We’ve been fortunate enough to test both vehicles back-to-back to pin the ribbon on our favourite.
In the blue corner is the Audi A3 Sedan TDI (110kW/340Nm 2.0-litre turbo-diesel) and in the white corner the Mercedes-Benz CLA200 with a 115kW/250Nm 1.6-litre turbo-petrol engine, both rather shockingly fitted with manual gearboxes.
Although not exactly comparable in terms of engine size, the pricing of these vehicles is more closely matched than if we had to compare the diesel CLA to the A3. Where the CLA200 is R4 329 more than the A3, the CLA220 CDI is a colossal R44 000 dearer, albeit it with a 7G-DCT automatic gearbox.
Claimed performance is also pretty evenly matched. Both sprint to 100km/h in 8.6 seconds. The A3’s fuel consumption is just 5.0 litres/100km and the CLA’s is 5.5 litres/100km.
Both gain a large amount of luggage space - the A3 Sedan is wider than the three-door variant and so boasts 425 litres of boot space, which is trumped by the CLA’s impressive 470 litres though. The CLA’s sloping roofline means that rear comfort and space has been compromised for taller folk while the A3 maintains good head and leg room in the rear.
In terms of styling, I don’t think that anyone would argue that the CLA is the catwalk winner. Where the Audi is focused on looking like the automotive equivalent of a Hugo Boss suit, the Mercedes wants to be the extrovert, wearing a jewel-encrusted Stuart Hughes suit with a pair of All-Stars.
Both are supremely refined on the open road, whispering away with very little wind or road noise. The CLA has ditched the A-Class’ harsh ride and while it is still firm, it definitely is much improved. When it comes to handling, the Audi’s famed MQB platform doesn’t disappoint - even with a relatively heavy lump over the front axle, the A3 corners superbly, but I dare say the CLA feels even better, with a sharper turn-in response and a lively steering feel.
The CLA is let down slightly by its gearbox though. The automatic would suit the vehicle better as the manual doesn’t feel dynamic enough with its slightly cumbersome throws. The Audi’s gearbox is better - even borderline notchy - with a reassuring click when a gear is engaged.
The interior is where the A3 really claws back. Where Mercedes-Benz has festooned the centre console with buttons and a fixed infotainment screen, Audi has gone for a sophisticated, minimalist look - featuring a screen folding in and out of the dashboard - with very few buttons required thanks to the MMI system. Both infotainment systems are easy to use, but the Audi’s pips the Merc’s for ultimate usability.
I found myself questioning why anybody who has the perfect 2.3 children would need anything bigger than one of these two vehicles. For the family person who wants kerb-side appeal, the CLA provides it in spades whereas the more practical buyer would go for the A3.
These are two very different vehicles that will attract two very different buyers. The CLA has already got a strong following with a lengthy waiting list, but I declare the A3 the winner of the shootout by the slimmest of margins, sighting its lower price and more practical rear quarters as the main factors.