especially in terms of its interior design and quality. It's a genuine luxury vehicle now. And, when compared to the only vehicle that can remotely serve as an apples-to-apples competitor, the Audi S3, it offers similar straight-line performance, but superior driver engagement, sharper style and a much longer list of available features. However, sometimes a car can be fun, pretty and smack down its competition and still be an iffy purchase proposition. Its everyday livability and value relative the C-Class make the CLA 35 one of those cars.

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