Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: October 4, 2021
Ahh, the middle child. Sitting in between the more street-friendly CLA 250 and more the power-hungry CLA 45 AMG, the CLA 35 straddles that fine line between comfort and performance. Even though it’s got that AMG badge plastered over every surface, the CLA 35 aims to deliver the best of both worlds with a sleek package wrapped up in high-grade craftsmanship, fuel efficiency, and driver engagement.
And it sure looks the part. Bold and aggressive would be a good way to describe its soap-bar-like silhouette. The CLA 35 doesn’t make use of the Panamericana, vertical-slat front grill like in the CLA 45 or GLA 35, but instead uses the outgoing CLA 45’s double-vaned grill instead. It looks cleaner, though is less visually imposing on the road. Not that our specific test vehicle needed it. Being draped in this not-so-inconspicuous shade of Sun Yellow attracted more attention than our Denim Blue CLA 45 we reviewed a few months back.
The interior is also a delightful display of high-grade tech and materials, especially in this category. The layout is spacious, ergonomically sound, though slightly more cramped feeling than the A 35 and GLB 35 for my six-foot figure. I still find the front seats comfortable, though the tight rear accommodations are a different story. Long story short, I don’t fit behind my own seating position. Those frequently ferrying around taller folks in the back might want to take a look at the larger GLB 35 instead, one of our favourite compact SUVs with a small footprint but a spacious interior.
The expansive dual-screen dashboard display steals the show, and compliments the piranha-like fan vents, and button-heavy steering wheel that has been ripped straight out of the AMG GT 4-Door, replete with premium-feeling metal paddle shifters. While the digital screens budding out of the left spoke appear low-rent and look out of place in the $190,000 GT 63 S, here they elevate the CLA’s upscale vibe.
The CLA 35 drives with less anger and eagerness than the CLA 45, but it still encourages quick driving, and is just as exciting and demanding when push comes to shove. It uses a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder that unlike the -45, isn’t hand-built, but still produces a healthy 302 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque through a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission to all four wheels. 0-100 km/h in 4.9 seconds, which isn’t the speediest thing on four wheels, but it will put up a decent straight line fight against the BMW M240i and Audi S3.
We have always been firm believers that 300 hp and 300 lb-ft is the sweet spot for city driving, especially for a small car with a compact footprint. That holds especially true with the CLA 35. You can easily extract all of its performance and it never feels like you are overdriving it or surpassing its grip limits thanks to sticky tires and all-wheel drive. The steering is light but loads up nicely under load, and its organic feel accentuates the CLA’s athleticism and nimbleless. It’s easy to drive and easy to park, yet rampant with its acceleration the moment you floor the throttle. You really don’t need any more power for the street.
Which is not to say the CLA 45 is overkill. There’s a time and a place for its near-400 horsepower, but the CLA 35 comes mighty close in terms of driving feel and driver involvement. It doesn’t feel that much slower either thanks to a quick gearbox, and the revs pile on as you punch through each of the seven gears. It’s a double-edged sword, though. Compared to its rivals, the CLA 35 loses some polish and refinement at low speeds and during rolling stops, but that’s an inherent issue with most dual-clutch gearboxes. Changing gears from D to R will also result in a noticeable delay, and sometimes a momentary jerk if you apply throttle before the gear has fully engaged.
The CLA 35 does not come equipped with a switchable active exhaust like in the -45, but the noise is still exciting and more than enough for the casual driver or enthusiast. The soundtrack becomes rowdy once the revs start to build up, and hard downshifts into high RPMs will result in pops and bangs coming out of the exhaust, similar to a MINI JCW. It’s a deliciously loud and raspy noise, though one that is not terribly unique.
The CLA 35 rides on the stiffer side of the spectrum, and is slightly more punishing over pockmarked roads than an M240i or MINI JCW. Even though it comes with three adjustable damper settings, the nuances between them are hardly felt, and it’s something buyers should keep in mind if they plan on daily driving one. It’s not perilously stiff, but it will always remind you that this is the sportier AMG CLA, and not the more comfortable -250. On the bright side, we can report that it’s surprisingly fuel-efficient - we averaged an impressive 9.0 L/100km with gentle-to-moderate driving on both city and highway roads.
The CLA 35 offers a strong middleground between the more casual CLA 250 and the more extreme CLA 45. It’s equipped with aggressive AMG bodywork, a sporty interior that’s a feast for the senses, and a potent powertrain with a hearty exhaust to match. Ride comfort is clearly not a priority, but it serves about seven-tenths of the -45 experience, and we think that’s just the right amount for those who don’t take performance too seriously. I guess the middle child syndrome doesn’t always apply after all.
Model: 2021 Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 4MATIC
Paint Type: Sun Yellow
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,695 / 1,999 / 1,404
Curb weight (kg): 1,635
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
Horsepower: 302 hp @ 5,800 rpm
Torque: 295 lb-ft @ 3,000 - 4,000 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 9.0