Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class VS Audi S3
- Quick pace
- Engaging dynamics
- Premium interior
- Harsh ride
- Limited rear-seat room
- Divisive styling
- Virtual cockpit
- Accessible performance
- Handsome styling
- Harsh ride
- Limited rear-seat headroom
- Engine runs out of huff at top end
Mercedes has long been the leader in niche filling, and we’d argue that no other model encapsulates that more than the CLA four-door coupe.
Now in its second-generation form, the CLA is based on Mercedes’ MFA2 small car platform that also underpins the A-Class small car range, B-Class tallboy hatchback and GLA crossover, but is actually dimensionally longer than the one-size up C-Class.
However, while the C-Class might offer more conventional styling, Mercedes says the CLA is targeted towards a younger demographic that puts more weight on design and aesthetics.
The previous generation CLA was topped by a hardcore 45 version, which makes a return here, but new this time around is the less-potent, but still AMG-badged, 35 variant to plug the gap between mainstream grades and the range-topper.
After living with the car for a week, here are our thoughts on the new baby AMG CLA.
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
Audi was the first to market with a premium small performance sedan in 2014, with its four-door S3 combining luxury appointments with a punchy engine.
The German brand has largely enjoyed free air in the somewhat niche segment, but now Mercedes-AMG has launched its A35 sedan and BMW's 2 Series Gran Coupe-based M235i is set for a 2020 introduction to try and steal some of the S3's thunder.
With a new-generation version expected around the corner, Audi has updated its S3 with more kit to keep things fresh against its new rivals.
Now priced at $65,800 in sedan form, and $64,200 for the five-door Sportback hatch, does the S3 still have what it takes to stave off the competition?
|Engine Type||2.0L turbo|
|Fuel Type||Premium Unleaded Petrol|
Is the Mercedes-AMG CLA 35 the perfect choice in the sleek sedan’s line-up?
Well, if you are after outright performance, then the answer still clearly lies with the CLA 45. But for those that just want a little more pep compared to the standard CLA range, the 35 is undoubtedly the one to get.
It’s not without its flaws, though, commanding a $15,000 price premium over the CLA 250 and a tougher-than-we’d-like ride, but if you value a more engaging drive and a brisk 0-100km/h time, the CLA 35 should definitely be on your shopping list.
Despite being close to the end of its lifecycle, the Audi S3 sedan remains a solid choice for those looking for punchy performance wrapped in a premium package.
There is a bit of a trade-off in comfort for the extra performance, but it never strays towards being too unbearable or unliveable.
If you can survive with just using the rear seats occasionally, the S3 sedan also serves up one of the best front-seat interiors on the market, even after all this time.
From the front, the CLA 35 exterior oozes style and luxury.
Up front, the sleek and slender headlights emphasise the width of the fascia, while the large Mercedes logo sits proudly front and centre of the CLA’s nose.
There are subtle hints to the CLA 35’s sportiness too, with a slightly bulging bonnet and chiselled lower chin.
The grille is also unique on the 35, with a dual-horizontal slat design instead of the non-AMG CLA’s diamond pattern or the CLA 45’s Panamericana grille.
To my eye, the front of the CLA 35 is actually a bit too tame in styling for an AMG model. I prefer the in-your-face aggression of the CLA 45’s widened track and front grille, while the CLA 35 opts for more subtle styling cues. To each their own, though.
The silver paintwork of our test car probably doesn’t help, and if it was my choice I'd pick 'Sun Yellow' or 'Denim Blue' to stand out a bit more from the sea of black, grey and white German cars out there.
Move to the rear of the car though, and a large rear diffuser, big dual-exhaust outlets and a bootlid spoiler are much more befitting an AMG model.
Step inside the CLA and you will see it adopts the same dashboard design as all new-generation Mercedes vehicles built on the MFA2 platform, with the 'MBUX' dual-screen layout, large air-vents and central touchpad.
Our car was specced out with red-leather interior, which is a bit too loud for my tastes, but a two-tone black leather/titanium grey combo can also be had at no extra cost.
Sitting inside the CLA 35, you can tell it’s a modern car thanks to the clean layout of all the controls, while the screen-heavy dashboard definitely makes it feel tech-focused.
