Mercedes-Benz needs to rethink its small-car strategy. Either that, or it better hope other luxury automakers follow the 2014 CLA45 AMG's pricing like lemmings off a cliff.

The CLA45 AMG is remarkably powerful, wringing 355 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque from a 2.0-liter engine. But aside from that impressive output and admirable fuel economy, I have a hard time finding any criteria that place the car among the leading $50,000-$60,000 sport sedans.

The CLA45 is the high-performance version of Mercedes' new CLA compact coupe. It has a hand-built engine and upgraded suspension, brakes and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. All-wheel-drive is standard, as are a new grille and other cosmetic tweaks to tell the world it comes from Mercedes' AMG tuning shop.

The CLA45 hopes to compete with small, sporty cars like the BMW 2- and 3-series, Buick Verano turbo, Cadillac ATS, Lexus IS and Mini Cooper. Audi's 300-horsepower S3 compact sedan will join the pack when it goes on sale shortly.

CLA45 AMG prices start at $47,450. My test car featured leather sport seats, an iPod cable, Harman/Kardon audio, navigation, a big sunroof, backup camera and other options.

It stickered at $59,170, a jaw-dropping price for a small sedan lacking features like push-button start, adaptive cruise control and door locks that sense the driver's approach and unlock without the driver taking a key fob out of pocket or purse and pressing a button. Those features are available not just on the luxury cars the CLA45 wants to compete with, but on mainstream models costing far less.

To understand just how uncompetitive the CLA45 AMG's price is, you can get a loaded BMW 335i or Cadillac ATS with a six-cylinder engine, all-wheel-drive, push-button start, adaptive cruise control and much more for thousands less than the CLA I tested. Even the much bigger, better and more powerful twin-turbo 420-horsepower Cadillac CTS Vsport starts at $100 less: $59,070.

None of those cars approach the CLA45 AMG's EPA fuel economy rating, but they all offer significantly more for the money.

The CLA45 is slightly bigger than cars like the ATS and 3-series, but its aggressively curved roofline gives it less passenger space than most of its competitors. The small rear door openings will cause more head banging than a Metallica tour.

The front has plenty of room. My test car's optional deeply sculpted sport seats seemed confining at first, but I quickly got comfortable. The interior materials are nice enough, but the display screen for navigation, audio and other features sticks up from the dash, a less elegant layout than many competitors use. The front-seat 12-volt power outlet in my test car did not work.

Generating 355 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque from a street-legal 2.0-liter engine would have been inconceivable five years ago. The CLA45 does it while achieving an admirable EPA rating of 23 mpg in the city, 31 on the highway and 26 combined.

The CLA45 AMG's power and fuel economy both top cars like the 335i, ATS, Verano Turbo and IS 350.

The CLA45 is at its best hammering down the road. The steering is sharp and direct, and the suspension keeps the little sedan firmly planted. The ride is harsh over bumps, though, and the exhaust tone sounds a bit ragged, more like a tuned Subaru than one of the legendary AMG engines.

If Mercedes had lavished as much passion and creativity on the rest of the car as it did on the drivetrain, the CLA45 AMG might be something truly special. Unfortunately, it appears the product planning department took the rest of day off after engineering closed the hood. When Mercedes raises the rest of the car to its engine's level, it'll be time to take the CLA45 AMG seriously.



_Type of vehicle: All-wheel-drive 5-passenger compact sedan

_Rating: Two out of four stars

_Reasons to buy: Power; all-wheel-drive; fuel economy

_Shortcomings: Price; lack of common features; refinement; defective 12-volt power point

_Engine: 2.0-liter turbo 16-valve DOHC four-cylinder.

_Power: 355 horsepower at 6,000 rpm; 332 pound-feet of torque at 2,250-5,000 rpm

_Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic

_EPA fuel economy rating: 23 mpg city/31 highway/26 combined; premium gasoline

_Wheelbase: 106.3 inches

_Length: 184.7 inches

_Width: 70.0 inches

_Height: 55.7 inches

_Curb weight: 3,464 pounds

_Price as tested: $59,170

Prices exclude destination charge.



Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at


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