2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 Test Drive

Ron Sessions, Independent Expert | Sep 08, 2020

Introduction - Find the best Mercedes-Benz deals!

202020 Mercedes CLA 35 front view

Photo: Ron Sessions

Long established as the in-house tuner-car division of Mercedes-Benz, AMG offers an extensive lineup of high-performance variants of the German automakers sedans, coupes, roadsters and SUVs. The entry point into the AMG family is the fun-to-drive Mercedes-AMG CLA 35. Based on the compact CLA-Class 4-door “coupe,” the CLA 35 is the least-expensive Mercedes product to wear the AMG badge. 

For the CLA 35, AMG pumps up the CLA 250’s transversely mounted 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder from 221 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque to 302 hp and 295 lb-ft. AMG also switches the CLA 35’s 7-speed Speedshift dual-clutch automatic to shorter final-drive gearing, underpins the chassis with lighter, stiffer components, upgrades to firmer springs and dampers, adds wider tires and larger brakes, drops the ride height, installs a freer-flowing, more talkative exhaust system and makes 4Matic all-wheel drive standard. 

Pricewise, the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 competes with other entry-luxury German performance cars such as the Audi S3 and BMW M240i xDrive. In terms of size and power, the CLA 35 matches up fairly closely with the Subaru WRX STI, although it’s unlikely the Subaru and Mercedes-AMG get cross-shopped often. 

The 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 is priced at $47,845 including the $995 destination charge, about a $10,000 bump over the CLA 250 it’s based on. Carrying a heavy load of optional extras, The attention-grabbing Jupiter Red CLA 35 test car driven for this review stickered at $62,855.

The drive loop taken for this report offered me the opportunity to exercise the CLA 35 over 80 miles of mostly exurban and rural 2-lane roads in the wide-open desert west of Phoenix, Arizona.

Styling and Design - Find the best Mercedes-Benz deals!

2020 Mercedes CLA 35 styling and design

Photo: Ron Sessions

Built on a small footprint and tasked with accommodating five passengers in reasonable comfort, entry-luxury 4-doors are rarely described as sleek. But the CLA 35 is a 4-door “coupe” with frameless side glass, a low, sloping roofline and an artfully arching beltline that stretches elegantly from the base of the windshield to the rear roof pillars.

When it comes to the overall shape and clean detailing of the CLA 35, any similarities to the large and eloquent Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class 4-door “coupe” are purely intentional. Design DNA from some of the automaker’s best efforts also makes itself known, including twin SL-like power bulges on the hood, a wide SL-inspired grille and slender, high-set AMG GT-esque tail lamps. A long (for the class) wheelbase, short overhangs and a wide, road-ready stance, lowered body and tires filling the wheel wells complete the picture.

When upgrading the CLA 250 to CLA 35 specification, AMG wisely left the exterior largely alone. Twin bars grace the CLA 35 grille, the side sills add an aerodynamic flourish, a paper-thin rear spoiler adorns the decklid and the more pronounced rear diffuser gets large-bore round exhaust tips.

Features and Controls - Find the best Mercedes-Benz deals!

2020 Mercedes CLA 35 dashboard and controls

Photo: Ron Sessions

Front and center when you enter the CLA 35 are the twin 10.25-inch high-res color driver and infotainment displays. The horizontal-format screens, butted together atop the instrument panel like a pair of panoramic-display tablets, give a high-tech vibe. The driver’s screen is configurable with several different layout themes. The center screen is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible.

Overall, the CLA 35’s interior layout is certainly driver-oriented and functional, but material quality and the look and feel of many controls are a notch or two below the switchgear populating the C-Class, E-Class and other larger, more expensive Mercedes-Benz products. There is some molded, hard plastic trim here and there interspersed with better looking soft-touch and wrapped surfaces. And while the cabin is not quite as elegant as the CLA 35’s evocative exterior might suggest, the AMG-kitted 4-door “coupe” gets a number of key upgrades.

It starts with more aggressively bolstered power front sport seats covered in MBTex faux leather and faux suede with adjustable lumbar and 3-position memory. Front seat legroom and headroom are appropriate for the compact class. A flat-bottom steering wheel, red seatbelts, aluminum pedals and available power-adjustable and heated multi-contour Recaros add some pizzaz. The front seats are firm and perhaps on the narrow side for broader-beamed occupants, but supportive in all the right places for decent comfort during longer trips or shorter blasts down a favorite twisty back road.

