2015 Mercedes-Benz CLA 200 CDI Sport vs Audi A3 35 TDI Technology

Halley Prabhakar  /
26 Feb 2015 15:40:02 IST

Luxury carmakers especially the ones from Germany have launched a slew of entry-level luxury cars in India over the last few years. While most of them introduced SUVs and hatchbacks, Audi put a sedan in the mix in the form of the A3. It has gained a lot of interest in the country and has done well for the Ingolstadt carmaker ever since. A very tempting starting price has been one of the key reasons for the car's success. Besides, there has been no direct competition to the car so it's been a relatively smooth journey so far. However, its arch rival, the Mercedes-Benz CLA, has finally hit Indian roads. Can it create some turbulence?

Mercedes CLA vs Audi A3 (1)

Design and styling

Both cars target a younger audience so you expect them to stand out from their more mature siblings. The A3 follows a simple approach while the CLA is the one that loves to preen. Don't get me wrong, the A3 is a smart looking car but the understated design like the rest of the Audi sedans, especially after the arrival of the CLA, no longer gels well with the segment.

The hexagonal family grille and the projector headlamps with unique and bright DRLs give the car added presence. The A3 you see here is also the top-end S line variant, so it gets a more pronounced and lower front bumper and side skirts to make it look sharper. The 17-inch five-spoke rim design is more sport oriented and goes well with the A3's overall styling and all-wheel drive identity. The rear end features clean and straight lines, and the sharp and sexy LED tail lamps neatly merge onto the shoulder line that runs into the boot area. Adding an integrated spoiler effect onto the boot lid completes the sporty and focused stance the A3 paints.

The simple three-box design of the Audi still makes it a smart looking carThe simple three-box design of the Audi still makes it a smart looking car

Interior doesn't feel as premium as the Mercedes - src=Interior of the A3 doesn't feel as premium as the Mercedes

But it is the CLA that is the attention magnet - the front end of the hot A-Class merged with a coupe like rear end makes it one of the best looking cars on road today. The big muscle car like grille features gloss black pins that are curved around the three-pointed star while the equally stylish headlamps feature aggressive LED DRLs. Prominent twin bulges on the bonnet add to the muscular look. The sides aren't straight like the A3 but feature a swooping shoulder line that runs downward towards the lower character line.

The CLA is a stunner when viewed from any angleThe CLA is a stunner when viewed from any angle

The interior feels more premium and is modern tooThe CLA interior feels more premium and is modern too

The highlights, however, are the coupe roofline and the frameless doors, which even cars from higher segments don't feature and this alone gets the CLA extra brownie points. The roof merges well with the tastefully sculpted rear that houses curvaceous tail lamps. The lamp looks even cooler in the dark thanks to the LED outlines that we first saw in the CLA 45 AMG. This Merc also features dual exhausts but they're better positioned, one on each side of the car.

Step inside and the Mercedes immediately feels more special - it's the same dash as the A-Class but with a little more attention to detail. Special metal inlays separate the leather-wrapped upper and hard plastic lower sections of the dashboard. The steering wheel with its pin-cushioned wrap feels richer, as do the dials. The A3 interior in comparison does not feel as sensational, though we do find that the 3D inlays and the collapsible centre infotainment screen manage to command the 'wow' factor. The air vents on both cars are unique, the CLA's are inspired by a propeller while the A3's turbine shaped vents can be adjusted to offer spot or diffused air. Audi's minimalist approach could have been better executed, as the uncluttered look of the dashboard still leaves it with a lot of negative space. That's not to say Mercedes have done a terrific job, for some, the understated nature of the A3 cabin might appear more appealing than the slightly crowded space in the CLA.

Touch and feel elements in both cars are superb, however, there are certain elements in the CLA with regard to build quality that I thought could be better addressed. Nonetheless the quality of buttons and knobs in the CLA and the way they operate is top notch, especially the steering wheel controls. In the A3, my top pick has to be the scroll function on the touchpad which allows you to, for instance, dial a number by simply writing the number on the touchpad.

The Merc seats are just as comfortable as the Audi though better looking to be honest. The integrated headrest design is more like a sportscar's bucket seat. Even the rear passengers get fixed headrests mimicking the front-seat design. Ambient lighting is standard on both cars. The Merc even features them in the seat head restraints. The two cars also get a sunroof but the CLA features a panoramic roof function with an electrically operated headliner that automatically closes when it begins to rain.

Clear to see then that Mercedes have spared little effort on styling this car flamboyantly. Audi could have done more with the A3 but have left it looking less flashy, still sophisticated and hopefully more purposeful.

