The last time the CLA and the A3 clashed, the former took the top honours. However, Audi has made revisions to the A3 and this includes an all-new petrol engine as well as updated equipment list. Will the A3 be able to hand the CLA its first defeat in the Indian market? We find out.
I will start by saying that the CLA is an attention magnet. Every second eye on the road stares at the CLA. The big single-slat grille, those 17-inch alloys, the swooping side everything about the car screams for attention. I remember being transfixed by the CLS when I first saw it, and the baby car very much replicates the entire design language. What has changed for the CLA for the model year 2017 is the new set of standard LED headlamps, chrome on the front bumper lip, bigger exhausts and revisions to the LED tail lamps. But the base design itself is so good that I reckon if the CLA was to be sold in the pre-facelift form, it would still have looked as handsome.
The A3, in fact, now looks more stately than before. The headlamp shape cuts a sharper angle than before. However, unlike the CLA that offers LEDs as standard, the Audi comes with Xenon lights on the Premium Plus and LED on the Technology (the car pictured here) trims. The bumpers too are new. Audi offers the good-looking, dynamic turn indicators on the A3 but only for the rear set of lights and again on the Technology trims. Overall, the changes on the A3 are a tad more visible and apparent than the ones on the CLA.
While you expect the cabins to be a mirror of the exterior design, it surprisingly isn't. The Mercedes-Benz CLA uses a dark hue for the upholstery. This doesn't really offer a cheery layout as opposed to use of a slightly lighter shade, though the big sunroof tries to lift the mood in the cabin by a fair margin. The buttons on the central console though look old school. In there is the new Dynamic Select button that will let you choose between the Economy, Comfort and various other modes that will alter the throttle and engine response. Mercedes also offers a bigger 8-inch updated Comand infotainment system that gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto along with Garmin navigation. A circular dial on the transmission tunnel helps jog through the menus of the system. Display here is crisp and once you get a hang of things, it is relatively easier to use as well.
The A3's cabin has a clean layout
n terms of updated features, the armrest now has two USB slots in it. Mercedes, like before, also provides electrically operated front seats with memory functions a very useful option in my opinion if your CLA is going to be used by multiple drivers. Mercedes also has a new upholstery design. Getting in and out of the front seat isn't really cumbersome, even for taller people in the CLA. However, the same cannot be said about the rear occupants, irrespective of their height, who will have to bend quite a bit to get inside.
The CLA's cabin looks a bit busy
The infotainment supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto
The rear seat space, especially the headroom, is slightly lower than the A3's
The A3, in the meanwhile, has a better-appointed cabin with fewer number of buttons. It is also finished in black; however, the slightly uncluttered look contributes to the feel of airiness. Audi also has an updated 7-inch retractable infotainment system in the A3. This system, however, doesn't have Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. The instrument cluster doesn't get the Virtual Cockpit as on the international-spec models. Audi officials said that they had to keep costs in check and hence the Virtual Cockpit was given the miss. Audi has added a phone box under the front armrest. What this essentially does is provide your compatible phone with wireless charging. The front seats are electrically adjustable here but without the memory function. I particularly like the way the front seats hold the driver or passenger. The rear door doesn't open as much as to one's liking, thereby restricting the entry into the cabin.
The A3 has a smaller boot but utilises it better
The CLA's luggage-carrying capacity is severely hampered with that strapped-on spare wheel
However, the A3 has slightly more kneeroom (700mm) at the rear compared to the CLA's 680mm. Rear headroom too is 20mm more in the A3. Both the cars can seat two passengers at the back thanks to the transmission tunnel intrusion which prevents the middle passenger from having sufficient leg space. The A3's boot space, at 425 litres, is lower than the CLA's 470 litres. However, the former has much more useable space because the Mercedes has its space-saver wheel strapped in the boot.
The CLA clearly nudges ahead of the A3 in terms of features which are offered as standard. This includes the Dynamic Select button, LED headlamps, more storage spaces in the cabin and a much more advanced infotainment system. The A3 tries to claw back by offering a wireless charging box, dual-zone climate control, rear AC vents, dynamic turn indicators as well as a hydraulic bonnet. Both the cars come with ABS, ESP, traction control and seven airbags as standard.
