Shootout: Audi A3 vs Mercedes CLA
Price OTR Mumbai: Rs. 31.08 – 43.85 lakhs (Audi A3, 2014 rates subject to increase soon), Rs. 41 – 46.69 lakhs (Mercedes CLA)
Both these German cars are more about making a style statement than anything else
Schlau! That’s German for clever and that’s exactly what Germany’s Audi and Mercedes-Benz have been with their entry-level offerings. Both these companies have brought in new front-wheel driven sedans which are now their entry-level sedans, pushing their earlier entry-level rear-wheel drive models into a higher segment (the new C-Class and upcoming A4). Factor this, at the price of the A3 and CLA, one could get the C-Class and A4 but both Audi and Mercedes-Benz’ clever strategy has resulted in their entry-level rear drive sedans going a notch above in positioning. So with front-wheel drive and less of a heritage, which of the two entry-level German sedans is the better bet? We put the Audi A3 and Mercedes CLA in a head to head shootout to find out just that.
Motor Quest: The A3 nameplate isn’t new and dates back to 1996 while the current third generation model was launched in 2012, arriving in India in 2014. The CLA is a fresh name and made its debut as the Concept Style Coupe in 2012, being launched in 2013 and arriving in India earlier this month.
Styling – For a person spending around Rs. 40 lakhs on a car, design is of paramount importance. The Audi A3 is an attractive looking car, it does share many of its visual elements with bigger Audis which is both a good and bad thing. Good being that people end up mistaking your car for a more costlier model while the bad thing is the lack of an identity. Many will tell you that they find it difficult to distinguish between various Audis and if you don’t have a keen eye, you will easily mistake the A3 for an A4 but the smaller dimensions do give it away as the baby Audi sedan. However, when the Audi A3 isn’t seen in isolation and something as smashing as the Mercedes CLA is parked next to it, it’s quite obvious as to which car turns the most heads, the Benz without a doubt.
The CLA has a striking identity of its own and since no other Mercedes model (except the A-Class at the front but the CLA gets black diamond pins instead of silver to differentiate it) is even close in resemblance to this Merc, one simply can’t miss the CLA on the roads. The Mercedes CLA looks so good that the Audi A3 looks almost pale in comparison, the Stuttgart car having sharper lines and better detailing all across, more so on the bumpers. Being a good 174 mm longer and also being taller, the CLA looks much bigger in comparison and with its attractive headlights, coupe like sloping roof and amazing tail lights, it’s also the better looking car here.
Interiors – Even before you step inside, the Mercedes CLA impresses you because this car gets frameless windows which is such a delight to hold, specially with the windows down. Both cars have impeccable fit and finish levels with quality being of the highest order. We love the Audi’s simple and clean dashboard layout but in front of the CLA, it appears too mundane. The CLA’s dashboard is way more exciting (there is more storage space too thanks to the column mounted gear lever) and everything looks so much sportier like the 3-spoke steering wheel or the triple SLS AMG borrowed AC vents in the centre. Even the instrument cluster on the Merc has more appeal than the Audi’s rather conventional unit. Both cars have a lot of features on offer but Audi offers the A3 in multiple variants, the lower ones being very basic in equipment. There isn’t much to differentiate these cars when it comes to features as the top-end trims (which are the most in demand) are similarly equipped. However the petrol A3 is only available in Premium Plus trim which doesn’t have a sunroof, rear camera and navigation which is standard on the petrol CLA which is offered only in Sport trim.
The Audi A3 gets a 7-inch MMI screen which retracts when you turn off the car, it is a nice touch but multiple reports suggest that the screen gets stuck inside with time, resulting in a hefty repair cost. Meanwhile the Merc’s COMMAND system screen too is 7-inch in size and the audio quality is better in the CLA courtesy of the 12-speaker Harmon Kardon Logic 7 system. The A3’s screen takes touch-inputs from a pad (it has hand writing recognition too), the CLA misses out on the same but there is no direct USB port in the A3. When it comes to space, neither of these cars are generous as both completely lack headroom and under-thigh support at the rear, the Audi being marginally better than the Merc. However, when it comes to legroom, the CLA offers more space (it has a 62 mm longer wheelbase) thanks to the scooped out front seat-back. The A3 gets rear AC vents and magazine pockets which the CLA misses out on but the seats on the Merc are better (front seats get memory function which is missing on the A3) and the driving position is better than the Audi’s. While the boot capacity on the CLA is bigger by a good 45-litres, practicality is marred by the placement of the spare tyre, making the A3’s boot more usable. Both cars get split folding rear seats.
Performance – Till now the Mercedes CLA has the advantage when it comes to exterior and interior design but tables start to turn when one factors in performance because not only does the Audi A3 have the more powerful diesel engine, it also weighs less courtesy of its MQB underpinnings. The petrol A3 is 215 kgs lighter than the petrol CLA while the difference is 230 kgs between the diesel models of both these cars. That is a significant weight difference, making the A3 the faster car of the two. The petrol A3 uses a 1.8-litre engine which outputs 180 PS and 250 Nm while the Merc’s bigger 2.0-litre petrol unit in the CLA generates 183 PS and 300 Nm of torque. In spite of the 50 Nm torque advantage, the A3 beats the CLA to the 0-100 km/hr run, taking 7.3 seconds against the Benz’ 7.8 seconds. Both cars have a claimed top speed of 235 km/hr.