While you might struggle to fit something like a full-sized bike into the boot of the sedan, the extra cargo capacity would easily accommodate extra grocery bags or a stroller.
We actually think the sedan looks better than the hatch, as the styling is a little more mature and grown up. It actually looks like a shrunk down A4!
The 19-inch wheels fitted to the S3 also help fill its slightly blistered wheelarches, while subtle nods to its sportiness can be seen in the red brake callipers and quad exhaust tips.
The rest of the S3 sedan is unmistakably Audi thanks to its singleframe front grille, strong shoulder line and contrasting side mirrors.
Inside, sports seats with Audi's unique diamond-quilting are fitted for the front occupants, while the rear bench seats also feature the bespoke finish – at least on the outboard pews.
Between the driver and front passenger sits a small storage cubby, the gear shifter, multimedia controls and two cupholders.
In the centre stack, you will see climate controls, the drive mode selector and a small screen above circular air vents.
Everything in the cabin is laid out in a clever, ergonomic fashion, though we will note the central cupholders won't be much use for anything bigger than a small coffee cup.
The best part of the interior is easily the virtual cockpit, which lays out all the information you need right in front of you. It's even customisable, so you can adjust the sizing of the satellite navigation maps or media system.
Measuring 4695mm long, 1834mm wide, 1399mm tall and with a 2729mm wheelbase, the CLA 35 is definitely a sizeable sedan in the metal.
This actually makes the CLA 35 slightly longer and wider than a non-AMG C-Class sedan that measures 4686 and 1810mm respectively, but don’t expect the same level of practical interior space.
With a heavily sloped roofline, rear-seat comfort takes a hit. My 183cm (6.0ft) frame could not sit upright behind my driving position without tilting my head, while legroom was also slightly lacking.
With such large C-pillars and a small rear window, the second-row can actually feel a little claustrophobic for full-sized adults, but will seat children quite comfortably.
Second-row amenities include air-vents, two USB-C ports, back-of-seat storage nets, bottle holders in the doors, and two cupholders in the fold-down arm rest.
Just like at a music concert though, the best seats in the CLA 35 are up front, with plenty of room for heads, shoulders and legs.
The cabin is also much more light-filled up front, making for a more pleasant experience.
The front seats are electronically adjustable, as is the steering column, but the headrests are fixed.
Storage options include sizeable door bins, a centre console cubby, glove box, two cupholders and a wireless smartphone charger.
Boot space is 460 litres, but can expand with the rear split-fold 40/20/40 rear seats stowed.
Though the boot looks small and shallow on the outside, the aperture is actually quite large, and can easily accommodate a large suitcase with plenty of room to spare.
Being a small sedan, the S3 doesn't exactly boast heaps of interior space, but there is enough for a young family or a group of four adults over short distances.
Our head can just about fit in the rear outboard pews, but our necks were a bit sore after trying the middle seat. For reference, this writer measures about 186cm.
Leg room was pretty good though, even with the front seats set-up for someone our size, though again, we'd only recommend small children for the middle seat.
Amenities in the rear are sparse, with just a 12-volt socket to charge devices and rear air vents to keep passengers entertained.
The door cards will swallow small bottles, but not much else, while there is no fold down centre armrest or cupholders.
The front fares a little bitter, with larger door pockets, a glove box and central storage cubby, but don't expect to be moving houses in the S3 sedan.
As for the boot, its deep and wide with a cargo net to keep things tumbling round, and is generous enough to swallow 390 litres of volume with the seats in place – that's about 50L more than the Sportback.
Price and features
Priced at $85,500 before on-road costs, the CLA 35 sits $15,300 upstream of the CLA 250 but is $25,700 cheaper than the $111,200 CLA 45.
Standard equipment includes leather interior, dual-zone climate control, electronically adjustable front seats with heating and memory function, keyless entry and push-button start, 64-colour ambient lighting, and a wireless smartphone charger.
AMG specific appointments include 19-inch wheels, a flat-bottomed steering wheel, sports exhaust, high-performance brakes with silver-painted calipers, blacked-out exterior highlights, sports suspension, a racy bodykit and speed-sensitive steering.
