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2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG: First Drive Page 2

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With this 'Ring...

What we found, after an afternoon trolling smooth German surface streets and almost-new track tarmac, is a car that's practically slathered in stick, nearly unwavering in its neutrality. It erupts from a stop with AMG's Racestart in total launch control, and works every rib in its Dunlop treads to make you forget it's based on front-drive running gear.

Bilster Berg is jampacked with lovely scenery that looks quite charming even when it's moving sideways. Slide into its high-speed esses, and the CLA45 AMG is splitting its power equally and tweaking the inside brake to brush off faint understeer. Work around the back half of the track, dive hard into a steep left-hander and put the gas down all the way when you see windmill, and it takes a neatly chosen set while you decide if third or second gear has better legs for the next stretch of straightaway. It can't summon a miracle of sensation from its electric power steering, but doesn't mask the surface of the road or the Bilster Berg track the way Direct Steer can, either.

Our memories of the CLA 250 are still strong enough to draw some comparisons, from drives in early spring. Taut and even tight in the hamstrings, the CLA reaches directly, affirmatively for young buyers who want a very enthusiastic car. The CLA45 AMG seems like another proposition entirely: it's utterly predictable even in its blast off the line, and its drivetrain is mellow when it needs to be. Its ride may even be better controlled, even with optional 19-inch wheels and tires and an available AMG sport suspension, though top-notch German roads forgive a lot of sins. It corners ruthlessly and flatly, dials out most of the CLA's native understeer, and if it suffers in comparison with the wild-hair, rear-drive, V-8 AMGs of recent vintage...well, what doesn't?

All the while, it's flapping its exhaust. The gutter rumble of AMG's V-8s can change your reality--but the CLA45 AMG's syncopated beat has its own butterfly effect.

At the half-century mark

Prices begin at $47,450, not including the $925 destination charge. Unique powertrain, all-wheel drive, and AMG hardware aside, standard features are similar to those on the CLA 250, including power equipment, a USB port, and MB-Tex upholstery.

The CLA45 has its own range of added and optional features, themed around performance. Red-painted brake calipers are offered, as are a carbon-fiber package for the exterior and a similar one for the interior. There's a Night package that blacks out big swaths of exterior trim, and a flat-bottomed steering wheel. And on the highly recommended list, are Recaro sport seats that offer up even more support than the stock chairs, and 19-inch performance tires with black-finish wheels. A popularly equipped CLA45 AMG likely will be priced at about $55,000, Mercedes believes.

Yes, you could have a lightly pre-owned C63 AMG for the same money. And it would be an altogether different car--wildly assertive, frantic, even bellicose. The CLA45 AMG isn't any of those these. It's reassuring, direct, deceptive only in how fast you can go before it washes its hands of the track, the surface, and you. It's a different neural pathway for AMG, for sure.

The CLA45 AMG arrives in November, about six months before Audi fields an S3 for America, untold months more before BMW settles into a new compact-car strategy for the U.S.

Timing's already the CLA's corner. Is the CLA45 AMG its trump card? That question just begs for a comparison, back to back, turn to turn, tire to tire.

We're ready when you are, guys.

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