Is Mercedes’ new subcompact good enough for this iconic Bimmer?

Highly popular in its first years on the U.S. market, the Mercedes-Benz CLA returns in 2019 with a brand-new design. Drawing inspiration from both the sleek CLS and the latest A-Class, the CLA remains the sporty four-door coupe that made waves when it first arrived in 2013. But it now features a fresh interior, also taken from the A-Class, segment-leading technology, and an upgraded engine. How does it compare to its rivals? Well, the CLA doesn’t have that many rivals, as no other automaker produces a four-door coupe in this niche. But, we’re comparing it to the BMW 3 Series, one of the sportier compact sedans, and one of the best-selling models in this class. Find out more below.

Exterior

left right

The two cars are notably different on the outside, but not just because they’re built by different companies and feature different design languages. Beyond their brand-specific appearance, they stand out due to their body layout.

While the CLA is a four-door coupe, the 3 Series is an authentic sedan.

Sure, both have the familiar three-box design, but the CLA stands out as the sleeker proposition.

What makes it different compared to regular sedans? Well, the rear side of the roof mimics the shape of a coupe, which gives the four-door a sleeker, sportier look. The C-pillars are also wider toward the bottom and extend farther toward the back. The deck lid is a tad shorter on the CLA, while the slanted rear fascia adds to the sleek appearance.

Needless to say, there’s not much point in comparing these cars design-wise. They are very different as far as styling cues go, mostly because they’re built by companies with different approaches. But there are a couple of things worth mentioning. First, while the 3 Series is pretty much a shrunken 5 Series, the CLA is more than just a smaller CLS. The four-door coupe combines features from both the CLS and the A-Class it is based on but also incorporates design cues of its own. Second, although the Bimmer is only a tad bigger, it somehow feels more massive compared to the CLA. It might be due to the taller fascias and the fact that the beltline runs higher than on the CLA as well.

left right
Speaking of size, although you might be tempted to believe that the 3 Series is notably larger, it's actually not far off the CLA.

Yes, the 3 Series is still a compact, and the CLA is still advertised as a subcompact, but they’re very similar size-wise. For instance, the 3 Series is less than an inch longer. At 185.4 inches in length, it only adds 0.8 inches to the CLA. You’re definitely not going to notice that.

They’re practically identical in width, with the CLA measured at 72 inches and the 3 Series at 71.9 inches. The same goes for height, with the 3 Series a measly 0.15 inches taller at 58.8 inches. The only (somewhat) notable difference is in the wheelbase. The 3 Series is a tad longer at 112.2 inches, almost five inches more than the CLA, which sports a 107.4-inch wheelbase.

So you’re definitely not getting the smaller car if you’re going for the CLA. It may be a subcompact, but it’s just as big as the 3 Series. This also makes me wonder why these segments still exist though...

left right
2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 2020 BMW 3 Series
Length 184.56 185.4
Width 72.04 71.9
Height 56.65 56.8
Wheelbase 107.44 112.2
Front track 63.46 TBA
Rear track 63.07 TBA

Interior

2020 Mercedes CLA vs 2019 BMW 3 Series Interior
- image 813027
I think that the CLA benefits from a more high-tech look

If you’ve seen the A-Class inside the cabin, you’ve seen the CLA as well. That’s because the two vehicles are identical, down to the design, the technology, and all the features. On the flipside, the BMW 3 Series boasts a somewhat unique layout. Sure, it’s based on the larger 5 Series, but we can notice important changes, like the infotainment screen integrated in the center stack and even revisions to the trim and the center console.

Personally, I think that the CLA benefits from a more high-tech look. That mostly due to the "turbine" design of the A/C vents, slim control panel on the center stack, the high-sheen spokes of the steering wheel, and the way the instrument cluster and the infotainment display are merged into a single unit. Of course, this combo is optional, and the base model comes with smaller displays, but it’s a feature worth getting since it’s borrowed from the large S-Class.

The 3 Series, on the other hand, sports a more conventional layout. We can see the hexagonal design of the center stack, which incorporates a large display, the A/C vents, and most of the controls. Granted, the instrument cluster has the cool graphics with the speedo and rev counter markings set to the sides in C-shaped patterns, but the overall look is traditional, to say the least.

2020 Mercedes CLA vs 2019 BMW 3 Series
- image 798172
When it comes to materials, both interiors are of the premium variety.

