Business culture dictates that a hatchback isn’t as corporate as an equivalent sedan, so luckily for junior executives with sub-$50,000 purchasing power there are new options – the Audi A3 sedan and Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class.
Never before have premium German manufacturers offered a sedan variant below the medium-sized BMW 3 Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class that cost around $15,000 more in entry-level specification.
No doubt BMW will produce a 2 Series Gran Coupe to rival the CLA-Class in particular, which has the same swooping roofline as its larger CLS-Class sibling, a feature that allows Mercedes-Benz to tag them ‘four-door coupes’. Audi hasn’t followed suit, however, creating a straightforward, three-box A3 sedan (instead of a coupe-like shape as with the A5 Sportback).
Adding coupe-like lines clearly allows manufacturers to charge a pricing premium. Assembled for this test, the Audi A3 1.4 TFSI sedan costs $39,800, where the equivalent entry-level Mercedes-Benz CLA200 starts at $49,900.
More equipment is standard in the CLA200, though, including 18-inch alloy wheels, bi-xenon headlights, satellite navigation, collision prevention assistance (which detects if a collision is imminent and warns the driver), and front/rear parking sensors with auto-parking functionality (which automatically moves the steering wheel, leaving the driver to control the throttle and brake).
The Audi matches the Merc’s standard front, side, curtain and driver’s knee airbags, stability control, leather trim, automatic headlights and wipers, and dual-zone climate control, though it only scores 17-inch alloys. A decent dabble with the options list is then required to bring it up to par.
Still, the A3 1.4 TFSI already has a $10K advantage with which to absorb.
Parting with $2990 brings sat-nav and front parking sensors (to match the standard rear sensors) with auto-parking functionality; a further $2000 adds 18-inch alloys and xenon headlights; and $1800 buys Audi pre-sense (its version of Merc’s collision prevention assistance) along with auto high-beam, lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control. On the CLA200, however, the latter two items are bundled as a further $2490 option.
For another $1800, the A3 1.4 TFSI can be optioned with electrically adjustable front seats with heating, and keyless auto-entry, yet the total would still come in under the Merc’s base price. Adding those features to the CLA200, meanwhile, costs another $2490 as part of an Exclusive Package, or $4990 extra as part of the Edition One specification tested here.
The Edition One also adds a diamond-cut sports front grille and bodykit, multi-spoke alloys, beefier brakes, lowered sports suspension, and seriously cool Neon Art suede trim and yellow contrast stitching across the leather-look dashboard.
Seriously cool? Mercedes-Benz? Put it this way, we couldn’t imagine the new C-Class having neon trim as an option. The CLA-Class doesn’t hide the fact it’s targeting younger, youthful Benz buyers (though this is still relative for a brand with among the oldest average buyer age).
Our largely unoptioned (except for nav) A3 1.4 TFSI looks plain alongside the CLA200 Edition One. Frameless doors are a nice, coupe-style touch, and the Merc's grille arguably looks better than an A45/CLA45 AMG’s, though the rear is a bit frumpy.
The best word to describe the A3 sedan is ‘handsome’, its size returning to an era decades ago when the 3 Series class was much smaller. Its proportions are spot-on, and if our test car had xenons and bigger wheels, to my eyes the Audi would trump the more overtly flashy CLA-Class, though it is ripe for debate.
The same theme continues inside. The CLA-Class is more overtly sporting, but feels cheaper in places, where the A3 remains a standout for quality but with a more subdued style.
Where in the Merc aviation-style vents and white-on-silver gauges with vertical needles look racy, some of the switchgear and lower plastics feel sub-premium. The Audi, by contrast, goes above and beyond its price point with superbly tactile switchgear, lovely textures, and immaculately matched soft-touch plastics.
The (optional) Audi MMI system is linked to a slimline seven-inch screen that rises elegantly from the dash at the press of a button, where in the Mercedes the screen is attached to the dash like a floating iPad. The A3's MMI system is easier to use than the Mercedes Comand infotainment system on our test car, which was optioned (for yet another $2490) with a screen size to match the Audi's and integrated sat-nav, compared with the five-inch unit and aftermarket-looking Becker pilot nav that comes standard. You also get digital radio, a 10Gb hard drive, Harman Kardon 12-speaker audio and voice control.
Audi MMI and Merc Comand are both accessed via a console-mounted rotary dial, but the A3's dial is larger, has a touchpad that allows users to write-in names and numbers with their finger, and is surrounded by rocker-switch shortcuts for nav, audio, options etc.
The Mercedes-Benz CLA200 and Audi A3 1.4 TFSI sedan share their interior design with the $8500-cheaper A200 hatchback and $1900-cheaper A3 1.4 TFSI Sportback respectively, so it’s not as though the cabin design of the coupe/sedan offers anything over the hatchbacks. The Merc 'coupe' does, however, add a bit of kit over its hatchback sibling (nav, bi-xenons, tombstone buckets) to partially justify its expense, where the sedan and Sportback Audis are identical.
The CLA-Class also differentiates more from the A-Class when it comes to body size. Although they share width, height and wheelbase, the coupe stretches 338mm further than the hatchback, with a length of 4.63m. The A3 sedan only stretches 146mm beyond the Sportback, stopping the tape measure at a more petite 4.46m overall. All of the CLA’s length increase is aft of the rear axle, and that contributes to providing a much larger boot. With a volume of 470 litres, the coupe is 129L bigger than the hatchback. The A3 sedan totals a smaller 425L, only 45L up on the Sportback.
