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First drive: 2015 Mercedes-Benz CLA Shooting Brake

The wagon that would turn Americans back to wagons is the one we can't have

If there’s one car on the face of the Earth that can reconcile American buyers with the station wagon it’s without a doubt the CLA 45 AMG Shooting Brake.

Just like the Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class is billed as a baby CLS, the new CLA Shooting Brake is marketed as a more affordable alternative to the CLS Shooting Brake. The two have more in common than a sleek-yet-practical silhouette, starting with the fact that neither model has been earmarked for the United States. Still, I couldn’t resist the urge to fly to Frankfurt, Germany, in order to get a taste of what we’re missing out on.

By the numbers

Like the CLA 45 coupe, the AMG-massaged Shooting Brake is powered by a hand-built 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that uses a beefy twin-scroll turbocharger to churn out 355 horsepower and 331 pound-feet of torque, the latter figure available over a wide band that stretches from 2,250 to 5,000 rpm. The turbo four – holding the honor of being the most powerful regular-production four-banger currently on the market – rockets the Shooting Brake from 0 to 62 mph in 4.7 seconds.

The 2.0-liter is bolted to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that can be either left in Drive or shifted manually using steering wheel-mounted paddles. Power is sent to all four wheels via an AMG-tuned version of Mercedes’ 4Matic all-wheel drive system. The setup uses a power takeoff unit that is built directly into the gearbox, a setup that saves weight by eliminating bulky components like the transfer case.

Behind the wheel

The engine comes to life with a deep growl that is pleasant to listen to but not excessively loud. Put the console-mounted gear lever in Drive, mash the throttle, and the turbo four instantly responds with a menacing bark and gobs of low-end torque. Upshifts are announced by a loud “brrrrap” from the exhaust – take notice if you live in the mountains, lest you trigger an avalanche.

The steering is well weighted and precise, and the modifications made to the CLA by AMG help create a nimble, buttoned-down feel. You can take bends at speeds that seem downright unreasonable – at least from the passenger’s point of view – and the Shooting Brake remains absolutely super-glued to the road, even on wet surfaces thanks to Mercedes’ excellent 4Matic all-wheel drive system.

That said, Mercedes has not tried to recreate rear-wheel drive dynamics and the CLA certainly feels like a four-wheel drive car when it’s pushed to the limits, there’s no doubt about it in your mind when you slip behind the wheel for a spirited drive.

I’ve driven – and owned – quite a few Mercedes cars from all eras and each one has surprised me because you can’t feel the speed that you’re traveling at from the driver’s seat. The CLA 45 is no exception. I reached triple-digit speeds on unrestricted sections of the Autobahn without even realizing it. Keeping my foot down, I briskly hit the CLA’s top speed of 150 mph – that’s a little less than the 155 mph quoted in the brochures, but Mercedes dialed it in because my test car was fitted with snow tires.

The wagon feels stable, composed, and sure-footed at high speeds, calmly reminding its occupants that it was designed to cruise on the Autobahn from the get-go. Large cross-drilled discs on all four corners bring the CLA back to double-digit speeds with no fade, even after several high-speed-low-speed jaunts.

The CLA 45’s turbocharged 2.0-liter is the most powerful regular-production four-cylinder in the world.

True to its compact roots, the CLA is docile to drive around town, especially when Comfort mode is selected. Comfort mode kicks in a seamless start/stop system, makes the throttle a little less responsive and tells the transmission to shift up to the next gear sooner than when in Sport mode. The biggest issue I ran into while driving the Shooting Brake in downtown Frankfurt during rush hour is that it’s about on par with a Sprinter panel van in terms of rear visibility.

I also spent a little bit of time behind the wheel of the CLA 250 4Matic. It’s a lot less hardcore than the 45 AMG, as you’d expect, but it remains a well-executed wagon that is lively to drive. It handles well – 4Matic helps, no doubt – but I found the suspension to be too stiff in every day conditions for a non-AMG model. Truth be told, what the CLA lineup really needs is a stopgap AMG Sport model positioned between the 250 and the 45.

The inside story

Inside, the CLA Shooting Brake offers a sporty cockpit that has been upgraded with a meaty three-spoke steering wheel, an AMG-specific instrument cluster with carbon fiber inserts and aluminum pedals. The materials aren’t as top-notch as those found in, say, a C63, but it is important to note that the CLA 45 retails for considerably less.

The cockpit is roomy, but my test car was equipped with the optional AMG sport seats, which were uncomfortably hard on long drives. The regular seats found in the aforementioned 250 provided plenty of support and a whole lot more comfort.

2015 Mercedes Benz CLA Class Shooting Brake

Ronan Glon/Digital Trends

The CLA’s COMAND infotainment system is one of the more complicated units on the market. Its central component is a high-resolution color screen that pops out from the top of the dashboard, an oft-criticized setup that Mercedes explains was picked because it makes it possible to update the infotainment system without having to redesign the entire dash. The menus are accessed using a controller knob on the center console or buttons on the center stack. The center stack interface looks a little dated – visually, it’s more of an evolution of the setup found on last-gen Mercedes models than a brand new design, which I would have preferred to see in the CLA.

Family resemblance

Built on the same platform as the A-Class, the B-Class, and the GLA-Class, the CLA Shooting Brake is the fifth and final addition to Mercedes’ lineup of compact cars, models that are unabashedly designed to lure new and younger buyers into showrooms. The Shooting Brake is essentially identical to the CLA four-door coupe that is sold on our shores from the tip of the front bumper to the B-pillar, but beyond that it gains a longer roofline and a restyled rear fascia that borrows a handful of design cues from the aforementioned CLS.

The Shooting Brake boasts a 0.26 drag coefficient, one of the lowest in its segment. It’s practical, too, offering a generous 17.4 cubic feet of cargo space with four adults on board and 47.8 cubes with the rear seatbacks folded flat. To put those figures into perspective, the GLA’s cargo capacity checks in at 17.2 and 43.6 cubic feet, respectively.

Conclusion

The CLA 45 AMG Shooting Brake is an enticing package for buyers who want to go fast without having to make concessions in the name of space, practicality and budget. You can realistically drive 155 mph to IKEA, load up an office’s worth of furniture, and drive back at the same speed … if you live in Germany, at least. There are dozens of wagons that will do that – even in Mercedes’ own lineup – but the CLA does it with a stylishness that more expensive hot-rodded family haulers can’t match.

Now, for the bad news: Mercedes has categorically ruled out selling the CLA Shooting Brake in the United States because Americans simply don’t buy enough station wagons. That’s a real shame, if there’s one car on the face of the Earth that can reconcile American buyers with the station wagon it’s without a doubt the CLA 45 AMG Shooting Brake.

Highs

  • Sporty, well-executed styling
  • Seriously fast turbo four
  • Precise, sure-footed handling
  • Roomier than many compact crossovers

Lows

  • Sport seats are too hard on long drives
  • Expensive once options are factored in
  • We’re not getting it in the ‘States