Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class VS BMW M3
- Quick pace
- Engaging dynamics
- Premium interior
- Harsh ride
- Limited rear-seat room
- Divisive styling
- Dynamic performance
- Standard features
- Polarising grille design
- Patchy wireless CarPlay
- Three-year warranty
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|
You could argue the BMW M1, a stunning wedge of late ‘70s Giorgetto Giugiaro design, first inserted the Bavarian maker’s 'M' performance brand into the public consciousness.
But there’s a second, more enduring alpha-numeric BMW nameplate, that’s more likely to pass the person-in-the-street word-association test.
‘M3’ is synonymous with BMW performance, from touring car competition around the globe, to more than three decades’ worth of superbly engineered and entertainingly dynamic road cars.
Read more about the BMW 3 Series
The subject of this review is the current (G80) M3, launched globally last year. But more than that, it’s the even spicier M3 Competition, which adds six per cent more power, and 18 percent more torque, as well as $10K to the price tag.
Does the Competition’s extra bang justify those additional bucks? Time to find out.
|Engine Type||3.0L 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.
Is the M3 Competition worth $10K more than the ‘base’ M3? In percentage terms it’s a relatively small jump, and if you’re already in the $150K ballpark, why not take it? Extra performance in a technically sophisticated package more than capable of handling it. Add top-shelf safety, a laundry list of standard features, with the practicality of a four-door sedan and it’s hard to resist. The way it looks? Well, that’s up to you?
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.
It feels like once in a generation, BMW feels the need to polarise automotive opinion with a controversial design direction.
Twenty years ago, then head of design for the brand, Chris Bangle, took a fearful hammering for his determined push towards more ‘adventurous’ shapes. Passionate BMW fans picketed the company’s famous ‘four-cylinder building’ HQ in Munich demanding his departure.
And who else but Bangle’s second-in-command from those days, Adrian van Hooydonk, has been leading the design department since his boss eventually left the building in 2009.
Van Hooydonk has created another firestorm of opinion in recent years by gradually increasing the size of BMW’s signature ‘kidney grille’ to what some see as comical proportions.
The latest variation on the oversize grille theme has been applied to various concept and production models, including the M3, and its M4 sibling.
As always, a purely subjective call, but the M3’s large, descending grille puts me in mind of a well known carrot-munching, cartoon rabbit’s upper incisors.
Time will tell whether such a bold treatment ages well or lives in infamy, but there’s no denying it dominates first visual impressions of the car.
Almost as much as our test example’s ‘Isle of Man Green metallic’ paint, a deep, lustrous shade that highlights the cars’s curves and angles, and regularly stopped passers by in their tracks.
The bulging bonnet carries angular strakes back from the grille, and features a pair of faux vents, which along with darkened headlight interiors (BMW M Lights Shadow Line), accentuate the car’s tough expression.
A modern M3 wouldn’t be an M3 without pumped up guards, in this case filled by fat 19-inch forged alloy rims at the front, and 20s at the rear.
The framing around the windows is ‘M high-gloss Shadow Line’ black, balancing the dark front splitter and side skirts.
The tail is a multi-layered stack of horizontal lines and sections, including a thin ‘Gurney Flap’ style bootlid spoiler, and a protruding lower third housing a deep diffuser with quad, dark chrome tailpipes either side.
Sidle up closer to the car and the crowning glory is a gloss carbon-fibre roof. It’s flawless, and looks stunning.
Just as stunning is the first viewing of our test car’s full ‘Merino’ leather interior in ‘Kyalami Orange’ and black. In combination with the bold exterior colour it’s a bit rich for my blood, but the technical, athletic feel is strong.
The dash design is little changed from other 3 Series models, although the digital instrument cluster strengthens the high-performance flavour. Look up and the ‘M headliner’ is in ‘Anthracite.’
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.
At just under 4.8m long, a fraction over 1.9m wide, and a little over 1.4m tall, the current M3 is right in the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class size bracket.
There's plenty of room up front, and lots of storage, including a big box/armrest between the front seats, as well as two large cupholders and a wireless charging pad in a recessed section in front of the gear shift (which can be closed off with a roll-top style cover).
The glove box is large and there are sizable bins in the doors with separate sections for full-size bottles.
At 183cm (6’0”), sitting behind the driver’s seat set to my position, there’s lots of rear head, leg, and toe room. Which is surprising, because in other current 3 Series models, headroom’s been tighter for me.
One of three climate control zones is reserved for the rear, with adjustable vents and digital temperature control at the back of the front centre console.
