All photos by Peter Nelson
The FWD-biased, AWD luxury compact appears to be a slowly-growing segment in the new car market. For consumers who are after traditional, 4-door small car offerings, instead of compact crossovers (whether by creed, or by dimensional familiarity), and also want a solid amount of luxury and tech, there is quite a bit to choose from, especially coming from Germany in the area of $45,000-60,000.
Being FWD-biased AWD, the tail won’t kick out in any scenarios that might frighten everyday commuters, consumers in colder climates will trudge through the snow a bit easier, and these cars provide a planted, secure experience when taking off from stop lights, cornering, and weaving through traffic.
We recently got our hands on BMW's offering in this segment: the 2020 BMW M235i xDrive Gran Coupe. It was a good car, but a tad underwhelming. Then, test fleet scheduling worked out quite well, as we were able to get our mitts on the BMW’s direct competitor just a few days after we gave it back: the 2020 Mercedes Benz AMG CLA35 4Matic.
What makes the Benz a direct competitor? They’re both powered by 2-liter twin-scroll turbo 4-cylinder engines making around 300 horsepower, they both possess FWD-biased AWD, they’re both compacts (technically they’re called subcompacts, but they each weigh more than 3,500 pounds… give us a break), they both have quick-shifting automatic transmissions, they both reach 60 MPH from a standstill in around 4.5-5 seconds, and they’re both built in…
Er, scratch that last bit: the BM is built in Leipzig, Germany, the Merc is built outside of Budapest, Hungary. Still, this is a good ol’ fashion Bavarian Roundel versus Baden-Württemberg Three-Point rivalry if we’ve ever seen one. We were excited to see how the AMG stacks up!
Thanks to Mercedes Benz USA for lending us the AMG CLA35 for this review. The base price for our tester was $46,900, then after adding a few performance, tech, and safety options, the all-day price came to $61,335. The bright yellow paint was a no-cost option as well, which we found to be a nice gesture by a company who’s well-known for their silver and black palette.
Exterior and Interior: A Cut Above
Walking up to the CLA35 AMG, after its bright yellow paint shrunk our pupils in the bright Southern California sun, we instantly noticed its athletic lines and contours. Going further, observing its larger doors with smaller windows, muscular front grille, race-car inspired accents, and low-and-wide stance, our instant thought was “is this the 2020 version of the 190 Evo Cosworth?” Obviously that’s quite subjective, but in the sense of sporty, enthusiastic-4-cylinder-powered, 4-door compacts, good marks for MB for helping us conjure up this thought.
The attention to sporty detail continues inside. The AMG Performance Seats by Recaro were firm, comfortable buckets with a fixed headrest that sat nice and low. Our next instant thought after cozying up in them, was “could we run a Schroth Rallye Cross harness through this seat’s holes?” The seating position was quite sports-car-like; not low-slung, but they made us feel as if we were hunkered down in the car. The seats’ height, track, and angle were adjustable via the upper door card like all Benzes, further adjustment resided in one of the MBUX infotainment screens (more on the glory of MB’s MBUX infotainment system later). Ingress and egress was very easy for having sporty Recaros as well. The CLA had a nice, driver-centric driving position, with all kinds of buttons and access to the dash and infotainment screens available on the alcantara-clad steering wheel.
All surfaces were of a substantial, solid quality, especially the door cards and dashboard, which we couldn’t keep our fingers off of at stoplights. The leather accents and brushed aluminum trim were no-cost options, too. Topping off the interior as a very nice place to be, our tester came equipped with an absolutely-massive sunroof (topping off pun intended). We’re normally pretty take-it-or-leave-it with sunroofs, but this one was quite pleasant when peeled open.
Trunk cargo room is good at 11.6 cubic feet, which goes up exponentially when the rear seats are dropped. Backseat space wasn’t too bad; the backseat had a bit more headroom than its BMW M235i Gran Coupe competitor, and legroom was a tad better as well. Though, one gripe we had was the backseat area felt a bit cavernous; between the substantial c-pillar and large front seats, rear passengers might get a tad claustrophobic.
Ahead of the Curve in the Tech Department
The backup camera was among the best we’ve utilized, and the active safety features included in the DA2 Driver Assistance Package, like Active Steering Assist, Active Blind Spot Assist, Active Lane Keeping Assist, Active Lane Change Assist, Active Emergency Stop Assist, Active Distance Assist, or, DISTRONIC, were all very good, to the point of having to tone some of them down a tad in MBUX. Speaking of toning down, Mercedes sure hasn’t toned down the number of names with Assist in them when it comes to driver aids; we’ll chalk this up to German attention to detail.
As is standard on all modern MB vehicles, the dash screen and gauges all blend together into one long, crisp, visually-pleasing screen. The angle isn’t quite ideal, as morning sunlight reflecting off of interior surfaces gave the main infotainment part of the screen a bit of glare, but otherwise it was great.
A touch pad in the center console, as well as on the steering wheel's two lattitunal spokes, made scrolling through and configuring the MBUX infotainment system a snap, after we got past the slight learning curve of figuring it all out. Such things as AMG performance screens, seat adjustments, mild seat massaging, altering interior lighting (every color of the rainbow can be configured, and set to different themes), entertainment, pairing devices, and more, are a breeze in MBUX; it is one of the most configurable systems on the market, and possesses technology we would’ve only dreamed of in higher-end luxury vehicles barely ten years ago. It also had Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which connected without issue and didn’t show any lag.
