Perhaps it's true what the great art critics and design mavens say. There is beauty in imperfection.
Take, for example, the 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG.
All of it is excellent, even if the seats have flat cushions that scream for more under-thigh support. Love all of it, except one painfully glaring imperfection: a TV screen or three-quarter-sized iPad "thingy" slapped onto the top of the dash like an after-thought.
Barbra Streisand's nose … Jim Furyk's golf swing … Kevin Costner's acting are beautiful yet imperfect creations of nature – unlike this human-made screen. And so I ask: What were they thinking? The cabin in this 355-horsepower street-legal race car, the compact one with four doors, huge wheels, low-profile rubber and intelligent 4Matic all-wheel drive, is almost a masterpiece. The add-on screen, while useful, is an aesthetic abomination.
The colour screen reads out the navigation details and sound system settings and all the rest, yet it's not integrated in the rest of the package. It's just there. A blemish on the wonderful face of a terrific cabin. To the outsider, it looks as though the designers lost an argument with the cost-cutters and this is the sad result.
Or wait, is this Mona Lisa's smile? As Leonard Cohen said: "Forget your perfect offering/There's a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." I'm no art critic but I do know a thing or two about high-performance automobiles. For one, they are out of the ordinary and often painfully expensive. And generally speaking, one with a turbocharged or supercharged engine – with forced induction – that gets 177.5 horsepower/litre of displacement is a work of unusual genius.
In recent memory, I can think of a couple of standouts – the Porsche 911 GT2 RS (620 hp) and the McLaren MP4-12C (593 hp). And yet the Porsche's engine comes in at 172.2 hp/litre, while the last McLaren I last drove rated at 156.1 hp/litre. Oh, and when I tested it last year, the McLaren coupe listed at $258,700 and did 0-100 km/h in 3.1 seconds, with a top speed of 330 km/h. The CLA45 AMG starts at $49,800, or about 20 per cent of the McLaren's sticker. Yes, it's slower. The factory says 0-100 km/h in 4.6 seconds, with an electronically limited top speed of 250 km/h.
Okay, this comparison is a stretch, given the Merc seats four, while the McLaren seats just two. Yet to be fair all around, the rear seats in this compact Merc are not particularly hospitable for the likes of me, all grown up to 200 lbs (90 kilograms) and six feet (183 centimetres). I can squeeze back there in a pinch. Kids? Sure, up to age 12 unless oversized. The car itself is a serious high-performance tool in any decent driver's hands. At a relatively light 1,585 kg – with on-demand 4Matic – this sedan jumps away from a dead stop, creating a rush of joy. The turbo 2.0-litre four-banger under the hood spins up fast – very fast.
That said, the gearbox is a dual-clutch AMG speedshift DCT seven-speed sports model that snaps from ratio to ratio with the beauty of Usain Bolt racing the 100 metres. Mercedes will tell you it can be dialled into any of three distinct transmission modes.
Its double-declutching behaviour depends on which mode it's in, but if you want to eat the road, go for race start. The point is, the on-board software and hardware are designed to interrupt ignition and injection under appropriate loads. If you're the do-in-yourself type, paddle shifters behind the steering wheel put you in control.
The car plays the part, too: AMG front bumper, special air intakes, red brake calipers poke through the wheels, AMG side sills, sport suspension and axles … the full package. A beautiful car, even with its glaring imperfection.
- Red contrast stitching snakes across the black dashboard
- Stainless steel sport pedals at your feet
- Flat-bottom nappa leather steering wheel perched right ahead, thick and inviting and power-adjustable, in and out, up and down
- Five rotating round vents that look like miniature sport wheels lined up across your eye line – and below the centre console trio is a systems control console augmented by a separate controller knob that falls directly under your right hand
- Silver-faced gauge cluster with red needles are housed in two round pods, which is where you’ll find the details about road speed and engine speed, oil pressure, oil temperature and more
2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 45 AMG 4MATIC
Type: compact, high-performance sedan
Base price: $49,800
Gas engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder, turbocharged
Output (horsepower/torque): 355/332 lb-ft
Transmission: seven-speed automatic
Drive: all-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.7 litres/100 km combined using premium fuel
Alternatives: Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Subaru WRX STI
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