Notes from the Road, A Personal Automotive History – Issue 25: “The German Evo”


I’ve sung this song before, I know.  After several previous “really final this time” entries, the last entry was supposed to actually be the real deal.  Well unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be.  The 997 Turbo is quite likely the finest car I’ve owned and honestly, likely the finest car I will ever own.  It’s hard to describe just how good it really is.  The steering feel and precision is flawless.  The power delivery is epic; particularly with the Tiptronic.  Starting in 2nd gear is a drag (literally), but if you drive aggressively enough, frequently enough, it will drop that habit and, worst case, forcing it to 1st is a thumb flick away.  Off the line in first there is basically no turbo lag.  The Variable Turbo Geometry (VTG) system really does its job and, at full boost, it’s a monster.  Of the cars I’ve owned, only the ’14 GTR was quicker but even that beast simply could not match the combination of perfect driving position, size, feedback and involvement that the Turbo delivers.  It’s on another level in every way.

Unfortunately, though, sports cars can be tough in reality.  The back seats aren’t completely vestigial, but they’re not exactly usable either and 2 door coupes can be more of a pain, more of the time, than one might imagine.  The kid keeps growing (funny how they do that) and commuting around the Bay Area is pretty brutal.  Having a kid climbing in and out of the back of a Turbo is rough and it isn’t the best commuter car.  It’s loud and has a good bit of road noise, and the tech is very back dated.  Even a new 991 isn’t great in that department, but the 997 lags even its contemporaries; lacking simple practical tech like basic Bluetooth.  As a result, taking a call from the road isn’t very realistic without some significant modernization, and even that wouldn’t help the tire and road noise.

The other issue is that a near 10 year old super car is an interesting proposition as a daily driver.  Porsche flies under the radar pretty well, which is great, but it’s still a car that grabs attention and that you don’t particularly love leaving at the “park and ride”, corporate parking lots, or a minivan cluttered elementary school.

There was also an added complexity in that, for me, owning a used car is always bitter sweet.  I love dodging the depreciation hit, but over time I tend to notice thousands of little things.  How did this nick in the leather get there?  Where did that scuff come from?  What the heck was owner doing that caused that?! These little worries add up for me and erode my peace of mind; particularly when I’m spending a lot of time in the car and relying on it daily.  While a used car is a great value, and you can do a ton of well informed due diligence, you never really know.

All of that said, the 997 Turbo is one of the smartest used car moves you can make.  You can pretty much sell it for what you paid for it as long as you maintain it well and don’t pile too many miles on, and that’s a rare thing.  In addition, it’s quite possibly the pinnacle of the classic Porsche 911 experience.  Some might argue that the new cars are a better over all package, but I think everyone will agree they are a different direction that has been polarizing for long time fans.

So what does all of this mean?  What kind of lunatic gets rid of a 997 Turbo, albeit a used one, and what do they exchange it for?  Well my criteria had become a bit tight.  I feel even the current 3 series BMW has gotten too big, so anything too much bigger was way out of the question.  That said, I did want 4 seats at least usable by medium sized adults and, once and for all, 4 doors.  Of course whatever it was, it was going to have to be quick and, because my wife and I now share cars in emergencies, an automatic.  Most importantly, it had to be something would consider “special”.  My attention span is short enough as it is, so if the car doesn’t have some unique aspect to it, I know it’s going to be gone in 60 seconds. Last thing is, it had to be new.  I wanted no history, no stories, and no DNA floating around the car that wasn’t mine.  I also wanted new car tech, new car smell, and a warranty.  And I wanted to stop setting money on fire, which meant I needed something that would last long enough to ease the agony of the massive initial depreciation hit.  That pretty much doubles down the importance of “special”.  Total budget for all of this? $60k.

These criteria create a pretty short list.  I checked out what amounts to “the usual suspects” given my priorities.  I evaluated the new WRX, the Audi S3, the Golf R, the Ford Focus RS and the CLA45 AMG.  The WRX I liked, but after a quick test drive, it was out.  I liked it, but my wife hated it and honestly, I’ve always been an Evo guy (not to mention, been there, done that).  I knew that a WRX, to me, would never quite scratch the itch.  Moving on, I checked out the Focus RS.  Brilliant little car that, to my eye, actually looks pretty good (full disclosure, I hate hatchbacks).  Unfortunately, Ford dealers feel it’s a $50k car (see “obscene dealer markup”) and I do not.  That brought me to VW.

The Audi S3 and the Golf R are basically the same car, except the Golf is better.  I hate to say it, but that’s just true.  The Audi S3 is a more expensive, not as good, Golf R.  That was a big problem for me.  Now to be fair, the Golf R was phenomenal.  It’s everything that is great about the GTi (which is everything), plus a lot more.  Dynamically it was brilliant.  Easily on par with the M235i, and it felt just about as quick.  The steering actually had better feel than the BMW.  The interior looked better than both the BMW or the Audi to me, and the car is incredibly practical.  Unfortunately it does not look good to my eye (again, hate hatchbacks), and my wife had a viscerally bad reaction to it.  Also, $40k is a lot for a VW, even though this is a brilliant car and worth every penny.  So what about the S3?  The S3’s biggest problem, in my opinion, is the Golf R.  I couldn’t help but compare it and it couldn’t help but come up short in every way.  Also, knowing that I’m paying for an Audi skin on a VW is a huge issue psychologically for me.  So while it is a handsome little sedan (although every Audi sedan looks exactly the same just in different sizes, they’re all pretty handsome), I just couldn’t do it.  Especially since I had already owned the RS5 and found it less than able to hold my attention long term.