Space and comfort

Since these cars aren't full-sized sedans internationally, the rear does take a slight hit in terms of space. The front is roomy and the seats are comfortable and there is enough room even for tall occupants thanks to the electronic every-which-way adjustments. But what about the rear? At first glance, the A3 looks more spacious, it doesn't feature a sloping roof like the CLA and the car is slightly wider too. But after we sat on that rear seat and measured the cabin, we were a bit surprised. The CLA actually offers a little more knee-room because of the scooped out front seats and a longer overall length which allowed the engineers to make the rear seat deeper. The CLA also offers more useable headroom because of the more angular seating position. I am 5 feet 9 inches tall and when seated in the rear, my head brushes the roof of the A3 but not the CLA.

Rear headroom is disappointing thanks to the more upright seating positionRear headroom in the A3 is disappointing thanks to the more upright seating position

In the A3, the space saver is placed under the boot lining which does not rob the boot of any space providing it all the practicality neededIn the A3, the space saver is placed under the boot lining which does not rob the boot of any space providing it all the practicality you need

Rear knee-room and headroom is betterRear knee-room and headroom are better in the CLA

The Mercedes boot at 470 litres is more spacious by 45 litres but this is without taking into consideration the space saver which takes up most of that precious volumeThe Mercedes boot at 470 litres is more spacious by 45 litres but this is without taking into consideration the space saver which takes up most of that precious volume

Since both cars are also available internationally as AWD variants, the transmission tunnel eats a bit of space. In the A3, the air con vent housing for the rear passengers protrudes out more than in the CLA which reduces space for a third passenger. This means that while two adults can be seated very comfortably, a third would be tight. The CLA, offers a little more shoulder room. Both the cars offer a rear armrest with built-in cup holders. In terms of boot space, the Audi offers more depth and a slightly better loading bay. The Mercedes boot at 470 litres is more spacious by 45 litres but this is without taking into consideration the space saver which takes up most of that precious volume. In the A3, the space saver is placed under the boot lining which does not rob the boot of any space providing it all the practicality needed.

Engines and performance

The A3 and CLA use proven diesel engines that are seen in various other models produced by the two German carmakers. The Audi uses the 2.0-litre TDI that produces 143PS and 320Nm while the Mercedes' choice is the 2.2-litre CDI which puts out 134PS and 300Nm. Mechanically its clear to see that the Audi engine is superior, smaller capacity with better power and torque ratings are highly appreciated. Both engines nonetheless are mated to a dual-clutch automatic transmission - the A3 uses a 6-speed gearbox while the CLA gets a 7-speed unit. The Merc also gets paddle shifters as standard while Audi doesn't even offer this as an option. However, gear shifts in automatic mode are slightly quicker in the Audi. On the road, both engines feel equally responsive but the A3 motor is slightly more refined and quieter. Turbo lag is minimal on both engines but the Audi offers slightly better low down poke, handy for quick overtakes.

Despite a larger engine, the CDI motor produces lesser power than the Audi TDIDespite a larger engine, the CDI motor produces lesser power than the Audi TDI

2.0 TDI motor is refined and offers good low-down poke

In terms of performance, the A3 is the quicker of the two, but by a small margin. 100kmph comes up in 9.1 seconds while the CLA does the same in 9.5 seconds. The gap would have been closer had the Mercedes been lighter. But it' s almost 200kg heavier than the Audi and surprisingly without the all-wheel drivetrain. The CLA claims a higher top speed though - the car maxes out at 220kmph, 5kmph more than the Audi. It's a close battle again when it comes to efficiency. The Audi returns 22.1kmpl on the highway and 13.8kmpl in town. The Merc, meanwhile, returns 21.9kmpl and 14.2kmpl respectively. Overall, the CLA returns 16.1kmpl which is an insignificant 0.3kmpl more than the A3. Various driving modes and a start/stop system are standard on both cars. The Eco mode in the CLA feels more sluggish compared to the same mode in the A3.

Ride and handling

We've always liked the A3's handling but the lack of feedback from the steering and a softer suspension are its limitations. The CLA offers a chassis that's more eager and a more direct steering with higher feedback. It's a joy to drive the Merc around corners especially when pushed hard, the car holds its line better and shows less signs of understeer. The CLA does feel a lot heavier though and in town, it's the Audi that is simpler to drive around, the light steering and lower overall weight clearly helping its case.

Mercedes CLA vs Audi A3 (3)

The suspension on the CLA has been tweaked to overcome the stiff ride that hobbles the A-Class. But while there is a bit of softness in this new setup, there is still some of the roughness of the old. It crashes into expansion joints and small potholes harshly which can be quite uncomfortable. Ride height has been increased which allows the CLA to smoothly traverse speed breakers even though it appears like it would get beached. The CLA's low speed ride isn't very impressive at all but then at higher speeds, it feels a lot more stable than the A3 though the harshness doesn't really go away.