The optional Burmester Surround Sound audio system is among the best we’ve tested. The ultimate test for this was how much volume was needed to listen clearly to podcast episodes while carving through a technical canyon road, as well as cruising at higher RPMs on the highway. We never had to crank the volume, and satellite radio came through with tons of clarity to boot.
Fun, Solid Suspension and Handling
We pondered the question of whether this is the 2020 version of the 190 Evo Cossie further behind the wheel of the CLA35 AMG. The dynamics and handling were quite good, and accompanied the quick-shifting 7-speed dual clutch gearbox and torquey turbo engine quite well.
Whether the AMG Ride Control Sport Suspension was configured to Comfort or Sport, or Sport+, the ride quality was quite good, and despite being pretty stiff all-around, it was never jarring, and felt very solid. Even in Comfort it still felt a bit stiff; there was always enough athleticism in the ride to remind us we were in an AMG-badged Benz. The adaptive dampers still did a good job ironing out a lot of imperfections. This was most noticeable on the highway rolling across surfaces that have been turned into the face of a massive golf ball thanks to SoCal’s hot sun and notorious bumper-to-bumper traffic.
In Sport and Sport+ modes, imperfections in the road never felt too jarring, and the lack of body roll while cornering was very confidence inspiring. Slicing through a flowing-yet-technical canyon road was an absolute pleasure behind the wheel of the AMG with its four-wheel independent suspension, consisting of double wishbone/MacPherson front and multi-link rear. All-around grip and turn-in were great, we were very impressed with the amount of speed we could comfortably and confidently hold in advisory speed limit sections of winding tarmac. The chassis transmitted a lot of feedback, too, despite the numb steering feel (par for the course in this day and age).
We felt the tail come out just a touch at times, perhaps as a little reminder that we didn’t have the smoothest of inputs. Though any drama was quickly addressed by the AWD, making the whole experience feel very planted and sharp. Sure, we would’ve loved to remedy some tail-out fun with a little opposite lock, but excellent grip is excellent grip. Like its competitor by BMW, the CLA35 AMG is not drift-able. This was less of a downer in the MB than the Bimmer, because to us, BMWs are more well-known for their tail-happy antics. Though, its more powerful sibling the CLA45 AMG has the ability to send all-or-most of its power to the rear wheels, making drifts quite possible; we do wish we could’ve experienced that in the 35.
Torquey, Fast-Revving Performance
Going a bit more in-depth with the CLA’s performance, 0-60 MPH can be quite easily achieved in around 4.5-5 seconds. Thanks to intuitive, quick-to-configure, easy-to-use launch control, this German gran coupe digs in and lunges off the line with tons of gusto. It revs out 1st and 2nd gear quite quickly to the tune of 6000 RPM (below its 7000 RPM redline), and spins to about the middle of the tach in 3rd before 60 is reached. With 302 horsepower and 298 Lbs.-feet of torque on tap to haul all of its 3500 lbs., getting up to speed is an absolute breeze.
The engine's exhaust note was very good, even if a pretty big portion of it was artificial; we've made peace with today's prevalence of fake exhaust tones. If it sounds good, it sounds good. While cruising around in Sport+ with the windows down however, one can actually hear the angry 4-cylinder engine's turbo noises and baritone exhaust growl. Strong marks for MB for making this possible.
Since it’s just an angry little 4-cylinder turbo mated to a 7-speed dual clutch gearbox, Mercedes states fuel economy can be as good as 23 MPG city and 29 highway; we did not observe this ourselves, as this AMG was too fun to be fuel-conscious behind the wheel of. We’d say Mercedes’ published economy is good for its size and power, though range is lacking as it only has a 13.5 gallon tank.
Quick-Shifting Dual Clutch Gearbox, Albeit Clunky At Times
The AMG SPEEDSHIFT DCT 7-speed transmission performed pretty well, albeit had some downsides. Perhaps this could be due to our tester being a knackered press car, but we found the transmission to be a tad clunky at times. Under normal, easy-going commuting, shifts accompanying light-to-moderate throttle around town and on the highway were very smooth. The clunkiness became apparent when shifting into reverse or first gear in the morning after a night’s rest: it took a bit longer to engage than we’ve experienced with other dual-clutch gearboxes. Its shifts were also quite harsh when jumping off the line and doing a launch, or downshifting before turn-in on fun canyon roads. During enthusiastic driving in general, upshifting and downshifting weren’t the smoothest; again, we’re thinking the gearbox had a hard life before it was in our possession. Though, if this is indeed how this transmission shifts fresh from the factory, we prefer the 8-speed automatic gearbox by ZF in the BMW M235i xDrive Gran Coupe.
Final Thoughts: A Very Good Car
To answer the very subjective question is this the 2020 version of the 190E Cossie?: no, it isn’t. However, considering where the CLA is size-wise in MB’s lineup, it’s sporty styling, four doors, motorsports-inspired accents, hopped-up engine, fun-to-drive dynamics, and sporty interior, it’s quite apparent that the CLA35 AMG and legendary W201 are cut from the same performance-loving cloth, just a good 30 years apart, and the CLA isn't homologated. For consumers after all of the above, plus one of the best infotainment systems available today, as well as a host of advanced driver aids to improve safety, then we find it to be a solid buy, transmission roughness or not.
As far as how it stacks up against its rival the 2020 BMW M235i xDrive Gran Coupe, it really comes down to brand allegiance, as well as what consumers think of each car’s looks and amenities. They’re both very good 4-door luxury compact sedans. They’re also both fun to drive, and are quite close dimensionally. The Benz beats the Bimmer with tech and luxury, though it’s priced over $11,000 higher, with most of its expensive options claiming this higher cost.
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