Instrumentation is displayed on a 10.25-inch screen, which can be customised and features AMG readouts.
The multimedia system, which includes satellite navigation, digital radio and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity, is also outputted to a 10.25-inch screen, with inputs including touch, voice commands, centre touch pad or steering wheel controls.
Our test car also came with a ‘Mojave Silver Metallic’ paint finish and 'Vision Package', adding $1190 and $990 to the bottom line each.
The Vision Package adds LED headlights with adaptive high beams, a panoramic glass sunroof and surround-view monitor.
Though the CLA 35 features a long list of equipment, it is still a sizeable chunk of coin, costing more than the C300 sedan and Volvo S60 T8 PHEV, the latter boasting higher engine outputs.
Priced at $65,800 before on-road costs, the S3 sedan is about $6500 cheaper than its $72,500 Mercedes-AMG A35 sedan rival, but still comes loaded with what you'd expect in a premium small car.
Close to the end of its life, Audi bundled nearly $9000 worth of extras in the S3 sedan at no extra cost late last year, which includes the aforementioned 19-inch wheels, metallic paint, Nappa leather sports seats, wireless smartphone charger, magnetic suspension, and Bang & Olufsen 13-speaker sound system.
A sports bodykit is also fitted as standard, while LED headlights, keyless entry, push-button start, electronically folding side-view mirrors and heated front seats also feature.
Inside, passengers will find dual-zone climate control, LED interior lighting, flat-bottom steering wheel, and 7.0-inch multimedia system with digital radio, satellite navigation and Bluetooth connectivity.
Our favourite feature though, is the 12.3-inch all-digital virtual cockpit instrument panel, which is easily customisable and clear to read.
Audi set the benchmark for digital displays when it first introduced virtual cockpit in its third-generation TT sports car, and it still remains the benchmark to this day.
Engine & trans
Powered by a 2.0-litre, turbo-petrol four-cylinder engine, the CLA 35 punches out 225kW/400Nm.
Drive is sent through a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmissions to the road via Mercedes’ '4Matic' all-wheel-drive system, enabling a 0-100km/h sprint in the 1603kg sedan in just 4.7 seconds. Top speed is electronically limited to 250km/h.
Though I didn’t get a chance to test the latter, the former certainly feels accurate when taking off from a freeway on ramp, however, there is some hesitation from the turbo in getting on boost.
Peak power comes in at 5800rpm, while maximum torque is available from 3000-4000rpm.
Power in the S3 sedan comes from a 2.0-litre turbo-petrol engine, which outputs 213kW at 6500rpm and 380Nm from 1850-5300rpm.
Engine outputs are impressive for a small car, though the powerplant does run out of go when the needle approaches redline.
The engine is also down on power and torque when compared to its newer rivals, such as the 225kW/400Nm Mercedes-AMG A35 sedan and 225kW/450Nm BMW M135i xDrive – though the latter is a hatchback.
Officially, the CLA 35 sips 7.5 litres per 100km on the combined cycle, but we managed a 9.9L/100km figure in our week with the car.
The majority of our driving was done in inner-city environments, with the two trips down the freeway to seek out twisty country rounds.
Minimum fuel grade in the CLA 35 is 98 RON.
Official fuel consumption figures are pegged at 6.5 litres per 100km, while carbon dioxide emissions are 151 grams per kilometre.
The S3 sedan sips premium unleaded fuel and the engine is Euro 6 compliant.
With a 55-litre fuel tank, the S3 should average about 846km of driving range per fill-up, but this is obviously dependent on driving conditions and the urgency of the driver's right foot.
The CLA 35 might not offer the outright thrills or breadth of capability of the CLA 45, but don’t think the cut-price AMG offers up a cut-rate driving experience.
From the driver’s seat, one of the cool things about the CLA 35 is that it doesn’t actually look any different from its more expensive sibling.
The drive-mode selector that is now embedded on the steering wheel is fantastic, a feature first seen on the Mercedes-AMG GT 4-door, and makes changing the driving dynamics on the fly an absolute breeze.
In fact, we think all cars where you can select drive modes should have a selector on the steering wheel like this, which lets you quickly and easily dial it up or down while keeping your hands on the wheel.
