Written by Tony Markovich (@T_Marko)

I’m gripping the steering wheel tighter than I had gripped the climbing rope those numerous times I failed to reach the little bell in elementary school. All I see in front of me is a lush patch of greenery. I know I have to turn soon. I saw our Mercedes-Benz SLS leader and the second car drop down, so I know there’s pavement ahead, but I have no idea which way it’s going. I don’t know how fast I'm going, because, honestly, I'm too damn worried about everything else going on.

That’s probably because I'm driving on a track dubbed the mini Nurburgring for the first time in my life in a brand new 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG.

I was recently out in Bad Driburg, Germany for the first ever group event at the brand new Bilster Berg Drive Resort and for the test drive of Mercedes-Benz’s new class of vehicles.

As we took our first laps around the track, which looks like this:

I began to see that this was not going to be like hitting the bunny slopes the first time I went skiing. There wasn’t really a gradual learning curve (the only coach I had was a little walkie talkie in my cup holder). My first track day was on a legitimately challenging course, and although nobody was pressuring me to go fast, there was the natural pressure I put on myself to try to keep up with the other seasoned drivers that were on the trip with me.

They were all extremely encouraging and were shocked that I was making my first rounds on such a track. There wasn’t a ton of space for run-offs, there were some heavy elevation changes, and a couple blind turns that brought back memories of going to Six Flags as a child.

The way it was set up had me at the tail end of a three-car train: the lead SLS, driven by a professional instructor and racecar driver, another media person driving a CLA45, and then me. I’ll be the first to admit (and I’m not ashamed) that I held up the group a couple of times, when I was left too far behind. I wasn’t about to overdo it in a car I’d never driven before at a place I’d never seen in my life. But although I was a little slow, I was also told that I held my own.

I think a lot of that had to do with how much the car did for me. But let’s take it back for a minute and attack this from the outside in.

Exterior

The CLA 45 is an extremely attractive car. Considering it’s a foray into a smaller segment, it has a very big, bold presence, speared by its gaping mouth, despite sort of reminding me of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle face. I’m a huge fan of the use of the large, oversized star logo on the front with the minimal bar stretching across the grille.

I see a lot of CLS genes in this car, as well, mainly in the body shape. I’ve spent some time in the CLS63 AMG, and I think it’s an underappreciated car that nobody talks about. The CLA takes its swooping, kind of hunched aerodynamic appeal and has a smooth look that seems like its slipping under the air. This is emphasized by the ribs on the hood, and the creases that start from the angled Bi-xenon headlamps that trail into the front panels through the doors, even continuing through the shape of the downward bleeding taillights. On the way to the track, we drove a deep red model, which looked nice and classy, but the real stunner is the white with the black rims, black fender lips, and carbon side skirts and mirrors. To our pleasure, this isn’t the only place you find carbon.

Interior

Like you’d expect, despite having the lowest price point of any AMG at $48,375, Mercedes-Benz does a nice job of surrounding you with attractive and quality materials. In the AMG models, the leather is accented with red stitching, and you have the option for a large brushed aluminum or carbon fiber bar across the dash. In a move that is being seen more and more often in luxury cars, M-B chose to go with a separated, standalone digital screen. This, along with the awesomely large galvanized circular air vents, gives the entire dash a very dynamic look, as opposed to cars designed with one smoothed-over surface.

The tech in the car carries over from the previous AMG models, with everything controlled with the central dial that sits comfortably ahead of the middle console, positioned where your hand naturally lies on the armrest. The system took me 10-15 minutes to get used to the first time I used it, but once you understand the hierarchy and the layout, it’s fairly simple to use, phones integrate nicely, and the maps are usually solid. There is also a small digital screen set between the tachometer and speedometer that gives you easy access to basic information like the driving mode you’re in (you have the options of Controlled Efficiency "C", Sport "S" and Manual "M"), whether traction control is on, the directions from your GPS, or a simpler digital speedo. No heads up display, though. As for the rear seats, they’re there, but it’s not exactly a comfortable fit for somebody taller than six feet.

Technicalities

AMG’s new four-cylinder under the hood is the crown jewel of the CLA 45. It’s a 2.0L, 4-cylinder twin-scroll turbocharged beast, pumping out 355 horsepower, claiming it is the most powerful four-banger ever put into mass production. It vaults to 62 mph in just 4.6 seconds, thanks to 332 lb-ft of torque, it runs on a 7-speed, dual-clutch trans, and sits on an all-wheel-drive platform. It’s also got a twin-pipe sport exhaust with an automatically adjusting flap, making it growl if you’re hitting it hard or letting through a more subdued sound when you’re out for a smooth drive.

Driving Experience

Okay, back to the track. Like I said, this was my first track experience, and it seemed like it went a little too well. There was never a time when I felt like I was in any sort of trouble (I thought I’d get myself into some), and the car never slipped from beneath me. It was expectedly quick and smooth-shifting with the 7-speed automatic trans bouncing the needle up and down. And again ... the exhaust note was fantastic when you jumped off the line.  

Although the 4Matic system is all-wheel-drive (a lot of the reason it felt so planted), the car is set up to alter its distribution based on what type of driving you’re doing. When I was on the normal German roads from Hannover, the system was likely in 100-percent front-wheel mode. When I got onto the track, it likely switched and distributed based on where the power is needed, up to a 50-50 balance. The car also has an AMG-developed sport suspension with both front and rear independent axles, which, working with the stiff steering, provided for extremely responsive driving. Like I said, it made it pretty much impossible for me to be an unsafe driver.

Bottom Line

The point of this car is to extend Mercedes-Benz’s reach to a new, younger audience, and it’s going to do exactly that. It has the styling of more expensive, more mature models, but provides a much lower price point, making it more accessible to people who can’t afford to spend more than $100,000 or even $70,000 on their dream sports cars. And the looks aren’t the only advantage. The fact that AMG squeezed 355 horses out of a four-cylinder production car is incredible, and the technologically advanced drive features that come with it are more than enough to provide some thrills testing out that 155mph top speed. Even the interior maintains a well-appointed look. Point being, even though it’ll be the cheapest AMG, it’s certainly not the runt of the litter.

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