Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 vs. Cadillac CT4-V: Pocket Rockets Deluxe

Subcompact luxury sedans emerged as a gateway drug to the premium market, the first “nice” car for the driver whose initial new vehicle may have been a Honda Civic or a Subaru Impreza. But what if that driver is coming from a Civic Si or a WRX and don’t want to lose performance while increasing their luxury street cred?

Luxury automakers play the performance game, too. Enter the Cadillac CT4-V and the Mercedes-AMG CLA 45, each representing their manufacturer’s sportiest take on its smallest sedan. These cars sell brand newcomers on the notion of luxury while simultaneously fulfilling race-car fantasies. And although Mercedes and Cadillac both delivered excellent subcompact sporty four-doors for this test, only one nailed the mission statement.

First Impressions

We need to get this out of the way: As tested, the CLA 45 rings in more than $22,000 richer than the CT4-V. Even subtracting superfluous options like the $4,300 AMG Dynamic Plus package, fancy seats, park assist, and big black rims so the two are similarly equipped, the Benz will still set you back an extra $10,000 or so. Mercedes offers a mid-grade, less powerful CLA 35 that could have made for a more fairly priced competition, but it wasn’t available. You fight the battle with the army you have.

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Looking at these two vehicles side by side, the CT4 is a longer, bigger car, and it obviously rides on a rear-drive platform based on its dash-to-axle spacing. It’s designed more like a 7:8-scale sport sedan than a subcompact affixed with big-car design language.

By those same visual cues, you can tell the Mercedes is based on a front-drive subcompact, but it nonetheless has an imposing, purposeful stance compared to the Cadillac—due in large part to its 4.1 inches (!) of additional width and its lower roofline. Although there’s still a hint of that melting derrière vibe from the first-gen CLA, it works here. Especially donning this Denim Blue paint and an optional set of 19-inch black wheels, the AMG is the car I’d be excited to walk out to every morning.

The Mercedes interior design is excellent. Its two-tone upholstery, integrated dual-display dash with standard 10.3-inch infotainment and instrument cluster displays, and metallic switchgear conjure reminders of E- and S-Class sedans that can cost twice as much.

And don’t get me started on these seats. Our CLA 45 test vehicle features a set of $2,700 optional Recaro sport seats with dramatic lateral bolstering. They look every bit their asking price, and although some staffers took issue with their comfort level (these seats are firm), with proper adjustment I felt like I could sit in them for hours. Sift through the infotainment system, and you’ll find no fewer than 100 lumbar support settings (10 vertical positions, each with 10 degrees of depth) plus bolster adjustability from corset-tight to wide enough to accommodate your post-Thanksgiving belly.

The MBUX infotainment system, though handsomely presented, is still more complicated than it needs to be. The responsiveness of the steering wheel touch buttons and the primary touchpad between the seats feels inconsistent; it regularly took two or three tries to accurately select the targeted icon. The menu diving necessary to access something as simple as seat adjustment speaks to how convoluted the software can be.

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Once you look past the visual flair, the AMG’s interior quality is something of a disappointment. The upholstery feels thin and cheap, and pieces like the door-mounted grab handle or the cluster of climate control buttons in the center stack will flex and creak when stressed. Oh, and even though we don’t expect limolike rear legroom in our subcompact sedans, this back seat is rough. Anyone who’s hit their adolescent growth spurt will be brushing their knees against front seat backs, and the CLA’s sloping roof results in pitiful rear headroom. We’d like more seat padding, too.

Sitting in the CT4 is like the other side of the same not-quite-right coin. The optional Sangria leather upholstery with white piping and red contrast stitching feels soft and rich, a step above what we’d expect in this segment. I get the impression this cabin is screwed together more tightly, too.

Although the seats look sporty enough, they lack the degree of adjustability on offer in the Benz. (That’s what that extra $2,700 gets you.) Once we got a chance to drive these cars, staffers were sliding all over the cabin in the Cadillac while the AMG seats held folks secure so they could focus on the driving. Rear seating in the Caddy is just as tight on your knees, but fewer passengers will brush their hairdos against the ceiling.

