You know that sickly feeling of weightlessness you get when you're driving fast and crest a hill a little too quickly? Germany's new Bilster Berg racetrack, a roller coaster of blacktop deep in Brothers Grimm territory, imparts that feeling just about every 10 seconds. The only thing that's missing is a loop. If a car has any handling demons, this place will reveal them before a lap is over.
It's brave, or maybe even foolish, to unveil a car in such an unforgiving environment, but Bilster Berg is where Mercedes chose to debut its new CLA45 AMG – the first four-cylinder model from AMG, Mercedes' in-house speed shop that creates the fastest, baddest Benzes on the road. And while my stomach isn't always too happy, the CLA45 is. Barring a truly physics-challenging error, the CLA45 just goes where you point it. And quickly.
Of course, I doubt many CLA45 buyers will track their cars. But that's not the point – when a lofty division like AMG attempts to increase its mass appeal, the success or failure of the venture rests entirely on credibility. Buyers can smell a poseur three blocks away, which is why, for instance, a Range Rover Evoque is built to go off-road even though Range Rover Evoque buyers will never go off-roading. And a CLA45 AMG must slay a racetrack, which it does. With its bona fides in place, the real issue for the least-expensive AMG is whether it stands up as a desirable machine regardless of the badge on the trunk. If I were to strip all Mercedes logos off the CLA, would it still be a compelling car?
It would certainly look great. The CLA45 is based on the front-wheel-drive CLA250, Mercedes' much-touted invasion into the $30,000 price range. The CLA250 is a nice piece of work, as it must be to carry the mantle of Mercedes' first front-wheel-drive U.S. car. The 'roided up CLA45 AMG version is lower, meaner, and more aggressive, but the real differences, as with all AMGs, are hidden beneath the skin. For $47,000, it's hard to argue with the stats – all-wheel drive, seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, zero to 60 in 4.5 seconds. And that 2.0-liter four-cylinder is turbocharged to the hilt, its exhaust popping and boost hissing as you run through the gears. This AMG is the first aimed at a younger audience, and it feels like it.
And it's legit. Even though it's the least-expensive AMG, it's a car that Cadillac, Audi, or Lexus would all be happy to have in the lineup. With the Evoque, the Mini, and now the CLA – which starts at $30,825 for the CLA250 – the Euros have finally deciphered the secret to selling less-expensive cars in the U.S.: You can't just build a half-assed dorkmobile and expect people to buy it for the name. The task is simple. Build a car that's cool on its own, not because of the badge it wears. While earlier efforts at bargain German cars came across as cynical withdrawals of hard-accrued goodwill, the CLA feels like it's trying hard to head off any stigma as the starter Benz. They should blacklist any customer who buys one as a gift for a sweet 16 party.
There are plenty of competing options when you're spending 50 grand, but there's a sameness to them all – 300 horsepower six-cylinder, rear-wheel drive, four doors. The CLA45 is an outlier, a bit of a thug and a lot less generic. It's also a gateway drug for AMG, the first taste that gets you hooked on the feeling of redlining a hand-built German motor that makes more power than you really need. I have a feeling that more than a few people will walk into the dealership looking for a CLA250 and walk out holding the keys to their first AMG. [$47,000; mbusa.com]