Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 Review: The AMG Equivalent Of Coke Zero

Mercedes' refreshed CLA 35 is here with some subtle tweaks. We get behind the wheel.
Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 Review: The AMG Equivalent Of Coke Zero


Feels quick enough
Looks the part


Horrendous touch-sensitive buttons
Not all that exciting

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘dilute’ is defined as “Weakened in consistency or strength by the addition of water or of anything having a like effect; watered down”. I’d like to propose that it be reworked to something along the lines of “A 302bhp, 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine placed in a 1,680kg AMG-branded saloon”.

Granted, the idea of ‘junior’ models for German performance subbrands isn’t uncommon, nor is it a new thing. Audi’s S branding even predates RS, and BMW’s MXXXi models often provide an experience more in line with the M cars of old than Munich’s modern full-fat offerings.

Despite that, there’s something about a small, AMG-branded car designed specifically not to be the most raucous, violent version in the line-up that doesn’t sit right. Again, it’s no new thing, with the 35 versions of Mercedes’ most compact platform having been around since 2019. In the case of the CLA 35 here, it’s the (lightly) refreshed version.

Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 Review: The AMG Equivalent Of Coke Zero

Not that you’d get the impression this is Diet AMG from sitting inside. Having spent a week with an A45 before taking the keys to the CLA, differences between the full-whack version require a keen eye. There’s the same level of AMG branding across the steering wheel and floor mats, the seats have a slightly different upholstery yet the same form factor and even the metal trim inserts match up. Not that I’ll complain - it’s a nicely laid-out cabin.

Nuances mostly come in software. You do lack a few of the more in-depth display options for the digital instrument cluster, and there’s a lack of the telemetry-laden AMG Track Pace app you’ll find in the 45. Gimmicky stuff really, but worth noting.

Equally, it’s had the same facelift treatment as the A45 we recently drove, horrific touch-sensitive steering wheel buttons included. They’re not especially responsive and a faff to use on the go, even changing songs requires a lot of scrolling through menus. It’s just not good enough.

Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 Review: The AMG Equivalent Of Coke Zero

There are some slight changes to the design compared with the original CLA 35, albeit it’s a game of spot-the-difference. Changes come in the form of resigned head- and taillights, ever so slightly tweaked bumpers and new alloy wheels.

You can still get same the stick-on aero parts as before and, badging aside, you’ll tell it apart from full-whack 45s by its grille and twin-exit exhaust setup rather than a quad-exit. It certainly looks the part, at least.

Your first real sense of this being a 35 comes when you fire the car up. There’s a slight rumble to it, so you know this isn’t just a CLA 180, but it does lack any real idle theatre - even in valve-opened Sport Plus.

Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 Review: The AMG Equivalent Of Coke Zero

That general sense carries through to the driving experience. 302bhp and 295lb ft is nothing to fob off and though peak figures are unchanged compared with the pre-facelift car, you do get an additional 13bhp from a standstill thanks to new 48v mild-hybrid assistance. Its claimed 4.9 seconds 0-62mph sprint feels entirely believable too.

It’s undeniably a quick car, and power delivery is very consistent across the rev range, but never face-ripping or heart-racing. The odd pop and bang adds a little character, but the reliance on piped-in noise is obvious and there’s little drama to the experience.

Similarly, it’s a very capable car when you’re attacking corners. Its adaptive dampers are well-tuned for even harsh UK roads (best left in comfort mode with everything else in the sportiest setting) and the 4Matic all-wheel-drive system never leaves you without grip.

Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 Review: The AMG Equivalent Of Coke Zero

Perhaps too much though, its front-biased nature lending itself much more to understeer if you try and break traction than any sort of playfulness. There’s very little sensation fed back to you through the wheel or your backside either, giving quite an isolated feel overall.

Granted, it’s a problem pretty inherent to this genre of German performance car. The Audi S3 is just as much a sinner for more engine and little involvement and while the BMW M135i is a bit more involving than the two, it’s hardly the last word in engagement.

That said, the two are significantly cheaper than the Mercedes. A base-spec CLA 35 will set you back £49,650, meanwhile, the S3 starts at £41,845 and the M135i from £42,440. I think the chasm between the Mercedes and the rest makes the branding a little less forgivable.

Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 Review: The AMG Equivalent Of Coke Zero

On the plus side, it doesn’t do anything worse than a CLA 200 and for £8,000 which compared in isolation is worthwhile for the grunt. The ride isn’t compromised in the way 45 models are, and economy is acceptable given the performance, averaging around 30mpg in a week with the car. There’s no change in practicality elsewhere, either.

In a way, the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 is very much like a Coke Zero. It looks like the real thing, comes in cheaper and with a little less guilt. You get most of the core flavour, but it’s that extra addictive aftertaste you’re left waiting for that never comes making all the difference. 


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