Open each lid and it’s the Audi that initially looks bigger, due to its wide aperture. While the Benz’s roofline tapers down into a more narrow opening, its lid isn’t as short, so gear can be lifted in on a greater angle than that allowed by its rival. The boot is also much, much deeper – as our video shows (see top), you can fit a bag of golf clubs and a medium suitcase side-by-side in the CLA, but you have to stack them awkwardly in the A3. No spare wheel (the CLA rolls on run-flat tyres) also permits a handy underfloor storage compartment instead.
If only the CLA treasured its rear passengers as much as its golf clubs. Indeed the Mercedes-Benz has a two-door coupe-like amount of headroom, resulting in anyone above 178cm having their heads wedged firmly into the roof, while visibility out of the side windows is compromised. The A3 is much airier, with more headroom but about the same legroom and toe room. Both get rear air-vents, though disappointingly the Audi gets no cupholders or centre armrest (even the Volkswagen Golf 103TSI Highline with which it shares its platform gets both).
These entry-level sedans won’t pin the suit jackets of junior executives to the driver’s seat backrest, but the Audi in particular punches well above its weight.
Its 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine is shared with various Volkswagen and Skoda products, but here it exclusively gets COD technology. Gamers need not get excited, though, because the system stands for Cylinder on Demand, the only call of duty here being directed at the engine to shut off two of four cylinders on light throttle, or when coasting, to maximise fuel efficiency.
Claimed combined cycle fuel consumption is just 4.7 litres per 100 kilometres. Yet the engine still produces an excellent 103kW of power (at 5000rpm) and 250Nm of torque (between 1500-3500rpm), shifting the 1250kg sedan from standstill to 100km/h in a claimed 8.4 seconds.
The Mercedes-Benz gets a larger 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, producing a healthier 115kW (at 5300rpm) but identical torque (though over a broader 1250-4500rpm range).
There’s no cylinder shut-off technology, however, and the 5.7L/100km claim is inferior. The CLA200 is also a tenth slower to 100km/h, no doubt partially due to a 1362kg kerb weight, 112kg heavier.
Although on-test economy remained separated by exactly the claimed difference – the 7.2L/100km Audi leading – the performance gap feels larger on the road.
Each utilise seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmissions, though the A3’s is demonstrably smoother and smarter.
Although there’s a fraction of stutter when creeping in traffic, the S tronic-badged gearbox is otherwise flawless, with super-fast upshifts and intelligently timed downshifts (braking downhill, it will shuffle down one or two ratios to help with engine braking).
The auto works with a fabulous engine that seems to get little louder as revs rise, only changing its sweet and zingy acoustics. It feels quicker than its performance claim, so much so that one passenger couldn’t believe it was only a 1.4-litre engine.
The CLA’s 7G-DCT equivalent can be lurchy off the line, yet it works with a dull throttle in its default eco mode, and feels frustratingly sluggish to pick up revs and move.
When the engine eventually picks up, though, it feels noticeably boostier than that of its rival, with a louder and harsher soundtrack that means it trails its rival for refinement.
Thumbing the dashboard-mounted Sport button is almost a necessity in the Benz, sharpening the throttle and instructing the transmission to hold gears more prudently. Even then, though, it is slower to shift than the Audi and sometimes hangs onto revs too long to the detriment of cabin quietness.
Maybe the sexy gloss-black AMG wheel and tyre package is partially to blame, but the Benz also reveals more road noise than the Audi, particularly on coarse-chip surfaces.
The Audi A3 1.4 TFSI on standard suspension and 17-inch wheels is the smoothest riding Audi currently on sale. Around town it soaks up every nasty divot and pothole thrown at it, yet over rollercoaster undulations of a country road it feels completely controlled and balanced. At speed the A3 feels reminiscent of a Holden Commodore Evoke (if the Commodore were the size of the VB original), such is its suitability to local conditions.
The Audi's steering is light and fluffy on-centre, but it weights up nicely when turning into sharper bends, thankfully not by enough to be annoying when navigating around town. Grip levels are high and the car feels rock-solid planted and balanced.
For those who want a sportier drive to match racier looks, the CLA-Class has them covered. Its steering is slightly sharper, a fraction quicker and more consistently mid-weighted, though as with the A-Class and GLA-Class it lacks the superb tactility of the outgoing, seven-year-old C-Class.
There is a mini-CLA45 AMG lurking in the CLA200’s chassis, though. Bolt into a tight bend at speed and you can lean on its front end almost to the point where it's standing on its nose and you think its diamond-cut grille may brush on the road.
Alternatively, power in on the throttle, then back off it in the middle of the corner and there’s surprising lift-off oversteer. Executives who once owned a Peugeot 306 GTi in the 1990s will love it.
The trade-off, though, comes bigger than a speeding ticket in the mail after you’ve had all your fun. The suspension on this CLA200 Edition One is very tough on occupants, curiously more so than the ostensibly more hardcore CLA45 AMG tested the week following. Around town it constantly fidgets, is abrupt over dips, and crashes into pot holes.
While the Benz can handle brilliantly on smooth roads, on rough roads at speed it loses its composure, and in those cases it’s actually the Audi that is more fun and fluid.
Along with its noisier engine and increased road noise, the harsh-riding Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class couldn’t be more of a contrast to its rival. It does have sharper handling to match the sportier looks, but the Audi A3 feels more premium inside, is a more polished drive, and comes with a pricetag that remains more affordable even when loaded. It's anything but a poor man's luxury car - it is in fact a complete compact executive sedan.
Photography by Mitchell Oke and Christian Barbeitos.