Mercedes Benz CLA 45 AMG
The Mercedes Benz CLA 45 AMG is twice as expensive as the base CLA. Is 355HP and AWD worth an extra 30K? Nick Deel/IBT

AMG cars are supposed to be all about brute force and pantomime -- you don’t so much drive them as experience them. But American-spec AMG cars have always been a little out of reach for the bourgeoisie, with bottom-line prices well into and above the $60,000 mark.

Now, Mercedes-Benz has given its new “entry-level” luxury car the AMG treatment. But at the as-tested price of $64,000, it’s not exactly a working-class hero.

Straight away, you’ll notice that like the regular model, the CLA45 AMG is a bit reserved. That’s a good thing -- AMG cars are perfect sleepers. Paint the black wheels a more traditional silver or anthracite, and you’d be hard-pressed to tell much of a difference.

Nor is there anything extraordinary inside. It’s Mercedes business as usual inside the CLA45 AMG, with fussy fighter-pilot-styled air vents and the stupid screen that pops out of all the Mercedes dashes these days. There are far too many buttons, and getting the infotainment system to do anything properly the first time is an exercise in frustration. You have to reach back and play with a knob that’s tucked toward the back of the center armrest, making the whole process awkward.

CLA 45 AMG Interior
The CLA 45 interior left something to be desired. It didn't quite feel like $64,000. Nick Deel/IBT

That armrest is also where all the controls that actually matter live: you can select which mode you want the transmission in (automatic/comfort, sport and manual) as well as a reverse-neutral-drive rocker selection.

The engine and transmission are the best things about the CLA45 AMG; 355HP and a seven-speed automated manual mean you’ll never really lack power on a daily basis. The computer does an okay job in automatic mode, unless you need to do a three-point turn. Good luck not shoving your fist through the center console while you wait for the rocker to switch from drive to reverse and back again. It does what you ask on its time, not yours.

When you want to be a child, you have to press the transmission selection button twice to get to full manual (which is what you want, trust me) -- then the paddle shifters activate. And the aggravation begins.

Look, I’ll be honest -- I hate flappy paddles in road cars. I’ll take three pedals and a gear lever any day, but I recognize that paddles are faster and generally idiot-proof. But if you’re not going in a straight line or cornering enthusiastically in this car, you’re going to forget where the paddles are -- they move with the steering wheel. In a straight line, great. Go crazy. But having to search for a paddle in the middle of a corner is just awkward.

Mercedes Benz CLA 45 AMG front.
The design of the car is understated, belying the power under the hood. Nick Deel/IBT

It’s a shame, because the CLA45 AMG has the best electric steering system I’ve ever used -- simple and decently responsive at low speeds, but as communicative as an old-school hydraulic power steering system when pushed. It’s crazy to think, as a staunch detractor of electric power steering, that I enjoyed driving the CLA45 AMG enthusiastically.

The car doesn’t let you have as much fun as it should, though. Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t disable the traction control or stability control systems, so the baby Merc complained under really hard cornering. It’s like the rear end wanted to rotate, but was constantly kept in check by a set of computers and programming that kills the party before it starts. It handles like a tamed front-wheel drive sedan, which would be a compliment if it were a $30,000 front-wheel drive sedan (like the model it’s based on) instead of a $65,000 AMG product. I anticipated something much more willing, like a sophisticated Mitsubishi Evo. The CLA45 AMG is decidedly undramatic.

Even from a hard launch, it doesn’t feel as urgent or as fast as I expected. I watched the speedometer during a few launches, and Mercedes’s claim of a 4.2 second 0-60 is no joke -- but it just doesn’t feel that fast. It’s disconnected, somehow.

At least it’s it a good cruiser. Or it would be, were the ride bearable. I’m not being pedantic, I swear -- I’m a 24-year-old man, I’ve dealt with harsh suspensions. The CLA45 AMG is just not up to par. The cabin drowns out most of the noise from the road in an attempt to fool you into a false sense of accomplishment, but the reality is that you’re going to bounce up and down on a bumpy road like you’re driving a ‘96 Honda Civic with blown struts. It’s a communicative car, but I hope your roads are a lot smoother than ours in New York.

It does get a bit better if you’ve got some nice roads and nice weather. The model I tested had a panoramic sunroof, which is the single best thing a car can have, ever. Pair that with the CLA45 AMG’s burbly exhaust, and you’ll grin like a small child. Winding the gears out in manual mode with the sunroof open and the windows down is a splendid aural experience, as the car sheds its normally understated personality and grunts between each gear change. But it’ll just as soon re-tie its hair bun and go about its cruising business.

Mercedes CLA 45 AMG rear.
The lines of the CLA 45 make it seem larger than it is. It's actually about the same size as a Honda Civic. Nick Deel/IBT

That’s where the CLA 45AMG excels. If you’re short, at least.

I am not a small man, but I’m not particularly large either (6’1, 215 lbs.) - yet I couldn’t keep my legs from taking up the entire driver’s side of the CLA45 AMG’s cabin. It’s still a small car - about the size of a new Honda Civic. As I consistently smacked my right hand into my knee in corners, I was reminded time and time again that the CLA45 might wear an AMG badge, but its interior is just as confining as the basic model.

I want to like the CLA45 AMG. As a cruising experience, it does work. I’m sold there. But as a car to live with every day? For $64,000 I’m not sure I’d take it over an equivalent Mercedes C-Class.