2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA35 Review: Measured Excess

  • Handsome 4-door coupe looks elevated with AMG trim
  • 2.0-liter engine is unexpectedly punchy
  • Corners and grips with playful predictability
  • Cabin is better-equipped than you'd expect
  • Rear space is cramped
  • Some trim doesn't quite live up to the badge
  • Add on options and it gets expensive, fast

If there was a Mercedes-AMG equivalent of a welcome mat, the 2020 AMG CLA35 4MATIC would be it. Newest of the tuning division's hotter sedans, it's a feistier four-door with a very serious goal: coaxing younger drivers into AMG ownership, and then get them hooked on that distinctive blend of luxe-performance.

First impressions are good. I think there are colors which better flatter that CLA's four-door-coupe aesthetic than plain white, but I'll admit that sets off the black exterior trim and matching 19-inch wheels nicely. The regular CLA is a handsome car, but the AMG treatment elevates it while retaining enough restraint to avoid things getting obnoxious.

The lowered height leaves it looking larger than it actually is, while the smoothly swooping roofline helps avoid any truncated trunk awkwardness its sibling A-Class might suffer. LED headlamps and tail lamps come as standard lending the CLA35 a supercilious frown at the front and a complex 3D structure at the rear.

Under the bulging hood is a 2.0-liter inline-4 turbo engine. It's described as "AMG-Enhanced," which means the engineers tinker with it but it's not the full, dedicated-line treatment of the more expensive drivetrains. Still, you get 302 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, which are more interesting than a mechanic's name on a plaque.

It's paired with an AMG SPEEDSHIFT DCT 7-speed transmission and 4MATIC all-wheel drive as standard. AMD Sport Suspension is standard, too, though my review car came with the AMG RIDE CONTROL Sport Suspension option. That adds adaptive dampers with three modes, adjusted either in line with the five drive modes, or individually.

Those drive modes make a significant difference, too. In Comfort, for example, the AMG tries to do its best impersonation of a regular CLA. It's not entirely convincing – there's definitely more noticeable bumps on unsavory road surfaces – but neither is it unworthy of the Mercedes part of the badging.

Flip into Sport or Sport+, though, and things get more interesting. Louder, too: the CLA35 tries to keep the engine at over 3,000 rpm, right in its turbo sweet-spot, with a buzzsaw howl that I'll admit to being partial to. Sport is a nice halfway measure for more eager driving without being too frenetic, while Sport+ sends the 7-speed downshifting so enthusiastically your fingertips never have time to grab the paddle-shift and do it manually.

There are, obviously, more powerful cars in AMG's portfolio, but the CLA35 charms by virtue of its "enough to wring it out" temperance. Some of those beefier siblings demand flirtations with license-losing pace if you want to experience anything more than a lesser fraction of their capabilities. This hotter CLA, though, you can push without instantly ending up in triple-digits.

That's not to say it's slow. 0-60 in 4.8 seconds, in fact. When you reach a corner, that combination of all-wheel drive, adaptive dampers, and firmly weighted steering lend a feeling of precision and predictability. Point the nose and there the CLA35 goes; stab the brakes, and there's no shortage of stopping power, without also leaving them grabby in more everyday driving.

Inside, some of the niceties you'd pay extra for in the regular CLA come standard in this AMG version. A panoramic sunroof, dual 10.25-inch displays – the center one a touchscreen – and ambient lighting are standard, as are power front seats, both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, dual-zone automatic climate control, and keyless start. The digital instrumentation gets special AMG modes, and there's the latest MBUX infotainment system.

I have a love-hate relationship with MBUX. I think it looks great, and the natural-language voice recognition generally works very well. That's just one of a number of ways to control it, however, along with the touchscreen, a trackpad in the center console, and two touchpads on the steering wheel. That's all well and good, but some basic things – like skipping between music tracks – are still too fiddly for my liking.

The cabin itself feels well constructed, though the gloss black plastic trim on many sections of the dashboard picks up fingerprints and doesn't seem as high-end as the metal and soft-touch plastics it's alongside. Mercedes increased cabin space over the old CLA with this generation, though with the sloped roof the rear still feels tight. Better to be up-front, then, where the snugness is of the "cosseting and sporty" side. Trunk space, meanwhile, is now 11.6 cubic feet, and the split rear seats fold down too.

As is so often the case with cars like the AMG CLA35, the sting is not in the driving experience but the sticker shock. Starting at $46,900 (plus $995 destination) it feels as aggressively priced as it sounds. Problem is, Mercedes' options sheet is long and can do some serious damage to your wallet: case in point, this particular Polar White example could be on your drive for a heady $66,340.

That's almost twenty thousand American dollars in extras, which seems more than a little excessive. The good news is that you can skip a lot of them, and not feel like you're missing out too significantly.

I'd keep the $850 AMG Ride Control Sport Suspension, and the $2,250 Driver Assistance Package: the latter adds things like adaptive cruise control, blind spot warnings, and lane-keeping assistance, which I think are pretty much table-stakes on a luxury car these days. The $750 AMG Night Package, with its gloss-black exterior trim, helps distinguish the CLA35 from its regular CLA brethren, so that can stay too.

I'm torn over the AMG Performance Seat Package Advanced, and its beautiful Recaro multi-contour front seats. They're handsome and comfortable, and supportive in all the right places – bar your wallet, thanks to a $3,390 sticker. Considering you're already paying $1,450 for the red/black leather, that adds up quickly.

That's the barest glance over the options on this car, frankly, and if you're feeling excessive you can add the sort of extras you'd associate with an S-Class to this entry-level AMG. Yes, that includes the ENERGIZING Comfort system with its cabin light show and Burmester audio system, wireless phone charging, and augmented reality navigation.

2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA35 Verdict

Loading it up with gadgetry from loftier Mercedes misses the point of the AMG CLA35, however. What makes it a success is that feeling of doing more with less, whether that be squeezing unexpected fun out of a "mere" 2.0-liter engine, or turning corners with a deftness that's both reassuring and fun.

It leaves the CLA35 feeling confident and eager, and I'm not sure Mercedes-AMG could've asked for more from a car intended to woo new drivers to the brand. Exceptionally livable day-to-day, and yet playful enough when the right road presents itself. Mercedes knows how to make an excellent big car, undoubtedly, but it's down in these smaller models where the more attainable smiles are to be found.