The Audi A3 is faster than the CLA but the Merc has adequate performance for normal day to day driving
The difference between the diesel engines of both these German sedans is slightly bigger because the Audi A3’s 2.0-litre diesel mill belts out 145 PS of power and 320 Nm of torque while the CLA uses a bigger 2.2-litre oil burner but with lesser output of 136 PS and 300 Nm. Naturally with more power and torque, and lesser weight, the A3 is 1.2 seconds faster in doing the ton, taking 8.6 seconds. The Audi has a 4 km/hr higher claimed top speed of 224 km/hr. Numbers aside, you won’t feel the lack of the extra performance in the Mercedes unless you drive flat out. For normal day to day driving, the CLA has more than enough pep to keep moving swiftly in both the city and on the highway.
Both the diesel powered cars have good low and mid-range punch while lacking in the top-end, something obvious for a large diesel mill. Both cars get three driving modes, Audi’s being D, S and tiptronic while the Merc having its usual E, S and M. The A3 misses out on paddle shifters which are standard on the CLA, making it more enjoyable to shift gears. The CLA gets Auto Start/Stop for improved efficiency but in spite of that the lighter Audi is the more frugal car, returning 20.38 km/l against 17.9 km/l in diesel and 16.6 km/l against 15.04 km/l in petrol (ARAI certified).
Mercedes has matched both its petrol and diesel engines to a 7-speed dual clutch gearbox and while the transmission does a fine job, it’s not as quick as the units found on the A3, the petrol model using a 7-speed box while the diesel makes do with a 6-speed unit, both employing a dual clutch system. The reliability of the DSG unit remains uncertain though. Both these cars channel power to the front-wheels and it’s here you realise it being pointless to go hard on the big pedal because all that power isn’t usable, being aggressive on the throttle results in excessive wheel-spin and the irritation of the traction control system kicking in continuously, cutting down on power.
Driving Dynamics – With the Audi A3 being lighter, it is also the more fun car to drive with better handling than the CLA. The Merc isn’t bad, it’s just the Audi is better in the dynamics department although we found the steering on the CLA to be much better in terms of feel and feedback. You sit lower in the CLA and that gives a more sporty feel of driving, both cars being engaging on a twisty road, the A3 being more eager. With the extra weight, the CLA feels more stable at speed and it is also the more aerodynamic car of the two with a CD value of just 0.25 (the A3 has a CD of 0.29).
Both these cars are well suited to first time luxury car buyers because both come with very good ground clearance, ensuring you never have to crawl over speed-breakers or worry about the underbelly of the car scraping anywhere. While the A3 has a good ride quality, the Mercedes CLA’s is even better and it absorbs the bumps on the roads with more confidence than the Ingolstadt machine, making it more suited for our bad road conditions. Both cars offer good braking performance and stop with surefooted confidence, they also run on similar tyre sizes (205/55/16 on base variants and 225/45/17 on top variants).
Safety and After Sales Service – Both these cars are loaded with a slew of safety features and both of them are rated 5-stars by Euro NCAP. One can’t turn ESP off on the CLA and the Benz also gets Pre-Safe and Attention Assist. Mercedes has more outlets in India, much more than Audi and the most in the luxury segment. Thanks to the service packages being offered on all MFA cars (the platform that underpins the CLA), the Merc will be cheaper to maintain over the A3 in the long run (Rs. 1.99 per km) although Audi also offers service packages. The warranty on the CLA is higher than that of the A3, Mercedes giving a standard 3-years, unlimited mileage warranty against Audi’s 2-years. Audi does offer a 2-years extended warranty as an option but Mercedes offers 3-years, 24-hours road side assistance and service as standard.
Verdict – The Audi A3 which shares many parts with Volkswagen and Skoda cars is locally assembled in India while the Mercedes CLA is a CBU (will be locally manufactured in the near future). With more variants on offer, the A3’s starting price is way more attractive but the base variant misses out on various things including daytime running lights and fog lights which are bare essentials on a luxury car. Our survey with various dealers suggest that the base A3 isn’t easily available as production is limited, giving buyers no option but to opt for higher trims (only the top trim matching the CLA Sport in terms of equipment). Coming to the main USPs of these German sedans, first and foremost these cars are strictly four-seaters (due to the massive hump in the centre at the rear) and the rear bench is only suited for short adults or children. Secondly and most importantly, one buys either of these machines to arrive in style as there are better cars at lower prices which offer more space, features, performance and the likes. When you factor in all these things and the fact that for a buyer of this segment nothing else matters as much as face value, it is here where the Mercedes CLA makes a stronger case than the Audi A3, making it our winner of this shootout.
The Audi A3 is a fun car for those who like driving but for most, these cars are a stepping stone to the world of luxury vehicles and in that vein, the pricier CLA makes a more compelling argument, the Mercedes badge having more novelty value.
Further Reading –
Picture Editing – Sri Manikanta Achanta