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It may be flooding the luxury market with utility vehicles like the big GLS and pint-sized GLB, but Mercedes-Benz isn't walking away from its traditional roots in the passenger car segment, as it demonstrated earlier this year with the introduction of an all-new version of the coupe-like CLA sedan.
Now, the automaker plans to up its game with a high-performance version, the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45. Drawing power from an all-new, turbocharged 2.0-liter engine, it will punch out 382 horsepower and 354 pound-feet of torque. It's a big jump from the first-generation AMG model and is enough to launch from zero to 60 in just four seconds with a top speed of 155 mph.
While some manufacturers are pulling back from the passenger car side of the market, the launch of the CLA 45 last week is "reinforcing the significance of this segment for our growth strategy," said Tobias Moers, the head of Mercedes-AMG, the performance arm of Daimler AG.
A downsized version of Mercedes's groundbreaking CLS coupe-like sedan, the CLA, made plenty of waves on its own when it debuted in 2013. It quickly clicked with buyers around the world and was the fastest-growing new model ever for the German marque's U.S. sales subsidiary — aided by the decision to offer a base model at just under $30,000.
The price for the entry CLA has jumped a fair bit since then. Meanwhile, the Mercedes-Benz GLA, which shares the same platform but features a crossover-like body, has become a more popular alternative with the typically young buyers who are just entering the luxury market for the first time.
CLA sales for the first half of 2019 slipped 40.7% in the U.S. to just 6,942 vehicles. And for June, demand tumbled 72.6% from the same month last year to 573 of the little sedans. Part of that decline has been blamed on the delay in bringing the new AMG version to market, though the fact that sales of the GLA crossover are fairly flat suggests the CLA sedan is suffering from the ongoing shift from sedans and coupes to SUVs and crossover vehicles.
The arrival of the new CLA 45 should nonetheless help slow the downward spiral.
Like more mainstream versions, such as the CLA 250, the AMG model gets a complete, second-generation makeover. But the CLA 45 also gets new details, such as a unique and wider grille. It also picks up on the 12 vertical louvers found on other AMG product lines. The CLA's "shark nose" has been lowered to give the car a more well-planted and aggressive appearance, enhanced by wider front fenders and boldly flared wheel arches.
There are bigger air inlets to feed the turbo engine as well as aerodynamic detailing, such as front splitter and air inlets ahead of the front wheels. That minimizes drag and increases downforce to keep the CLA 45 stuck to the ground under hard acceleration.
Side skirts, larger alloy wheels and tires and twin round tailpipes complete the performance detailing, though what buyers won't see is a body that has been reinforced to improve stability at high speeds and when handling aggressive corners, Mercedes said.
Like all AMG models, each of the new 2.0-liter engines is produced by one technician. It's the most powerful engine Mercedes has ever offered in a vehicle of this size. Power is delivered to all four wheels, though the 4Matic+ system normally pushes torque to the rear wheels to enhance performance.
Buyers can opt for an adaptive ride control suspension, meanwhile, capable of switching each individual damper from soft to firm, or anything in between based on road conditions and driver input.
The interior is lavished with leather and synthetic suede and features a driver-oriented layout. It also gets the new MBUX infotainment system which operates much like the Amazon Alexa voice assistant, allowing a driver to control things with more natural speech.
The AMG model competes against high-performance competitors such as the Audi RS3 and BMW M2, both of which have also felt the pressure of changing market conditions.
The German automaker hasn't released fuel economy numbers or pricing for the 2020 Mercedes-AMG CLA 45, which will reach U.S. showrooms late this year. The outgoing model carried a $53,100 MSRP.