While the entry-level cars aren’t packed with leather and fancy wood trim, you get some of that as you go up on the trim ladder. The range-topping models are obviously loaded to the gills. Go big, and you’ll get loads of leather and Alcantara, contrast stitching, highlights in various colors, and wood and aluminum trim in both the CLA and the 3 Series.

Technology

2020 Mercedes CLA vs 2019 BMW 3 Series Interior
- image 813002
Mercedes' MBUX infotainment features artificial intelligence and augmented reality

Impressively enough for a subcompact, the CLA is packed with state-of-the-art technology that’s usually reserved for bigger Mercedes-Benz models. Arguably the biggest highlight is the MBUX infotainment system. Short for Mercedes-Benz User Experience, it handles all operations under the skin and stands out for its ability to learn and adapt to every use via artificial intelligence. The cool thing is that it also includes augmented reality technology, through which you can operate the media display and the navigation system once you activate it using the code "Hey Mercedes."

The 3 Series doesn’t have augmented reality, but it features a state-of-the-art infotainment system. It’s called the Intelligent Personal Assistant, and it’s also able to answer several questions, like “How does the High Beam Assistant work?”, “Is the oil level okay?” and “What warning messages do I have?”. It also remembers your favorite settings and can activate a combination of them in certain situations. For instance, if you say “Hey BMW, I feel tired,” it activates a vitality program that adjusts the mood lighting, music, and temperature in order to make you feel more awake.

2019 BMW 3 Series
- image 798207
Speaking of mood lighting, both cars have advanced ambient lighting systems.

The CLA’s includes 64 colors and ten configurations, allowing a complex lighting display. In the Bimmer, you’ll find a dynamic light function that emits pulsating light signals on the inner trim of an open door when the engine is running and on the instrument panel for an incoming phone call. It also includes the Welcome Light Carpet, which illuminates under the doors when they are unlocked or when a door is opened.

Both vehicles have modern features like rain sensors, hands-free phone systems, multi-zone automatic climate controls, and a premium audio system. The 3 Series can be optionally fitted with a Harman Kardon surround sound system with 16 speakers and a digital seven-channel amplifier generating 464 watts.

2020 Mercedes CLA vs 2019 BMW 3 Series Interior
- image 813004
The CLA comes with a semi-autonomous driving system that will assist you in numerous situations

When it comes to driving assist features, the CLA is among the best you can buy. Featuring the same package as the A-Class, which in turns borrows it from the S-Class, the CLA comes with a semi-autonomous driving system that will assist you in numerous situations. Equipped with a camera and radar system that sees up to 0.3 miles ahead, it keeps a close eye on the traffic and uses map and navigation data to keep you safe and relaxed. The Active Distance Assist Distronic function adjusts speed when approaching bends or roundabouts, while Active Brake Assist helps reduce or prevent collisions with slow-moving or stationary vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists. Features like Active Emergency Stop Assist and Active Lane Change Assist come standard, while the Pre-Safe Plus package is optional.

The 3 Series is also equipped with the latest active safety tech, but just like in the CLA, the Driving Assistant Professional package, which has semi-autonomous capability, is optional. Underpinned by a trifocal camera that was co-developed with Mobileye, it works in conjunction with a front-facing radar to keep you safe in various driving situations. The bundle also includes Active Cruise Control with Stop & Go function, Steering and Lane Keeping Assistant, and Active Side Collision Avoidance. The Extended Traffic Jam Assistant takes over in stop-and-go traffic at speeds of up 37 mph, while Parking Assist has the ability to back the car up at a maximum speed of 5.5 mph.

Passenger and Trunk Space

2020 Mercedes CLA vs 2019 BMW 3 Series Interior
- image 813003
Surprisingly, the CLA offers a bit more headroom in the front

Because the 3 Series is a compact and the CLA a subcompact, you might be tempted to believe that the Bimmer offers notably more passenger space inside the cabin. In reality, the CLA is marginally smaller on the inside. This isn’t very surprising given that the two cars are similar in length and width, but it sparks a question mark when you consider the extra five inches in the 3 Series’ wheelbase.

When it comes to headroom, the 3 Series offers an extra two inches in the rear at 37.6 inches. This isn’t surprising given the CLA’s coupe-style roof. However, the CLA offers 1.5 inches of extra headroom for front passengers, coming in at 40.3 inches.

