Focus ST vs CLA45 AMG: Pocket-sized monsters
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MEET THE HYPER HATCH — A HOT HATCH TWEAKED WITH A RIDICULOUS AMOUNT OF POWER
We know and love hot hatches: family five-door models uprated to adrenalin-pumping levels of performance and handling.
But beyond the good-natured fun of the hot-hatch, another level of intensity has developed over the last few years. Same size of car, but with powertrain and suspension settings cranked up to ferocious, occasionally frightening levels. Let’s call them hyper hatches.
So meet the Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG Shooting Brake, a $109,900 pocket-monster that can hit 100km/h in just 4.7 seconds.
The ferocity of the CLA 45 is not in doubt. Question is, are there any hot hatches that come close to its lunacy factor? We reckon the $52,840 Ford Focus ST is a contender. It certainly has a wild side, with a 184kW/360Nm 2.0-litre EcoBoost engine driving the front wheels through an old-school six-speed manual gearbox. It hits 100km/h in 6.5 seconds.
Welcome to another in an occasional series of comparison tests we call “half-price heroes”.
The idea of these half-price hero stories is to identify a special new vehicle with particular character traits, then to try to find something that gives you a similar experience for half the money.
We’re not suggesting that the less-expensive vehicle is better, although we’ll happily tell you if it is. Rather, we’re just trying to find a half-price car that can deliver a similar experience to the upmarket one in a few crucial areas.
Let’s begin by backtracking a bit. Yes, you read that right: we have the Shooting Brake version of the A-class-based CLA. Well, Mercedes calls it a shooting brake, but we’d say it’s more of a liftback. Of course, Mercedes calls the CLA four-door a coupe instead of a sedan, so what do we know?
The Shooting Brake also rides on slightly softer suspension than the A 45. Just slightly, mind. But as an everyday car it’s probably the pick of the AMG cars that ride on this particular platform. It’s certainly the sexiest looking.
Driving the CLA 45 is an experience. Select sport mode and the soundtrack is thrilling, albeit a bit over the top for city driving. The engine crackles, the gearbox ignites several rounds of Double Happys with every cog change and your neck muscles strain against the in-gear acceleration. You can flick the car back to a more sedate drive setting, but it’s only slightly better behaved. You always feel like you’re on the edge. Or at a track day.
You do get the performance to go with the noise. The EcoBoost engine boasts enough power to have the front wheels struggling for grip and the nose gets nervous as you race through the gears.
There’s no point comparing straight-line performance or cornering prowess. That’s not what these stories are about and there’s no way the front-drive Focus could keep pace with the mad, all-paw Mercedes on a demanding road.
The Focus feels like a great car at 50km/h. It dances though corners with maximum driver involvement and it provides as much excitement as you ask of it. The Mercedes feels a little inert at low speed, because it has plenty in reserve and so much mechanical grip. Get the AMG 45 out on to a racetrack and the faster you go, the more finesse this car acquires.
The interior of the Mercedes-Benz CLA 45
Both the Ford and Mercedes feel special inside, without deviating from the fundamental architecture of the base Focus and CLA models. There are plenty of detail trim and instrumentation changes in both, but the two cars share a penchant for racing-style seats. The Focus ST has a pair of Recaros up front which are superbly comfortable, although they are set too high to offer a truly sporty driving position.
In the Mercedes CLA 45 you sink into deeply sculpted leather-upholstered seats.
They are what they are, though. The Focus ST has plenty of soft plastic but the cabin styling seems a bit piecemeal, despite the addition of the excellent new Sync 2 touch screen system. The CLA 45 is beautifully consistent in terms of fit/finish but arguably a bit too blingy for its own good.
The interior of the Ford Focus ST.
When you’re not scaring yourself silly, both are pretty practical machines thanks to their two-box body shapes and five-door configurations. The Focus has 363 litres of luggage space, while the more wagon-like CLA Shooting Brake boasts 495 litres — only 25 litres more than the CLA four-door, but still surprisingly spacious given that sleek profile.
The Ford Focus ST is one of our favourite hot hatches: comfortable enough to serve as an everyday car, but wild whenever you want it to be.
It couldn’t possibly raise the pulse as much as the manic Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG Shooting Brake. But the Ford can still raise your pulse by a lot more than half that of the Mercedes-Benz. So yes, it’s a real hero.