Review by Jacob Black, photos by Jeff Wilson and Jonathan Yarkony

The luxury car market is going through a miniature revolution of late – with the big players making a concerted effort to attract newer, younger buyers with a serious incursion into the compact segment.

Sure, Audi and Mercedes-Benz have had small cars in the past, but this is a renaissance for that size. The A3 and CLA 250 are now their urban-focused sedan heroes.

In the Audi corner, we’re driving the 2015 A3, a fully loaded Technik trim including the Advanced Technology package, S Line package and LED headlights. If you can name a trick feature or convenience – this little rig has it. All for the plum, as-tested price of $50,045.

Mercedes-Benz has bought into the argument with their CLA 250 4MATIC Coupe – which has four doors. [Dear everyone, coupe = two door, stop trying to reinvent the word, Love Jacob]

Ridiculous naming system aside, the CLA 250 supplied is a less opulent trim but still has the Driving Assistance Package, Sport Package, Premium Package and COMAND Online Navigation w/MB Apps as well as Bi-Xenon headlamps. This one is cheaper at $46,995 as tested but it is missing a couple of things. More on that later.

So these are the aspirational carrots, the first rung on a long ladder to German-car-owning success and prestige. So much so in fact, that the CLA 250 probably sold most of its units the second people realized “Hey, I can afford a Mercedes-Benz!” The lure of the three-pointed star is perhaps brighter than that of the four rings, but both have been brightened by the arrival of more attainable options for the up-and-comers.

Mercedes-Benz is known for comfort and excellent road manners. Gentle, easy-to-drive cars that relax and support the driver inside a cocoon of premium engineering and execution. Audi has traditionally occupied a sportier section of the road (and dirt).

In the quest to bring more youthful buyers to the table, financing is not enough. And so, both the CLA 250 and the A3 are riding the thin line between sporty and comfortable. One has a little too much sauerkraut and not enough bratwurst, the other gets the recipe just right.

2015 Audi A3 vs 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 2502014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 4MATIC Coupe2015 Audi A32015 Audi A3 vs 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250
2015 Audi A3 vs 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250. Click image to enlarge

It’s worth noting that whenever we parked this trio, all eyes were on the vivid red Mercedes-Benz. Maybe it was the red paint, maybe it was the aggressive snout complete with pronounced splitter, or maybe it was the massive three-pointed star in the grille – but no matter what, the CLA seemed to upstage the A3.

Lighting signatures are a major factor in the overall visual presence of a car these days, and Mercedes-Benz brings the pain with is gorgeous LED rear tail lamps. Up front though it’s Audi who take an edge with their LED lights eclipsing the CLA’s Bi-Xenon units. Both are distinctive.

From the back, Mercedes’ tail lamps are the only things that work; the droopy tail end looks a little awkward, kind of like those rappers with their pants hanging down too far from their waist. The A3 seems more composed as an overall package, but lacks the raunch of the CLA from the front.

The Audi is pretty, the Mercedes-Benz is sexy – from certain angles.

It’s almost too close to call, but we’re giving this one to the more cohesive, consistent design of the A3.

2015 Audi A3 dashboard2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 4MATIC Coupe dashboard
2015 Audi A3, 2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA 250 4MATIC Coupe dashboards. Click image to enlarge

Interior and Features:
Everywhere you look in the A3, Audi has provided quality materials. It feels well put together and soft-touch material extends well below the belt line of the dashboard. The Mercedes-Benz has gone a different route, and while the materials above the belt line are excellent, it soon takes a cost-cutting turn as you move down towards the footwell. Even the drive selector stalk on the steering column feels cheap and unsophisticated. It frees up plenty of space in the console, but at the expense of a solid-feeling shifter that implies reliability. Our colleague Mike Lynett says the CLA is “trying a little too hard to look like a big Merc,” and that the “dash face material doesn’t fit the vibe of the car.” Then again, Senior Editor Jonathan Yarkony found the fluid shape of that swath of woodgrain trim appealing and suited to the Benz’s character, and gave the Benz greater visual interest than the stark A3 dash.

As a result, the CLA felt less premium than the Audi and in some cases, cheap. By contrast, Mike says the Audi is well-executed all round.

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