2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA
- image 813001
The CLA can take up to 16.2 cubic feet of luggage, only 1.1 cubic feet less than the 3 Series

Legroom-wise, the two cars are very similar. Front legroom is 41.8 inches in the CLA and 42 inches in the 3 Series, a minor difference. In the rear, you get a bit more room in the 3 Series, but we’re talking about 1.3 inches, which you might not even notice. Shoulder room is again almost identical in both cars. The CLA offers 55.1 inches in the front and 54 inches in the rear, while the 3 Series offers 56 inches in the front and 54.6 inches in the rear.

Although the new CLA has a slightly smaller trunk compared to the outgoing model, it’s still a solid competitor for the 3 Series. The Merc can now swallow up to 16.2 cubic-feet of luggage, only 1.1 cubic-feet less than the 3 Series, which has a 17.3-cubic-foot trunk.

I guess it’s safe to say that the CLA is more of a compact than a subcompact vehicle.

2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 2020 BMW 3 Series
Front headroom 40.3 38.7
Rear headroom 35.7 37.6
Front legroom 41.8 42
Rear legroom 33.9 35.2
Front shoulder room 55.1 56
Rear shoulder room 54 54.6
Cargo Room 16.24 cu-ft 17.3 cu-ft

Drivetrain and Performance

2018 Mercedes-Benz A-Class
- image 764901
The CLA's engine cranks out 221 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque

The CLA was launched with just one engine in the U.S., and if the past is any indication, it will remain the only option. Aside from the upcoming AMG model, of course. Just like its predecessor, it comes to the U.S. in CLA250 trim. This version features a revised variant of the previous 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with a bit of extra power. More specifically, it cranks out 221 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, an extra 13 horses. Torque remained unchanged, so it’s not much of an improvement.

The mill mates to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission and sends the power to the front wheels in standard form. Optionally, you can have the 4Matic all-wheel-drive system for traction to the rear wheels as well.

2020 Mercedes CLA vs 2019 BMW 3 Series
- image 798241
The 3 Series comes with 255 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque

Mercedes-Benz has yet to release performance figures, but it’s safe to assume that the new CLA will be a bit quicker than the previous model. The old coupe needed 6.8 seconds to hit 60 mph from a standing start, and we can expect the new car to get there in 6.6 clicks or less.

This is where the Bimmer stands out. Available in 330i trim in the U.S., the 3 Series features a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine as well, but it’s tuned to generate 255 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. That’s an extra 34 horses and 37 pound-feet over the CLA. Naturally, the 3 Series is quicker as well. When equipped with all-wheel drive, which is optional, the German sedan hits 60 mph in 5.6 seconds, around a second quicker than the CLA. They’re a bit different in the transmission department too, as the 3 Series features an eight-speed automatic. However, as a common point, neither of them are available with manual gearboxes.

Mercedes-Benz CLA BMW 3 Series
Engine 2.0-liter inline-four cylinder turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder
Horsepower 221 HP @ 5,800 RPM 255 HP
Torque 258 LB-FT @ 1,800-4,000 RPM 295 LB-FT
0 to 60 mph 6.8 seconds 5.6 seconds
Top Speed 130 mph 130 mph

Final Thoughts

2020 Mercedes CLA vs 2019 BMW 3 Series Exterior
- image 813022

The CLA ends this comparison with a surprisingly good rating in my book. Although it’s supposed to compete in a slightly different niche for smaller cars, it has what it takes to give the BMW 3 Series a run for its money. Sure, it may lack the oomph and the performance, but it’s on par in the performance department and offers competitive passenger and luggage room. And it wins bonus points in the design department. While the Bimmer is pretty cool for a compact sedan, the CLA stands out thanks to its unique coupe-style roof and sporty, CLS-inspired looks.

What’s more, the CLA will be notably more affordable than the 3 Series. While the Bimmer comes in at $40,250, the new CLA will start from around $35,000. That’s a solid $5,000 to spend on options, including the $2,000 4Matic AWD system. Pricing-, equipment-, and design-wise, the CLA wins in my book.

Further reading

2020 Mercedes CLA vs 2019 BMW 3 Series Exterior
- image 813008

Read our full review on the 2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA.

2020 Mercedes CLA vs 2019 BMW 3 Series
- image 798247

Read our full review on the 2019 BMW 3 Series.

What do you think?
Show Comments
Car Finder: