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An exceptional AMG engine finds an unusual, attractive and practical berth

What is it?

The CLA 45 S Shooting Brake is the sort of special car that comes along when a manufacturer follows its nose for longer than is normal or, perhaps, sensible.

The road that led to the creation of this expensive and unbelievably quick junior AMG estate began when Mercedes introduced the third-gen A-Class in 2013. It was a different car from the imaginative, original A-Class. The body had morphed into more customary two-box proportions and, as for the powertrain, rather than sitting obliquely beneath the front footwell in an ingenious feat of packaging that didn’t compromise safety, it now rested above the front axle, as with every other hatchback.

It was sad to watch the likeable A-Class fall to convention, but the new layout meant Mercedes could put into production an idea it had only ever dared toy with for those precariously tall early cars. That idea was to build an entry-level AMG that could fire the brand headlong into the hot hatch wars. And AMG being AMG, when that car arrived in the form of the A45, the 355bhp developed by its hand-built 2.0-litre engine really was, for a while at least, ‘world-beating’. And outrageous.

At the same time, Mercedes also took the opportunity to re-body its reinvented A-Class. The sleeker CLA saloon was born and it spawned an all-new shooting brake with added practicality and, in the eyes of many, added desirability. The arrival of AMG derivatives then gave us one of the most curious and rare-groove cars on sale at any price point in the form of the original CLA 45 AMG Shooting Brake of 2015. It felt forged in the mould of the V10 BMW M5 Touring and Ferrari FF: fast but useful and quirky, even though, with limited space and route-one handling, it never appealed as much as it could or should have.

That car has now been revamped, AMG permitted to reprise the 45 recipe, only with more power and technology. There’s absolutely no mistaking the new car, either. In 2020, the CLA 45 S comes replete with almost comical motorsport-style canards, four 90mm exhaust pipes and AMG’s new 2.0-litre M139 meisterwerk powerplant unusually swivelled 180deg. It means the turbo now faces backwards, vacating space for a generous, Corvette-esque intake duct at the front along with better aero. The M139 also delivers 415bhp and 369lb ft and accelerates the car to 62mph in 4.0sec, making the CLA 45 S Shooting Brake quicker on paper than both AMG’s own V8-engined C63 Estate and even the Audi RS4 Avant. And now I suspect I’ve really got your attention.

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What's it like?

Out-sprinting the Audi really does guarantee mad pace, doesn’t it? The AMG is of course lighter than its rivals from the class above, although at 1705kg it’s also some 90kg heavier than before. Some of that extra mass derives from the new AMG Torque Control rear axle that, as in the A45 S hatchback with which this hottest CLA shares so much DNA, uses electronically controlled clutch packs built into the differential.

At its most extreme, the set-up can siphon all of the available torque – half of what the engine is making at any given moment – to either side, and the car has all too many modes through which the driver can influence the behaviour of the system. On track, it means things can get quite lurid, although in the car’s most conservative modes, you’d never guess it had this in its locker.

At the front, you have the same limited-slip differential (LSD) found in the A45 S, which also donates its electromechanical steering, dual-clutch ’box and adaptive suspension. It’s a similar story inside, so if you like the bright, prominent screens and slightly chintzy details of the A-Class, you’ll like it in here (not least because, in the AMG, more of the trim is actual metal). If you don’t, you’re unlikely to be so understanding of the fact that AMG’s serious bucket seats eat into the regular CLA’s already limited rear leg room and head room is only adequate.

More concerning for the Shooting Brake’s appeal as family transport is the fact that the rear door grabs jut out just where the passenger’s leg will want to go. Along with the fact that neither seats-down carrying capacity nor the aperture of the boot opening is as generous as you’ll get with fully fledged performance estates or even the outgoing Volkswagen Golf R Estate, it means the Merc is slightly compromised from the outset.

So it’s an imperfect tool, but if you merely want an A45 or CLA 45 saloon with added practicality, you’ll have few complaints: the Shooting Brake beats both hands down for space, and the ski hatch is also useful.

On the move, the car again does an A45 S double act in that it can be a picture of docility one moment then reveal dizzying performance and capability the next. This duality borders on the freakish. During normal, fast-ish road driving, the CLA 45 S rides confoundingly well in its most languid damper setting. Rarely does it crash onto its bump stops and rarer still does it fall prey to those fleeting but heart-stopping losses of composure you get with estates when the big body wants to go one way and the chassis another.