In fact, the A3 is one Audi where handling is par for the course but the damping isn't. The A3 suspension feels a bit soft with body roll creeping in as you push the car harder. Its brilliantly comfortable in urban areas but you notice the softness in the suspension on the highway where average speeds are higher and therefore suspension movements more noticeable. There's also the lack of adequate lumbar support in the A3 seats which, unlike the grippier seats of the CLA, can make a long journey quite tiring.

Equipment

While both cars are being offered in various variants, (the Audi offers the most), we decided to compare the top variants. After all, it doesn't make sense to buy a luxury car that offers fewer features than an ordinary D-segment car. The A3 35 TDI Technology and the CLA 200 CDI Sport offer a long list of standard features. Electric seat adjust for the front seats are standard on both cars but the Mercedes throws in a seat memory function too. A seven-inch infotainment screen can be seen in the two cars but the CLA's offers a much higher resolution, with the COMAND system featuring better graphics and standard navigation (navigation is offered only on the top spec variant of the A3). However, I must add here that the collapsible screen on the A3 is a nice but gimmicky addition. And just in case you don't need the screen, you can choose to drop it into its housing without switching off its functions like the music player.

The Mercedes offers a 12 speaker Harman stereo system while the A3 makes do with a 10 speaker proprietary unit. Unlike the A3, the CLA ditches the use of proprietary connecting cables to connect a device and instead gets two USB and one aux input option. Safety features such as hill start assist, ESP and two stage airbags are offered on both these cars. The Mercedes CLA overall offers just a few more features, though some of them are certainly better quality. Could this probably be the reason why the Stuttgart carmaker waited and launched the car after the A3, just to get the mix right?

Summing it up

The A3 shines when it comes to engine refinement, ride quality and drivability in urban areas. The CLA feels slightly more premium, handles better when pushed harder, offers slightly better features and warranty, and is the more stylish car here. Performance is more or less balanced out between the two. When it comes to pricing though, things begin to get complicated. The Audi A3 35 TDI is priced at Rs 32.9 lakh ex-Delhi and that makes it cheaper by over Rs 3 lakh to the Mercedes-Benz CLA 200 CDI Sport in the same city. However move to Mumbai and the price differential falls down to around Rs 1.5 lakh with the A3 continuing to be the more affordable car. Either way the A3 for this segment begins to look a lot more enticing. After all this is the entry level premium segment and both manufacturers are addressing a very discerning consumer. Logic has to prevail and for that price differential the Audi A3 is very good value overall. If you believe a rupee saved is a rupee earned then the Audi A3 35 TDI is the car for you, logic dictates as much.

Mercedes CLA vs Audi A3 (16)

However logic also dictates for that Rs 3 lakh more, a Harman Kardon sound system, with a high-definition TFT infotainment unit that's also superior to use and those sports seats for everybody in the car, the CLA 200 CDI Sport is also very good value. It's the few elements like the ones mentioned combined to the gorgeous styling and a decent powertrain that give the CLA the slimmest of leads to finish ahead of the A3. The CLA tugs at the heart and finishes ahead by a nose, but by God what a nose!

2015 Mercedes-Benz CLA 200 CDI Sport vs Audi A3 35 TDI Technology


  
Technical specifications Audi A3 35 TDi Technology
Engine
Type In-line 4, turbocharged diesel
Engine capacity(cc) 1968
Valvetrain 4-valves/cylinder
Max power 143PS@3,500-4,000rpm
Max torque 320Nm@1,750-3,000rpm
Underpinnings
Suspension (F) MacPherson strut
Suspension (R) Four-Link suspension
Brakes (F/R) Ventilated disc/disc
Tyres 225/45 R17
Performance
0-100kmph 9.14s
Top speed 215kmph
Fuel efficiency
Highway (kmpl) 22.1
City (kmpl) 13.8
Overall (kmpl) 15.8
General data
LxWxH (mm) 4456x1960x1416
Wheelbase (mm) 2636
Price (ex-Delhi) Rs 32.9 lakh
  
Technical specifications Mercedes-Benz CLA 200 CDI Sport
Engine
Type In-line 4, turbocharged diesel
Engine capacity(cc) 2143
Valvetrain 4-valves/cylinder
Max power 134PS@3,600-4,400rpm
Max torque 300Nm@1,600-3,000rpm
Underpinnings
Suspension (F) MacPherson strut
Suspension (R) Four-Link suspension
Brakes (F/R) Ventilated disc/disc
Tyres 205/55 R16
Performance
0-100kmph 9.5s
Top speed 220kmph
Fuel efficiency
Highway (kmpl) 21.9
City (kmpl) 14.2
Overall (kmpl) 16.1
General data
LxWxH (mm) 4630x17771432
Wheelbase (mm) 2699
Price (ex-Delhi) Rs 35.9 lakh
  

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