Let's talk about the newer engine here - the A3's 150PS/250Nm 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol motor. This motor, while being in use in other Audi India products namely the A4, A3 cabriolet and more recently the Q3, gets Cylinder on Demand (CoD) for the A3. What this essentially means is that the 4-cylinder engine, during low-load conditions or cruising, shuts off two cylinders. This effectively ensures that emissions are kept in check while fuel efficiency too goes up. The result is a claimed 19.1kmpl which is almost 3kmpl more than what the outgoing 1.8TFSi used to deliver. In our city and highway tests, the new Audi A3 35TFSi delivered an overall efficiency of 13.45kmpl (city: 11.21kmpl and highway: 20.27kmpl). These numbers are again almost 2kmpl more than the older petrol motor.
The best part is that Audi has made the CoD process as non-intrusive as possible. You never feel the cylinder activation or deactivation process. Visually though the meter does tell you that you're on 2-cylinder mode. Audi has also ensured top-notch refinement with the A3 petrol. Even at higher speeds, the sound insulation in the cabin is wonderful. Speaking of which, the new A3 does the 0-100kmph run in 8.3s. What the A3 petrol does is cruise at 120kmph with ease. Pushing it beyond this takes quite a bit of effort.
The CLA 200 petrol, in the meanwhile, also uses a 4-cylinder turbo petrol that displaces 2,000cc and makes 183PS/300Nm. This engine is mated to a 7-speed automatic gearbox, much like the A3's. 0-100kmph is achieved in a much quicker 7.8s than the A3, of course thanks to the superior power-to-weight ratio of 121.9PS/tonne compared to the latter's 106PS/tonne. However, it isn't much about the speed here as the way the power is delivered. The A3's motor delivers its power in a linear fashion with no sudden spikes in the range. The CLA though feels like a pit bull on a leash. This makes the car respond sharply to throttle response, especially with Sport mode on in the city. Driving around in traffic though will feel a tad more tiring in the CLA due to this than the A3. The transmission too is a bit slow on the downshift, but the paddle shifters come to your rescue here. However, drive the CLA around in Eco mode and the throttle becomes less reactive. This is the mode in which we tested her for efficiency, and while the city figure (11.9kmpl) was slightly better than the A3, the highway numbers were down by almost 2kmpl at 18.3kmpl.
Both the cars here come with auto start-stop function while the CLA is the only one which comes with a customisable Individual mode that the driver can use to configure the engine, throttle as well as transmission response. The Sport mode changes the engine and throttle momentum significantly. This contributes to a much more thrilling experience on the highway, where fast overtakes are dispatched with ease. The CLA though is noisier than the A3 at all speeds. While we couldn't test the top speeds of both the cars, the larger-engined CLA will have a slightly better top end and seemed more at ease at higher speeds.
While the CLA's drive modes alter the power delivery, they don't change anything in the suspension. The dampers do a nice job of isolating the occupants from the road imperfections. However, load the car up with four people and you got to be real careful over those speed breakers. This in spite of the Indian-spec car receiving slightly more ground clearance than the international models. The drive experience, in the meanwhile, is much more involving. We believe this has also got to do with the fact that the engine has much more poke everywhere in the rev range. The steering itself is a communicative unit while being sufficiently light for city use and weighing up decently as the speeds rise. What we didn't like, as we discussed before, is the noisy nature of the engine. It isn't really intrusive but in the company of the A3, the CLA's motor sounds old and gruffy. The A3 is silence personified. The ride quality feels absorbent at low speeds, but at high speeds it feels firm. While both the cars feel composed at high speeds, the A3 has a slight edge over the CLA wherein high-speed ruts don't really upset the car's balance. The CLA's softer suspension causes it to have a bit more of vertical movement over the same. The A3's steering wheel feels a bit more artificial compared to the CLA and is a tad heavier too, taking more turns per lock. Both the cars come with disc brakes on all four wheels and while the CLA has really sharp brakes, the A3's feel is more progressive. The CLA, as a result, slows down quicker in 3.1s while the A3 takes 0.1s more.
Unlike the last time, the A3 does give a tough fight to the CLA. The A3 has the understated design elements that scream Audi from every angle. The interior quality is top-notch, it is a wee bit more comfortable at the back than the CLA and then there is also the more efficient petrol engine. The A3 TFSI Technology will be yours for Rs 43.95 lakh, on-road Mumbai. The CLA 200 Sport will do everything that the A3 does but with a tad more panache. It will get you to that hip and happening pub in much more style. That it is a more entertaining car on the road is another plus. But the icing on the cake is the price. At Rs 42.86 lakh, the CLA petrol Sport offers more equipment and undercuts the Audi by Rs 1 lakh. There you go! The CLA wins it again. This time by a much smaller margin.
Photography: Anis Shaikh