The Cadillac offers the superior infotainment system. Although it’s presented on a smaller 8.0-inch display, navigating the interface via the center rotary controller, touchscreen, or the (admittedly cluttering) dash-mounted control dial is straightforward and intuitive. The smartphone slot positioned at the front of the center console is a thoughtful detail I found myself appreciating every time I was in the cabin.

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The issue here is that this infotainment setup is largely identical to those used across the GM portfolio. Installing the same infotainment system you’d see in a Chevy crossover that costs half the price fails to make the CT4-V interior feel as luxurious or exclusive as it should.

The Numbers Game

If this were a pure numbers comparison, you’d know the outcome just by looking at the charts. Under the hood of the CT4-V sits a 2.7-liter turbo-four, derived from the forced-induction lump available in the Silverado pickup.

A less powerful version can be had on the CT4 Premium Luxury, but in this application, it develops 325 hp and 380 lb-ft of torque. Cadillac pairs this largest-displacement four-pot on the market with a 10-speed conventional automatic and RWD, though AWD is available.

That combination is good for 0-60 in a respectable 5.5 seconds and the quarter mile in 14.2 at 95.2 mph. A lap of our figure-eight course, which evaluates acceleration, braking, and cornering, comes in 25.4 seconds at 0.73 average g. Those numbers position the Caddy in a similar league to cars like the Audi A4 2.0T Quattro, the four-cylinder Alfa Romeo Giulia, and the recently departed Jaguar XE 2.0T. Those are respectable compact sport sedans in the next size up, but in their mainstream powertrain configurations.

This AMG comes from a different planet. Even though we don’t get the fully uncorked tuning reserved for the Euro-market CLA 45 S, the four-banger powering this littlest Benz is monstrous. From just 2.0 liters of displacement, the AMG turbo-four delivers 382 hp and 354 lb-ft, making it the most powerful four-cylinder we’ve ever tested.

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(Side note: That much power from so little displacement is bonkers. Breaking the 100-hp/liter barrier was once something to brag about, and to approach 200 hp/liter is unheard of. If the C8 Corvette’s 6.2-liter V-8 delivered the same power density as this AMG brute, it would develop nearly 1,200 horsepower.)

With help from its eight-speed dual-clutch automatic, standard AWD, and launch control, the CLA 45 reaches 60 in 3.6 seconds and crosses the quarter mile in 12.1 seconds at 113.6 mph—both figures come around two full Mississippis sooner than in the Cadillac.

Factor in a figure-eight lap in 24.1 seconds at 0.80 average g, and it’s obvious the AMG is in an entirely different performance bracket than this CT4. Where the Cadillac’s numbers are comparable with a four-cylinder Giulia, the CLA’s best those of the 505-hp Giulia Quadrifoglio (starting price $76,095) and compare favorably with an Aston Martin Vantage (about twice the price). I have no hesitation labeling this among the first subcompact supersedans.

Despite the Grand Canyon of a performance gap, both cars are EPA-rated at 20/29 mpg city/highway. If you’re road tripping, the Cadillac’s larger gas tank means 505 miles of highway range instead of 392 miles in the AMG.

Driving Impressions

Before you mash the throttle through the floormat or toss either of these cars into a tight corner, you’ll immediately notice a difference in ride quality. With help from Cadillac’s standard magnetic ride control suspension, the CT4 travels over the road with outstanding comfort and composure. Body roll is barely noticeable, and any impacts are met with a one-and-done response—no secondary body movements here.

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The AMG, on the other hand, brings up every not-so-nice descriptor in my ride quality vocabulary. Even in the Comfort suspension setting, the CLA is firm, stiff, and occasionally jittery. Loud, too. The CT4’s Track setup is more supple and just as composed. You’ll notice road imperfections in the AMG that the Cadillac filters away without a second thought. It’s just compliant enough to tolerate, especially as a sport special, but folks with existing back issues need not apply.

These cars steer differently, too. The Mercedes rack is both quicker and heavier. Neither car provides much in terms of road feel, but the Cadillac’s steering, though smooth and accurate, doesn’t feel as purposeful as the AMG’s. Even pulling out of a parking lot, navigating the Benz is more involving.

