SO HERE'S THE plan. We're taking a European road trip: two dads, two grown-up sons and sufficient luggage to provide each of us with two weeks' supply of clean clothes (we don't want to smell like a mobile changing room). Starting out in Brussels, heading south into Switzerland and then meandering our way back again to Belgium by way of France, Luxembourg and Germany, we'll be driving at least 2,000km, much of it on autobahns. Think of it as some kind of turbocharged bonding exercise, as in Vanishing Point meets The Pursuit of Happyness meets Sideways – though fingers crossed it won't turn out like Road to Perdition or, worse still, The Road.
The choice of wheels is crucial. As our route takes in considerable speed-unrestricted portions of Germany's autobahn system, it's a given that whatever we drive needs to be fast. It must also be sufficiently spacious to accommodate four men of average height and weight, plus their bags. Petrol is especially costly on the European continent (though not as ruinously expensive as in Hong Kong, which ranks second only to Norway as the priciest place on the planet in which to fill up a car), so a modest thirst for fuel is desirable. And, if at all possible, it should be fun to drive, characterful, and smart enough to park outside one of the impossibly posh hotels that doubtless await us when we roll up in Geneva.
Sounds like a tough call, but when a Mercedes-AMG CLA 45 Shooting Brake becomes available at short notice for an extended test drive (and in the Belgian capital too), it looks as if our prayers have been answered. Based on the A-class and sharing the same platform and wheelbase, the Brake is an altogether more elegant – and, for our purposes, way more practical – alternative to that somewhat truncated hatchback, with swoopy lines, greater rear headroom, considerably more luggage space and a sharply angled tailgate that contributes to a rakish and slightly retro appearance, especially from behind. Some say the Shooting Brake's looks are an acquired taste; I think it's eyecatching and intriguing.
Moreover, as this sporting wagon also shares the fearsomely potent drive train of the AMG A 45 – a highly tuned, turbocharged four-cylinder whose 355bhp makes it the world's most powerful twolitre series production engine, coupled to a seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox and 4Matic all-wheel drive – it also promises performance that verges on the mental. (Like all engines from Benz's high-performance division in Affalterbach, the motor is hand-built by a single employee and bears a small plaque inscribed with that proud gentleman's name.)
On paper, then, the CLA looks to be just the job for a dash down the Rhine to the Alps and back – and when we pick up the car at Mercedes- Benz's Benelux headquarters it looks just the job, period. Even though there's a clear resemblance to the A-class from the front doors forward, the sharp, sleek silhouette, scalloped flanks and long sculpted bonnet seem almost raffish, while the menacing orifices beneath the grille, “Turbo AMG” badges along the sides, twin trapezoid exhausts and 18-inch alloys shod with low-profile rubber all point to the presence of that extreme engine up front.
The first test is to load it up – bags first. Although the opening to the almost-500-litre bay is shallow and impeded by rear-light clusters and a high lip, three large suitcases and a similar-sized rucksack all go in easily, followed by a smaller backpacks, camera and laptop bags, and a supermarket bag stuffed full of snacks and drinks. That makes a considerable pile, but in the mirror I can still see over the top and out through the rear screen.
Then it's us, and though I don't know how my back-seat passengers are doing (repeated enquiries during the trip elicit claims that they're perfectly comfortable), I can say that the optional AMG Performance chairs in front are superb, hugging the body and offering exceptional lateral support and comfort. Indeed, excepting the odd bit of plastic here and there, and the infotainment screen that looks like an afterthought, an air of quality imbues the entire cabin, with bright-red seat trim and belts adding dashes of colour to the otherwise black interior, a small and wieldy sports steering wheel, stainless-steel pedals and door sills, and surfaces trimmed in leather and hi-tech Alcantara. Bucking current Benz trends, the gear selector is in the proper place (i.e., the centre console rather than the steering column) and, crucially for the driver, everything falls to hand perfectly.
I won't bore you with endless details about our journey; suffice it to say that we cover 2,400km without a hitch. You will, however, want to know how the CLA 45 drives, which I can sum up in a single word: astonishingly. The engine, of course, is the star, its 355 horses and 450 Newtons of twist providing the kind of speed and acceleration I'd expect from a Carrera, Boxter or Cayman, and that's in spite of the four passengers and bags we have on board.
It goes without saying that the Shooting Brake is fast – 250km/h and acceleration from standstill to the ton in considerably less than five seconds. What that doesn't convey is just how flexible this four-pot is, with maximum torque available from a little over 2,000 rpm and then right up through the rev range, or how gloriously fruity it sounds as I pile on the revs and change up or down, with all the pops, farts and whistles that you'd expect from a pukkah, AMG-badged motor.
Once on the autobahn and with an empty fast lane in front of us the speed just builds and builds: 160km/h is such an easy cruising gait that it feels as if we're standing still, while even with the speedo showing a steady 220 there's still plenty in reserve. (This isn't, of course, something we can legally countenance at home, which is probably just as well because at speeds like that the CLA guzzles 98-octane like a dipso on a bender; stick to 120 on the highway, however, and Mercedes' claimed 7 litres per 100km seems eminently achievable).
But it isn't all just engine, because the chassis is hugely capable too. Mercedes has tuned the Brake's suspension to be more compliant than the A-class or the CLA Coupe, and it certainly rides more smoothly than either, which does wonders for the car's long-distance cruising credentials. Body roll is negligible, there's massive grip and it carves through corners with scalpel precision. The electronic steering is nicely weighted, too, though it could do with a little more feel. Even at the highest speeds the Shooting Brake feels as stable as a rock, which is a source of enormous reassurance to everyone on board. It is, in fact, an immensely rewarding and impressive car to drive.
In normal circumstances the 4Matic all-wheel drive vectors 100 percent of power to the front wheels, though when things get iffy it will divert up to half to the rear tyres, while engaging Sport mode accelerates that process. The brakes are beyond reproach; indeed, the only really discernable weak spot is with the transmission, whose occasional hesitation when shifting doesn't quite match the engine's urgency and willingness.
Not that that matters, for we're all rather sad when we return the CLA 45 Shooting Brake to the Benz people in Belgium. It's been an epic drive in an equally epic car, so much so that we're already planning to do it again next year. The only problem is finding a vehicle that can possibly do the job better.