So at this point the end of the story is pretty clear (assuming it wasn’t already from the title).  I ended up with a 2017 CLA45 AMG.  A hugely polarizing car in that it is based on the universally despised CLA class and had a pretty rough start well it was released in 2014.  It has since been greatly improved, but never re-reviewed and, as a result, has a pretty bad public image.  The test drive, however, was pretty convincing.  I had tested one in 2015, and the 2016 changes are very noticeable.  The 2017 appearance changes were less direly needed, but are noticeable as well.

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How does it stack up?  Well first the bad.  To me, every car today below $100k looks horrible inside and the CLA is no exception.  Crappy hard plastics and cheap materials everywhere.  I would say the CLA has a nicer design than the M235i and the S3, and features some better materials like more generous usage of MB-Tex (Benz fake leather which is actually not bad) and Dinamica (Benz fake suede, also not bad), red deviated stitching and red seat belts, but overall it’s a mixed bag that still has way more hard plastic than I would like to see, and is not as nice as a C63.  On the other hand, all of it looks like it will wear quite well over time and definitely looks durable, and there are no natural materials anywhere which can be good for the conscience.  Also, full disclosure, my build has none of the interior “upgrades”, but I personally don’t think they make a huge difference.  I saw one with the “red cut leather” and I’ve seen the Recaros, and the overall effect is the same.  I actually prefer the MB-Tex/Dinamica combo seats.

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It is also a car that really needs driving modes.  My sample is  pretty fully loaded up and, as a result, carried a sobering $61k sticker price, but that means it included the locking front diff, raised top speed limiter, adaptive damper suspension and race mode.  I find that switching from comfort, to sport to sport+ to race results in a very noticeable difference.  In comfort the combination of turbo lag and lazy clutch engagement is too noticeable for spirited driving.  So the “good” is that Sport+, on the other hand, is pretty brilliant.  It feels like a different car with very aggressive clutch engagement, aggressive downshifts, rev matching, increased throttle sensitivity and minimal lag.  In Sport+ the CLA45 feels like a proper hooligan and, despite the FWD bias, starts to feel a lot like the Evo MR.

In fact, I think it is fair to say, that the CLA45 is a kind of German Evo MR with a better dual clutch transmission, a worse AWD system, a much better (but still somewhat crappy) interior, and a much nicer exterior (although looks are subjective of course).  Even though the CLA is FWD biased, you don’t really feel it even in spirited driving, so on the street it ends up feeling quite similar to the Evo MR.  The standard AMG exhaust sounds fantastic and, again, reminds me of my modded Evo.

Tech wise, it has literally everything plus the kitchen sync.  The Benz Command system has come a long long way and I far prefer it to the Audi system I had in the RS5 or the iDrive in the M235i.  It has Android and Apple auto, nav, XM/Sirius, Logic7 audio, an SD slot with movie and file viewing, Bluetooth for audio and calls, a WiFi hotspot, apps, onboard system monitoring views (sort of GTR light), on and on.  Too much crap really.  You could spend 40 hours just playing with crap on the, admittedly somewhat awkward looking, but ergonomically fantastic, tablet display. On the driving side it has smart braking that can prevent you from rear ending someone in theory, blind spot detection, and a backup camera.  The only bits missing in my build is the front sensors that come along with the adaptive cruise control (very light autonomy).  Can’t be retrofitted either (I checked).

So what is the final verdict on the CLA45 AMG?  Well I do think it gets a bad rap on forums.  It feels very quick on the street thanks to a well tuned and ridiculously high output 4 that delivers 350 torques at 2400 RPM as long as you keep it in Sport+, and it has a dual clutch that, here in 2017, can hang with the best of them (not sure how bad the much maligned 2014 tune was).  The EPS steering feel is phenomenal, in my opinion, miles better than Audi and a bit better than the M235i as well.  I hate EPS, but the CLA45 makes me forget it has EPS which no car has been able to do outside the truly exceptional new Boxster.  The CLA probably a shit platform overall, which is a shame since you should be able to get a nice luxury car that is also small from these damn companies (Audi, BMW, Benz all very guilty), but you don’t notice it quite as badly in the 45.  I can tell it will be a rattle box, which drives me mad, but to be fair, the 997 Turbo was as well.  The interior is shitty overall, but certainly a bit less shitty than its competitors (including the M2) which says more about the dismal state of what $60k buys you these days than anything else really.  I consider it too big, being even bigger than the ridiculous F80 340i, but it is smaller than an A4 or C class Benz and it does manage to have 4 doors and 4 seats.  I very much like the (admittedly ludicrous as a concept)  “4 door coupe” design in practice visually, so that helps a lot in making a sedan seem “special” aesthetically for me.

Overall I would put it on par with the M235i in many ways, behind it in a few others, and ahead of it in some important ones.  The M235i is dynamically better, without a doubt, being one of the best BMWs since the E46 M3, but the CL45 AMG is clearly quicker on the street and feels more raucous.  I also think the modes make a much bigger difference in the CLA and I prefer all of the suspension settings vs the BMW EDC.  I also prefer the CLA steering feel and find it more direct.  Aesthetically the M235i looks better, being a proper coupe, but the CLA45 is more usable given its 4 doors and has a bit more space as well. It also looks about as good as a sedan can.   Interiors are close, again with both being lackluster, but the CLA45 is definitely better thanks to  higher quality materials used more extensively, and a more flashy design (even given the ///Performance catalog mods I had done to my 235).

At the end of the day, the CLA45 is tough to beat if you’re looking for a fast, small(ish) 4 door with a measure of personality for $60k.  It’s without a doubt a bit of an odd coda to my incredible journey, and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it, but maybe that’s a good thing.  It’s going to have to last a while now if for no other reason than financial, and its going to see some use, so as an “all arounder”, one could certainly do worse!

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