The Mercedes transmission can feel a little clunky pulling away from a stop or shifting from reverse to drive. That’s the dual-clutch for you. Once you’re moving, though, it provides immediate, seamless gearshifts and prevents the slurring exhaust note of the Cadillac automatic’s cog swapping. The AMG’s shift logic often had me in a higher gear than I’d like, but it provided impetus to use the metal paddles behind the steering wheel.

The auto in the Cadillac is smoother in every way, and its programming is mind-reader intuitive when you’re driving quickly (eliminating the need to use the handsome though buttonlike paddle shifters). It offers a performance shift mode that dramatically quickens upshifts and downshifts when you’re exploring the upper limits of the rev range, but there is no way to manually activate it. Most of the time, it just feels pedestrian.

Speaking of pedestrian, we have to talk about these engines. The CT4 is reasonably quick and happy to shoot through gaps in traffic, but this Cadillac powerplant sounds awful. It’s as coarse as you’d expect from a truck engine, even if it entertains with the occasional forced-induction whistle. Turbo-fours aren’t known for aural elegance, but I would find myself upshifting to actively avoid hearing this powerplant at high revs.

Meanwhile, I constantly floored the throttle in the AMG just for giggles. I wouldn’t call the AMG’s engine a singer, but it provides entertaining (if manufactured) pops and burbles from its quad exhaust tips. Acceleration is every bit as rapid as the numbers would suggest, once you account for a hint of turbo lag and a quick downshift. Violent, easy-to-actuate launch control makes for an impressive party trick or a fun reminder at every stoplight this little Mercedes can out-accelerate nearly anything on the road.

Thankfully, neither of these cars protests at the low-speed demands of slow-moving traffic (save for the occasional aforementioned clunk of the AMG’s dual clutch). Their power and torque ratings indicate potential for boosty, high-strung engines that only excel at full throttle; that is not the case.

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Once the road grows twisty and cornering radii drop, the Cadillac’s balance shines through. Not only is the CT4 lighter than the CLA (3,603 vs. 3,724 pounds), but that weight is also distributed almost dead even instead of piled over the front wheels. This is a car that flows through corners like a skier carving fresh powder. It’ll understeer on power and rotate under hard braking, the engine happy to sling you off the apex and onto the next one.

The Mercedes feels up on its toes by comparison, but its wider rubber and unrelenting AWD grip mean you can lean on the throttle, shifting the weight rearward and using the power routed through the AWD system. Washing out the front end is rare, and with the Sport traction control setting, things can even get a little drifty. You can carry loads more speed through corners than in the Cadillac, and the AMG’s quicker steering and shorter wheelbase lend this car an agility the CT4 can’t match. It feels more like a rally car with a three-pointed star than a subcompact with FWD bones.

Closing Thoughts

Now, to the final number that counts: price. Both our test vehicles were pretty loaded up with extra gear. The AMG rang in at an eye-watering $73,850 as tested, and for that money you can get a well-equipped E-Class—two size-classes larger and way more luxurious. But you’re reading this because you love hot compact cars, and the AMG slays. Meanwhile, the CT4-V seems a comparative bargain, at $51,450 on the Monroney label. (Again, the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 is a closer price rival to the Caddy, but it doesn’t deliver the same riotous thrills.) Here’s the thing: If you want raw performance from your pocket rocket, the CLA 45 is without question worth the extra cash. Even if it didn’t crush the CT4-V on the test track, the AMG provides constant reminders of its intent. Easy launch control makes for immediately accessible performance, and the exhaust note provides auditory indications of the four-cylinder nuke under the hood. Immediate steering and the trick AWD system give off total boy-racer energy. Inside and out, it feels like a more premium, more aspirational package that excels not only as a performance vehicle but also as a luxury car.

Cadillac built what would have been a great starting point for the CT4. It’s a decently quick, nicely appointed, well-built sport sedan with great balance, buttery ride quality, and a quiet, cushy cabin. AMG delivered a bite-sized four-door Nissan GT-R.

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