'Comfort', 'Sport', 'Sport+' and 'Individual' modes are available, while the transmission can also be put into manual mode independently for those that prefer to use the flappy paddles.
Suspension settings can also be tweaked regardless of which drive mode you are in, and it’s this level of customisability that we appreciate.
You want loud exhaust pops and the engine in full attack with manual shifting and the softest suspension? Sure, that’s doable here in the CLA 35. And toning it down to its most comfortable settings is just a flick of the wrist away.
The steering feels a little numb on centre and at slower speeds, though feedback picks right up with speed and is communicative enough when the road starts to get twisty.
Fitted with wide and sticky Michelin rubber, as well as the aforementioned all-wheel drive system, the CLA 35 is certainly not lacking in grip.
The suspension does an okay job of absorbing bumps, but uneven surfaces, like Melbourne’s tram tracks, can send uncomfortable jolts into the cabin if travelling quickly.
In fact, we think the ride comfort of the CLA 35 is probably its weakest aspect, offering not enough variability in its Comfort and Sport settings, and instead settling somewhere in between, regardless of drive mode.
The CLA 35 is ultimately still a fun and engaging sports sedan, though there are some sacrifices made to get it there.
Audi has probably perfected the easy-to-drive-fast formula with its S3 sedan, deftly balancing approachable limits with an engaging drive.
The exhaust just pops, rather than crackles, but again, that characteristic lends itself more to the mature and grown-up status of the S3 rather than the ‘boy racer' image of other cars in the same class.
The quattro all-wheel-drive system means the S3 sedan just grips, but leans towards understeer if you really come into a corner red hot.
It's no bad thing though, as steering is communicative and the chassis feels neutral for the most part.
If you want a small luxury sedan that will make you feel like a hero, the S3 is it.
With peak torque available so early in the rev range, the S3 is also a gem when just cruising around at inner-city speeds and when getting off the line briskly.
The transmission shifts quickly and smoothly, but if you'd prefer, you can always put it in manual mode and shift with the gear stick or steering wheel mounted paddles.
The S3 then, is suitable for pulling double duty as a weekday commuter and weekend canyon carver, and while there are other options that will do each respective thing better, there isn't much out there that can balance both aspects.
The CLA 35 has not been tested by ANCAP or Euro NCAP, but the standard CLA range was awarded a five-star rating in September 2019.
Standard safety equipment in the CLA 35 includes autonomous emergency braking, automatic high beams, nine airbags, drive attention alert, blind-spot monitoring with exit warning, lane-keep assist, traffic sign recognition and tyre pressure monitoring.
The standard CLA also comes with these features, and was awarded 96 and 92 per cent respectively in ANCAP adult occupant and child occupant protection tests.
For the vulnerable road user and safety assist examinations, the standard CLA scored 91 and 76 per cent respectively.
ANCAP says the AEB system works from seven-200km/h.
Of note, adaptive cruise control is not standard in the CLA 35 like it is in the CLA 45. Instead, buyers will have to tick the 'Driving Assistance Package' box for the feature, which also comes bundled with cross-traffic alert and lane change assist.
ANCAP awarded the entire A3 line-up a full five-star safety rating when it was originally tested in 2013.
We'd love to see something like a surround view-camera added to the next-generation S3, but with its diminutive size, it's not a deal breaker.
Some sort of autonomous self-parking technology would also be appreciated to get the car into those tight spaces.
As with all new Mercedes-Benz models, the CLA 35 comes with a five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, which is one of the best assurance periods offered by a premium carmaker.
It also comes with five years of roadside assist.
Scheduled service intervals are every 25,000km or 12 months, whichever comes first.
A three-year service plan is available for $2150 for new CLA 35 buyers, saving $500 when priced individually.
Four- and five-year plans are also available, and are priced at $4200 and $4950 respectively.
Audi's S3 sedan, like all new Audis, come with a three year/unlimited kilometre warranty alongside three years of roadside assist and 12 months of anti-corrosion cover.
Service intervals are ever 15,000km or 12 months, whichever comes first.
Both three- and five-year service plans are available for $1850 and $2390 respectively.