Side Exterior View - 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA Class 4-door Sedan CLA250 FWDEnlarge Photo
The Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class have essentially the same mission: to provide affordable entry points into these German luxury brands' lineups. Yet their look, feel, and driving personalities are very different—almost polar opposites—which means that some might be measuring these two models up to each other in every detail, while other shoppers might not even see the other model as an alternative.
With the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class—the respective models that 'used' to be true compacts—now having moved up a half-size, there's room just below, and that's what these two models rush in to occupy.
They're both built on front-wheel-drive architecture, and around the same size; but they go about it in very different ways, and you need only look at their very different profiles to start parsing out the contrasting personalities of these two models. While the A3 keeps to what's essentially the same silhouette as the larger A4—albeit abbreviated near the back, and better detailed at its sides erase any sign of awkwardness—the Mercedes-Benz CLA looks more aspirational. From the side, you can see the low, swoopy roofline of the CLS, while in the cockpit-like interior layout there's plenty of SLK roadster influence.
The 2015 A3 is just three inches shorter than the Audi A4 was when it was introduced back for the 1996 model year. The new 2014 CLA is about seven inches longer than the A3—and the Mercedes is more closely aligned in size with mainstream compact cars like the Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruze, and Ford Focus. Its wheelbase (the distance between front and rear wheels) is several inches longer, too.
Despite that advantage, the low roofline makes the Mercedes-Benz feel tighter inside the cabin. Even though there's plenty of space in the front-seat areas of both cars, the CLA feels like it really prioritizes space in front at the expense of those who dare sit in back for extended periods. It's definitely more coupe-like than the A3, which has a more usable back seat, for sure. But even in the A3, those in back will need to negotiate with those in front (and hope that they're not especially tall); the rearward part of the housing for the mandatory sunroof limits headroom back there, too. The CLA has a bigger trunk, though; at 13.1 cubic feet, it's 3.0 cubic feet larger than that of A3 quattro models, and
These models are both powered by strong turbocharged, direct-injected four-cylinder engines that make loads of torque down low, with no recognizable turbo lag. In the A3, a 170-hp, 1.8-liter (1.8T) engine is included in front-wheel-drive models, while quattro all-wheel-drive models get a 220-hp, 2.0-liter four (2.0T). Meanwhile, all CLA250 models, whether with front- or 4Matic all-wheel drive, get a 208-hp, 2.0-liter four. With either of these models, they're so smooth and versatile, that the only way you might ever miss a V-6 is in their engine note.
Transmissions are surprisingly close in layout and design, as well. The CLA250 has seven-speed dual-clutch automated gearbox, while the A3 has a six-speed version of VW/Audi's familiar six-speed “DSG” dual-clutch automated gearbox. Performance between these two models is comparable, with the A3 2.0T perhaps a few tenths of a second quicker to 60 mph; but we'll give Audi the edge here, not only because its six-speed dual-clutch gearbox is more predictable and reassuring but also because of this mode's somewhat better drivability overall.