Unlike other 3 Series models there’s no fold-down centre armrest (with cupholders) in the back, but there are pockets with big bottle holders in the doors.
Power and connectivity options run to a USB-A slot and 12V socket in the front console, a USB-C port in the centre console box, and two USB-C outlets in the rear.
Boot space is 480 litres (VDA), which is slightly above average for the class, with a 40/20/40 split-folding rear seat increasing cargo flexibility.
There are small, netted bays on both sides of the load space, tie down anchors to secure loose loads, and the boot lid has an auto function.
The M3 is a no-tow zone and don’t bother looking for a spare of any description, a repair/inflator kit is your only option.
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.
With an entry-price of $154,900, before on-road costs, the M3 Competition lines up directly with Audi’s RS 5 Sportback ($150,900), while an outlier at the edge of the M3’s orbit is the Maserati Ghibli S GranSport ($175K).
But its most obvious, long-time sparring partner, the Mercedes-AMG C 63 S has temporarily stepped out of the ring.
Expect huge performance, with a price tag exceeding the outgoing model’s circa $170K ask.
And that AMG hot rod better be loaded because as well as a bunch of performance and safety tech (covered later in the review), this M3 boasts an impressively long standard equipment list.
Included are, ‘BMW Live Cockpit Professional’ with a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and 10.25-inch high-res multimedia display (managed via touch, voice, or the ‘iDrive’ controller), sat nav, three-zone climate control, customisable ambient lighting, ‘Laserlight’ headlights (including ‘Selective Beam’), ‘Comfort Access’ keyless entry and start, and 16-speaker harman/kardon surround sound audio (with 464-watt, seven-channel digital amp and digital radio).
Then you can add, a full leather interior (including the steering wheel and gearshift), electrically-adjustable heated ‘M Sport’ front seats (with memory for the driver), ‘Parking Assistant Plus’ (including ‘3D Surround View & Reversing Assistant’), an auto tailgate, a head-up display, adaptive cruise control, rain-sensing wipers, wireless smartphone integration (and charging) including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, anti-dazzle (interior and exterior) mirrors, and dual-spoke forged alloy wheels (19-inch fr / 20-inch rr).
As visual icing on the cake, carbon-fibre is sprinkled over and inside the car like shiny, lightweight confetti. The entire roof is made of the stuff, with more on the front centre console, dash, steering wheel and manual shift paddles.
That’s a solid features list (and we haven’t bored you with all the details), substantiating a strong value equation in this small, but mega-competitive market niche.
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.
The M3 Competition is powered by BMW’s (S58B) 3.0-litre in-line, six-cylinder engine, an all-alloy, closed deck unit featuring direct-injection, ‘Valvetronic’ variable valve timing (on the intake side), ‘Double-VANOS’ variable camshaft timing (intake and exhaust side) and twin mono-scroll turbos to produce 375kW (503hp) at 6250rpm and 650Nm from 2750rpm, all the way to 5500rpm. A solid jump from the ‘standard’ M3’s already substantial 353kW/550Nm.
Not known for sitting on their hands, BMW M’s engine techs in Munich have used 3D printing to manufacture the core of the cylinder head, incorporating internal forms not possible with conventional casting.
This tech has not only reduced the head’s weight, but allowed its coolant ducts to be re-routed for optimal temp management.
Drive goes to the rear wheels via an eight-speed ‘M Steptronic’ (torque converter) paddle-shift automatic transmission, with ‘Drivelogic’ (adjustable shift modes) and a standard ‘Active M’ variable locking differential.
An all-wheel drive ‘M xDrive’ version is scheduled for Australian launch before the end of 2021.
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.
BMW’s official fuel economy figure for the M3 Competition, on the ADR 81/02 - urban, extra-urban cycle, is 9.6L/100km, the 3.0-litre twin-turbo six emitting 221g/km of C02 in the process.
To help get to that impressive number, BMW has deployed numerous cunning devices including, an ‘Optimum Shift Indicator’ (in manual shift mode), on-demand operation of ancillary units, and ‘Brake Energy Regeneration’ which tops up a relatively small lithium-Ion battery to power an auto stop-start system,
Despite this tricky tech, we averaged 12.0L/100km (at the bowser), over a range of driving conditions, which is still pretty good for such a powerful and focused performance sedan.
Recommended fuel is 98 RON premium unleaded although, amazingly, 91 RON standard fuel is acceptable at a pinch.
Either way, you’ll need 59 litres of it to fill the tank, which is enough for a range of over 600km using the factory economy figure, and close to 500km based on our real-world number.
