Weekend Wheels: A pulse-soaring thrill ride in the Mercedes CLA 35 AMG

I know, I know. We shouldn’t be out driving around these days. Stay at home. Practice social distancing. Keep the car keys on the kitchen counter. 

But there’s this awesome on-ramp leading to I-275 South close to Chez Walker. As you enter this l-o-n-g, tire-squealing turn, the single-lane blacktop soars upwards while sweeping in a perfect arc before joining the Interstate.

And the fun part: As you get halfway through it tightens up, causing white knuckles, eye-widening and general mild panic for the uninitiated. 

In pre-corona days, nine times out of 10 as I’d approach, you could guarantee there’d be some lumbering 18-wheeler cautiously ambling along at 23mph. 

Or some timid Prius pilot tapping the brakes at the first turn of the wheel, fearful of careening off — at 19mph — onto the grass. 

Today is different. Traffic is non-existent; there’s literally not another vehicle in sight. And the best part? I’m behind the wheel of this little red road rocket, a 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 35 AMG 4Matic. 

This is Merc’s baby Benz, a brand new version of its pint-sized CLA four-door coupe designed to bring new, younger buyers into the Mercedes fold.

With stickers starting at $36,650 for the bargain-basement CLA 250, it offers a lot of class for the cash. 

But if you really love to drive, and want to up the performance quota, Mercedes offers a brace of AMG-tuned versions — the 302-horsepower CLA 35 I’m driving, and the even more thrilling 375-horse CLA 45. 

As you might expect, neither comes cheap. A base CLA 35 will set you back $46,900, though with all-wheel drive and a few must-have options, you’re looking at $60,000+. 

The rocketship CLA 45 starts at $53,100 and gets to an Amex-card-melting $70,000 without breaking a sweat.

But right now I’ve got a red-hot car, an on-ramp that feels like an in-field turn at Daytona, and no one to impede my progress.

Time for some fun.

Accelerate hard away from the stoplight close to the approach, feel the awesome thrust of the Merc’s feisty 2.0-liter turbo-4, and revel in the standstill-to-60mph in under 4.8 seconds sprinting. Yee-har.

OK, now ease into the curve. Feel the scalpel-precise steering load up and the front tires grip like Velcro on velvet. And no, don’t lift, don’t lift.

As you reach that thrill spot where the right-hander tightens up, you can feel the little Merc’s traction-enhancing technology working overtime. Everything: its 4Matic all-wheel drive, AMG-tuned suspension, electronic stability control, braking-based torque vectoring and Gorilla-glue grippy 19-inch rubberware at each corner.

Now it’s me who’s feeling the grip as the CLA’s pinch-tight AMG bucket seats with their deep side-bolstering squeeze you in place like a Hulk Hogan body-lock.

I’ve already selected the Sport+ driving mode, which is holding the right gear on the 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, and keeping the engine spinning in its optimal 3,000-to-4,000 rpm power band.

Of course, the temptation right now is to throw both hands in the air and do a whhhoooo, as you would taking a ride on Kumba or SheiKra at Busch Gardens. I resist. 

But now’s the time to pour on some more power and really feel the Merc strutting its stuff, really feel the 4Matic vectoring the engine’s 295 pound-feet of torque to the rear tire with the most grip.

As the mighty Merc fires out of the curve, a quick pull of the paddle shifter grabs the next gear and thrusts us on to a largely empty I-275.  

Man oh man, that was fun. Nothing less than a true finger-tingling, grin-inducing, pulse-soaring thrill ride. 

It’s the thrill of experiencing a great little performance car strutting its stuff. Doing what it’s designed to do. 

I think I might come back and do it again tomorrow. 

Test drive the 2020 Mercedes CLA 35 AMG at Crown Eurocars of Pinellas Park, Mercedes-Benz of Tampa, Lokey Motors of Clearwater, Mercedes-Benz of Wesley Chapel.