Other standard interior fare includes dual-zone automatic climate control, a cheerful panoramic sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, basic cruise control, pushbutton start and a leather-wrapped tilt/telescope steering wheel with shift paddles and available faux-suede trim. The CLA 35 also comes standard with entertaining interior ambient lighting which can be configured to bathe portions of the dash, doors, console, speakers and even the climate-control vents in an ever-changing 64-color light show. At night, it’s quite the light show.

An optional console-mounted wireless phone charger is available and the base AM/FM stereo can be upgraded to an immersive 590-watt Burmester surround-sound audio system with 12 speakers.

Unlike conventional 2-door coupes that require back-seat occupants to slither past the front seatbacks to enter or exit the back seat the CLA 35’s 4-door “coupe” layout gives easy access to the aft row. Rear-seat legroom is on the tight side for passengers taller than 6 feet, improved by sliding the front seats forward a bit.

At 11.6 cubic feet, trunk space is generous enough to accept five aircraft roller bags. The rear seatbacks are split 50/50 and can be folded to add space on one or both sides for longer items that wouldn’t otherwise fit in the trunk.

Safety and Technology - Find the best Mercedes-Benz deals!

2020 Mercedes CLA 35 safety and technology

Photo: Ron Sessions

For the 2020 model year, Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX) replaces the previous COMAND system for accessing and controlling multimedia content. The voice command portion of MBUX now has artificial intelligence and the ability to understand natural language and learn the operator’s preferences. MBUX content on the 10.25-inch center screen can also be accessed via the touchscreen itself, steering wheel controls or a console-mounted touchpad with shortcut hard buttons for phone, audio content, home, favorites, vehicle settings and camera settings plus a scroll wheel for audio system volume.

To use the voice command function, first give it a name like “Mercedes” or maybe “Engelbert Humperdinck,” just for fun. Once named, you can make requests of it as you might of an Alexa-enabled device in your domicile. Pretty much any request is fair game, but after saying “Hey Engelbert Humperdinck,” you can perhaps ask it what the weather is in any place around the world or maybe request a cabin temperature adjustment. Let your imagination run wild, but remember that the voice-command personal assistant is always listening.

Opting for the extra-cost Multimedia package not only adds a navigation system with high-resolution maps of streets, highways and surrounding topography but also a speed limit assist feature that can automatically adapt vehicle speed to the posted limit, a potential license saver while driving an attention-grabbing, high-performance AMG product. The optional Multimedia package also brings an “augmented reality” feature that enhances the usefulness of the navigation system. Using a high-resolution camera image of the road ahead, augmented reality superimposes turn by turn directions as needed in real time over the live image.

As with other Mercedes-Benz products, the CLA 35 is available with a long list of safety and driver-assistive technology. However, unlike mainstream brands that are adding many of these features as standard equipment, the German automaker bundles all but a few in a $2,250 Driver Assistance package.

Among the systems in the optional Driver Assistance package is blind-spot monitoring with active single-sided braking that comes into play if the driver tries to move to an adjoining lane with a vehicle hidden in the car’s blind spot. The package also includes auto emergency braking that can help avoid a collision with vehicles or pedestrians ahead if the driver fails to brake and lane keeping with active steering and braking assist to keep the car from drifting out of its lane. Somewhat frustrating is the tendency of the lane keeping system to initiate a sharp brake jab and increase steering effort if the driver tries to move out of lane temporarily to avoid a jogger on the apron or obstacle in the road, but that feature can be turned off by the driver. DISTRONIC adaptive cruise control with active steering assist, speed adaptation ahead of tollbooths and curves, plus the ability to execute a hands-free lane change on a 4-lane highway with turn-signal application if the lane is clear of traffic is also part of the package. 

What isn’t in the Driver Assistance package is the surround-view upgrade of the standard backup camera. The surround-view camera gives an overhead 360-degree view of the car and its immediate surroundings, part of a $1,090 Parking Assistance package that can handle the CLA 35’s steering, braking and gearshift operations to execute a perfect hands-free perpendicular or parallel parking maneuver.

Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor the Institute for Highway Safety has published crash-test results for the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 

Driving Impressions - Find the best Mercedes-Benz deals!

2020 Mercedes CLA 35 tirewheel driving impressions

Photo: Ron Sessions

The 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 has the dynamic goodness to reinforce its performance persona. The first clue is the rorty sound from the large-bore dual exhaust the minute you start it up. The AMG-enhanced 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, boosted to 302 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque from the CLA 250’s 221 hp and 258 lb-ft, has an appropriately punchy midrange and courtesy of the switch to a dual-scroll turbocharger, little or no turbo lag for good throttle response over a wide engine speed range. The exhaust snarl is just right, talkative but not droning in an annoying way. 

As with the CLA 250, the CLA 35 is teamed with a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, but this one is tuned by AMG with a shorter final drive for quicker acceleration. Zero to 60 mph takes just 4.8 seconds for the 3,505-lb 4-door “coupe.” The AMG Speedshift offers three shift programs, normal, comfort and sport, and with the standard steering-wheel paddle shifters can deliver smooth, super-fast upshifts and seamless, rev-matched downshifts. Only in slow, stop-and-go traffic does the transmission get a bit lurchy. EPA fuel economy estimates for the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 are 23 mpg city/29 mpg highway/25 mpg combined. Over 80 miles of enthusiastic back-road driving, I saw an observed 25.2 mpg on the car’s trip computer.

Standard AMG Dynamic Select offers five driving modes accessed by a console mounted switch: Comfort, Slippery, Sport, Sport+ and Individual. As with other cars, these can tailor shift points, throttle response, steering effort, traction control and all-wheel drive to personal taste. There is no Eco mode.

Compared to the CLA 250, the CLA 35 offers weightier and quicker electrically boosted rack-and-pinion steering with good road feel and feedback through the leather-wrapped steering wheel. Standard torque-vectoring Dynamic Cornering Assist uses the stability control system to brake an inside wheel to improve turn-in response and reduce understeer. Despite the forward weight bias, the CLA 35 doesn’t plow or run wide in turns. The test car’s meaty 245/35ZR19 Michelin Pilot Sport 4S summer tires, an upgrade over the CLA 35’s standard 235/40R18 skins, delivered tenacious grip, aided by standard 4Matic all-wheel drive that can deliver up to 50% of the engine’s drive torque to the rear wheels.

As with most tuner cars, the CLA 35 is lowered slightly with stiffer springs and firmer shocks than those underpinning the CLA 250. The test car had the optional AMG adaptive dampers with three driver-selectable firmness levels, the middle setting offering the best ride/handling compromise and delivering firm but livable damping of vertical body motions over a variety of road surfaces. There was no typical tuner-car chop or jounciness, either. The suspension setup kept body roll in check in tight turns and was not upset by unexpected mid-corner bumps that might have thrown lesser cars off-course. The CLA 35’s stiffer suspension bits do, however, convey more road noise into the cabin over rough surfaces especially with the lower aspect-ratio tires. Perhaps this would be a good time to ask the MBUX personal assistant to play Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

Rolling with upsized drilled and vented rotors and AMG 4-piston calipers up front and upsized vented discs at the rear, the CLA 35’s brakes have plenty of bite and are easy to modulate. Pedal response is quick and reassuring as you’d expect of a car like this. 

Conclusion - Find the best Mercedes-Benz deals!

2020 Mercedes CLA 35 rear shot

Photo: Ron Sessions

Whether you call it a sedan or a coupe, the Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class brings high style to the compact 4-door segment and gives small car buyers who haven’t participated in the great migration to compact crossover SUVs something that’s as aspirational as it is new-age practical. With the 302-hp Mercedes-AMG 35, the automaker offers an in-house tuner-car version that has the performance and fun-to-drive demeanor to back up its looks. Go easy with options and it’s possible to build a CLA 35 with a price tag in the low $50,000 range.

Ron Sessions is a seasoned vehicle evaluator with more than three decades of experience. He has penned hundreds of road tests for automotive web sites, enthusiast magazines, newsletters, technical journals and newspapers.

The opinions expressed in this review are the author’s own, not J.D. Power’s.

No portion of these reviews may be reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or used for a derivative work without J.D. Power’s written permission. © 2021 J.D. Power

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