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.
Any production-based performance sedan claimed to accelerate from 0-100km/h in less than four seconds is straight-up fast.
BMW says the M3 Competition will hit triple figures in just 3.5sec, which is properly rapid, and a full-bore, launch-control assisted start in this car is... impressive.
Aural accompaniment is suitably raucous, but beware, at its loudest it’s mostly fake news, with synthetic engine/exhaust noise able to be dialled down or turned off altogether.
That said, with maximum torque (650Nm!) available from 2750rpm all the way to 5500rpm, mid-range pulling power is prodigious, and despite the twin turbos this engine loves to rev (thanks in no small part to a forged, lightweight crankshaft).
Power delivery is beautifully linear, and a surge from 80-120km/h takes 2.6sec in fourth, and 3.4sec in fifth. With peak power (375kW/503hp) arriving at 6250rpm, you can thunder on to a maximum velocity of 290km/h.
That’s if the electronically-controlled limit of 250km/h isn’t enough for you, and you’ve ticked the optional ‘M Driver’s Package’ box. Enjoy the big house!
Suspension is basically strut front, five-link rear, all in aluminium, and working in concert with ‘Adaptive M’ dampers. They are brilliant, and the transition from ‘Comfort’ to ‘Sport’ and back is amazing.
The ride quality this car delivers in Comfort mode is nuts given it’s riding on huge rims shod with licorice thin tyres.
The sports front seats also offer an amazing blend of comfort and extra lateral support (with the touch of a button).
In fact, fine-tuning the car’s set-up across suspension, brakes, steering, engine, and transmission calibrations through the ‘M Setup’ menu is easy and adds extra involvement. Blaringly red M1 and M2 pre-set buttons on the steering wheel allow storage of preferred settings.
The electrically-assisted steering points nicely, and road feel is excellent.
The car remains flat and stable in enthusiastic B-road corners, the active ‘M Differential’ and ‘M Traction Control’ putting all that power down from a steady state mid-corner, through to a scorchingly fast and balanced exit.
No surprise, front to rear weight distribution for this 1.7-tonne machine is 50:50.
Rubber is ultra-high-performance Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S (275/35x19 fr / 285/30x20 rr) which deliver confidence-inspiring grip in the dry, as well as a couple of torrentially wet days during the latter part of our week with the car.
And washing off speed is a fuss-free experience thanks to standard ‘M Compound’ brakes’ consisting of big ventilated and cross-drilled rotors (380mm fr / 370mm rr) clamped by six-piston fixed calipers at the front and single-piston floating units at the rear.
On top of that the integrated braking system offers Comfort and Sport pedal feel settings, altering the amount of pedal pressure required to slow the car. Stopping power is immense, and even in Sport mode brake feel is progressive.
One technical niggle is the wireless CarPlay connectivity, which I found frustratingly patchy. Didn’t test the Android equivalent this time around, though.
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.
The M3 Competition hasn’t been assessed by ANCAP, but 2.0-litre 3 Series models received a maximum five-star rating in 2019.
Standard active crash-avoidance tech includes ‘Emergency Brake Assist’ (BMW-speak for AEB) with pedestrian and cyclist detection, ‘Dynamic Brake Control’ (helps apply maximum braking power in an emergency), ‘Cornering Brake Control’, a ‘Dry Braking’ function that periodically skims the rotors (with the pads) in wet conditions, ‘integrated wheel slip limitation’, lane change warning, lane departure warning, and rear cross-traffic alert.
There’s also ‘Park Distance Control’ (with sensors front and rear), Parking Assistant Plus (including ‘3D Surround View & Reversing Assistant’), an ‘Attentiveness Assistant’ function, and tyre pressure monitoring.
But if an impact is unavoidable there are front, side, and knee airbags for the driver and front passenger, as well as side curtain bags covering both rows of seats.
On sensing a crash the car will make an ‘Automatic Emergency Call’, and there’s even a warning triangle and first aid kit on board.
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.
BMW offers a three year/unlimited km warranty, which is off the pace given the majority of mainstream brands have stepped up to five-year cover, with some at seven, or even 10.
On the upside, bodywork is covered for 12 years, the paint for three, and 24-hour roadside assistance is complimentary for three years.
The ‘Concierge Service’ is another three year, complimentary deal, providing 24/7/365 access to a personalised service through a dedicated ‘BMW Customer Information Centre.’
Servicing is condition based, so the car tells you when maintenance is required, and BMW offers a range of ‘Service Inclusive’ capped price servicing plans, starting from three years/40,000km.