The CLA-Class is a departure from what most people in this country expect from a Mercedes-Benz vehicle. In its most basic form it only powers the front wheels and it uses a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Mind you none of that is new outside of America where FF Benzes are common. Fed up with Audi’s A3 running relatively unopposed, the CLA was born.
As you probably know, it’s basically an Americanized version of the re-designed A-Class five-door that launched in Europe roughly a year prior to the CLA’s launch here. Audi is old hat in this segment, but Audi’s A3 is fresh from the milliner in 2015 and – arguably – it’s never been better.
Dead Rivals… Depending on Where You Look
The CLA and A3 are very similar in some ways. They both come in front- or all-wheel drive variants and only as sedans. You can’t buy either with a manual transmission, and they carry roughly the same starting price. Both come with dual-clutch gearboxes and look like shrunken versions of more expensive nameplates. But which one should you buy?
Even if they seem alike based on specifications, the two cars are miles apart on the road. In 2.0-liter turbo form, the A3 is a gem to drive and it all starts with the transmission.
The six-speed dual-clutch that Audi uses offers smooth shifts at any speed. The gear changes could be a little bit more responsive via the paddle shifters, but it’s still a splendid system.
Not so with the CLA. It snaps through gears at highway speeds without blinking, but the shifts are jarring at low speeds. It isn’t horrible, but the Audi is noticeably better even though it doesn’t have a seventh gear.
The CLA also suffers from significant turbo lag. In other words, there is a noticeable gap between throttle application and any sort of forceful acceleration. That will be true with pretty much any turbocharged four-cylinder car you choose, but it’s almost imperceptible in the 2.0-liter A3. Frankly, it feels quick off the line and there’s plenty of power after the initial surge.
Audi’s all-wheel drive system also does a better job of pulling you out of a corner than the version of Mercedes’ 4Matic system that comes in the CLA. Both cars are capable of taking a tight turn, but doing so in the CLA is nerve-wracking and it’s actually fun in the A3.
That probably has as much to do with what’s hiding underneath the skin as anything else. In the past, Audi’s A3 was basically a Volkswagen GTI in sharper clothes and that’s still partially true because just like the MK7 GTI, this car is based on Volkswagen Group’s MQB modular platform. Unlike that car, the A3 is now being sold as a sedan and a single transmission.
But rather than seeming like a dulled version of VW’s street weapon, it feels like a mature alternative.
Of the two, it’s also easier to live with the Audi. It doesn’t force you to compromise rear seat comfort the way Mercedes’ aggressively sloping roof will. In fact, the A3 manages to avoid feeling like a low-cost luxury compromise entirely and that’s why it’s such an easy car to fall in love with.
Interiors That Belong in Separate Segments
And rear seat comfort isn’t the only place where Audi has Mercedes-Benz on the ropes because the A3 has a better interior through-and-through.
|Vehicle||2015 Audi A3 2.0T||Advantage||2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA250 4Matic|
|Engine||2.0L Turbo 4 Cyl||–||2.0L Turbo 4 Cyl|
|Transmission||Six-speed dual-clutch automatic||Mercedes||Seven-speed dual clutch automatic|
|Average observed MPG||27||–||27|
|Rear seat headroom||36.1||Audi||35.6|
|Cargo space (behind rear seats)||10 cu-ft||Mercedes||13.1 cu-ft|
|Base price (2.0 w/AWD)||$32,900||Mercedes||$32,825|
|Price as tested||42,700||Audi||$43,550|
The panels all fit together well and the physical controls deliver satisfying feedback as you turn and press them. Mercedes can build a rotary knob to spin with the best of them, but it’s disheartening to close the driver’s door only to notice that you can actually see through to the B-pillar, which is coated in the same paint as the exterior. Certain surfaces like the plastic accent on the dashboard look nice in pictures, but they feel cheap in person and that isn’t true with the A3.
Mercedes also has the especially bad fortune of choosing a fixed navigation screen for the CLA – among other nameplates – that looks suspiciously similar to the display Mazda is using. It looks good in products from an underdog Japanese company with dreams of jumping to the big leagues, but pretty bad in something like a Mercedes-Benz.
It wouldn’t seem like such a big deal were it not for the way Audi’s interior designers went about installing the A3’s screen. Rather than cluttering the center stack, it slides out of a slot in the dashboard while the car is running and tucks away when it isn’t.
The A3 also comes with Audi’s latest MMI infotainment system while the CLA is stuck with the previous version of COMAND. It’s totally serviceable, but both of these cars are pointed squarely at yuppies like me and frankly, I’m swayed. Audi uses a large rotating wheel with a touch pad that lets to enter information by tracing each letter with your finger instead of hunting it down through an on-screen keyboard (although you can do that too). In my mind, it all boils down to functionality and the A3’s interior does it better at every turn.
In fact, the only area where Mercedes really has a leg up, and it’s a small one, is that the CLA has a solid panel built into the sun roof instead of the cloth screen at use in most of VW Group’s vehicles.
Mercedes was quicker to market, but Audi’s approach is better executed. I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to recommend the 2015 Audi A3 quattro over CLA 250 4Matic, which is one of the reasons it is on the short list of candidates to be the 2015 AutoGuide.com Car of the Year.
2015 Audi A3