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The steering response is also clean but surprisingly meaty, the car easy to place and dry grip levels mammoth, even if in the wet you can break traction at either end with surprising ease. That this pumped-up engine will also do 38mpg on the motorway and everywhere you go possesses easy drivability – even with its big turbo, huge output and satisfactorily peaky power and torque curves – is exceptional.

Rotate the mode dial and it’s difficult to envisage too many cars in any class that could keep up with the CLA 45 S. Despite its identical wheelbase, the CLA has greater track widths than the A45 S but is still conveniently proportioned and stress-free on B-roads. Although the engine sits fractionally ahead of the front axle, you’d also swear it was tucked under the dashboard, such is the way the car flatly ferrets through direction changes. Admittedly, the CLA doesn’t generate quite the same sense of wrist-flicking agility as the A45 S, or the almost total front-axle stability of an RS4, but what it will do is lean generously on its rear axle if driven in the required manner.

You won’t necessarily achieve true power oversteer, but there are easily unearthed moments where the CLA does an excellent impression of being rear driven, and the sense of balance this brings. In short, it does fun better than expected – more so in the wet.

Should I buy one?

So why only four stars? Ultimately, the electronics-flavoured handling sits in the faintly artificial no man’s land between fiercely nose-led hot hatch and something more mature and elegant dynamically, such as the C63 Estate. The CLA 45 S Shooting Brake is also expensive and ergonomically found wanting.

There is therefore an uncomfortable feeling you might actually get greater enjoyment out of something more normal, more sensible and perhaps not quite so special. Something as comparatively ordinary even as an LSD-equipped BMW 330i Touring.

Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 S Shooting Brake specification

Where Befordshire, UK Price £59,479 On sale now Engine 4 cyls in line, 1991cc, turbocharged, petrol Power 415bhp at 6750rpm Torque 369lb ft at 5000-5250rpm Gearbox 8-spd dual-clutch automatic Kerb weight 1705kg Top speed 155mph (limited) 0-62mph 4.0sec Fuel economy 32.8mpg CO2 191g/km, 37% Rivals Audi RS4, Seat Leon Cupra R ABT

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Comments
25

9 July 2020

£60k is huge amount of money for a small estate, you'd have to really want one 

9 July 2020
JCarter wrote:

£60k is huge amount of money for a small estate, you'd have to really want one 

It is, but it's not any small estate.  It's a difficult car to judge on monetary value. On one hand you have a performance bargin that aslo happens to be reasonably practical, on the other, you're paying 60K for an A class.  Margins for MB must be huge for this.

9 July 2020

Styling inspired by a carp?

9 July 2020

I'm probably in a minority of one saying this, but for the most part I don't find its styling, with the hanging arse and the unnecessarily over-curved roof, particularly attractive! Personally, I I had to go for a 'compact' Merc estate, I'd go for the C-class

9 July 2020
Overdrive wrote:

I'm probably in a minority of one saying this, but for the most part I don't find its styling, with the hanging arse and the unnecessarily over-curved roof, particularly attractive! Personally, I I had to go for a 'compact' Merc estate, I'd go for the C-class

I'm unsure of it as well, and some other Mercedes, to me they look curved like a banana, I have to stare at the sill line against the ground to see that it is straight, otherwise it all looks slightly curved.
Not keen.

9 July 2020
And then there is Autocar reviewing yet another AMG model as if non-AMG Mercedes didn't exist.

9 July 2020
A hideous pastiche of the CLS look.

9 July 2020
eseaton wrote:

A hideous pastiche of the CLS look.

Hard to argue with that sentiment. Also, why is road surface grey such a popular colour, it is such a dull colour?

9 July 2020

Good to see i am not the only one that doesn't particularly like the Mercedes 'banana' styling.

This machine only makes sense in an immature yet extravagant way. I really don't see the market for it.

Autocar says it all when it says you would probably have more fun in a BMW 330i Touring. Damned by faint praise indeed. 

9 July 2020

There must be a house rule at Mercedes design HQ under Gordon Wagener that says "All straight lines and sharp angles forbidden"

All right, there has recently been some relaxation re rear lights, but overall most Mercedes models appear bulbous, bloated and melting.

Even the rectangular airvents in the cabin (not on this model) have to have the sharp corners rounded off. 

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