You won’t find a lot of models that can compete with these two compact luxury sedans. Oh, and they’re both German, too.

Mercedes-Benz finally pulled the covers off of the 2020 CLA-Class at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show. A lot’s been made about the importance of the CLA, particularly in terms of sales where more than 750,000 units of the model have been sold since its launch in 2013. Competition in the compact luxury sedan segment is at an all-time high, so Mercedes has a lot riding on the new CLA to continue its sales momentum as it enters a new chapter in its life. If the new CLA-Class is to be successful, it’s going to have to compete against models like the Audi A3, which, itself, is due for a next-generation model to replace the existing model that’s been around since 2012. The next-generation A3 is scheduled to debut later this year in hatchback form, so for now, the current-generation A3 sedan, which was updated in 2017, will soldier on and compete against an all-new CLA-Class that’s packing a lot of all-new features. How do the two compact luxury sedans line up against each other? We’re about to find out.

Exterior

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Mercedes-Benz and Audi represent two schools of thought as far as their design languages are concerned. One really isn’t better than the other because both aesthetics appeal to different people. You can see it in the new Mercedes CLA Class and the recently updated Audi S3. Does one really look better than the other, or is it just a matter of taste and preference?

Mercedes has done a great job packaging the look of the CLA to fit into the design philosophy of its other sedan models.

The sliding profile is a quintessential Mercedes look that you can also see on models like the C-Class and E-Class. The proportions are different, but the aesthetic intention cuts across the company’s sedan lineup. Personally, I think Mercedes could’ve done a better job with the front section of the CLA. It’s not a bad look, per se. But it feels like the creased hood dominates the conversation on that end. The headlamp design looks good on its own, but from certain angles, it looks a little too small relative to the front grille, which is always a standout Mercedes design. The front bumper and spoiler are distinctive in the right ways. I like how the bumper panels swoop up and meet in the middle, right where the license plate holder is located. It creates a nice visual balance in the lower section of the front end. The side and rear profiles are what they are. There’s not much going on there that we haven’t seen from Mercedes before. I’m still not a fan of the high bumper in the rear section, but Mercedes doesn’t overdo it to the point that it becomes distracting to the eyes. Overall, the all-new CLA-Class packs a solid exterior design. You’ll know it’s a Mercedes the moment you see it.

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The same holds true for the Audi A3. One look at it and you know what model it is. This points to the same thing I said about Mercedes’ design philosophy. Audi’s own design language is unique. You can say that Audi leans more towards a sporty look on the A3 whereas Mercedes focuses on emotional curves with the CLA-Class. Again, take your pick. Both styles offer a lot to the table.

For me, the A3 looks more like the compact luxury sedan that I want to be seen driving.

Audi did a masterful job injecting more flair in the facelifted 2017 model. The biggest aesthetic change is the front bumper where the intakes on opposite ends of the bumper look larger than the ones found on the 2016 A3. You’d be surprised how that update changes the entire face of the A3. The air dam, too, takes a different shape compared to what it looked like in the 2016 A3. It folds up at the ends and runs parallel with the lower sides of the grille. Squint your eyes, and it looks like the A3 is actually smiling at you. Like the CLA, the side and rear profiles of the A3 remain largely the same as they have been in recent years.

Given a choice between the two, I like the Audi A3’s exterior more than the Mercedes CLA-Class. It’s not that one is completely better than the other because I’m not going to begrudge someone who says the all-new CLA-Class looks better. It might look better in their eyes, and I have no problem with that. The CLA-Class looks more refined than the A3’s sporty in-your-face style. I like that about the A3, though. It provides the sporty and dynamic looks of an Audi at a price that I can actually afford.

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2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 2019 Audi A3
Length 184.56 175.5
Width 72.04 TBA
Width incl. exterior mirrors 78.7 77.2
Height 56.65 55.7
Wheelbase 107.44 103.8
Front track 63.46 61.2
Rear track 63.07 60.1

Interior

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This section isn’t as close as the exterior, and it’s not really the Audi A3’s fault. The all-new Mercedes CLA-Class is just loaded to the brim that competing against it is a futile exercise.

In terms of dimensions, the CLA-Class has more headroom in the front and shoulder room in the front and rear.

The A3, on the other hand, edges it in rear headroom and legroom in the front and back. You can call interior space a wash between the two sedans, and no one’s going to complain. Where the CLA starts to separate itself starts in the cargo area where the Mercedes sedan obliterate its Audi counterpart with a cargo room of 16.24 cubic feet. The A3, however, offers 12.3 cubic feet of cargo space, which is already less than most luxury compact sedans, to begin with.

2020 Mercedes CLA vs 2020 Audi A3 High Resolution Interior
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When it comes to tech, it’s not even close. To be clear, the Audi A3 doesn’t lack in this department. It comes with a 12.3-inch diagonal screen for an instrument cluster. It also features an upgraded MMI system with a new menu structure that’s similar to what we’re familiar with on smartphones. The rotary control knob on the center console remains, and the A3 comes with a seven-inch display as standard equipment. MMI navigation and MMI navigation plus with MMI touch are optional upgrades. It’s a well-equipped package for a compact luxury sedan.

Unfortunately, it’s going up against an all-new model that’s packing all the latest in automotive technology.

At the heart of the CLA’s tech offerings is the improved software of Merc’s MBUX system that apparently now includes voice command. Mercedes officials say that the software is so smart now that you can talk to it like a normal person and it will respond to all your queries. Need to go to a Mexican restaurant that’s located within a 10-block radius? Just ask the MBUX system and it will dive deep into the Internet to help you satisfy your burrito urge. Standard commands are now more straightforward, too. Just tell Mercedes that you’re hot and it automatically adjusts the temperature to a level that you’re comfortable with.

2020 Mercedes CLA vs 2020 Audi A3 Interior
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The advancements made to the MUBX’s software is just the tip of the iceberg. There are more tech upgrades in store for prospective customers. That alone puts the CLA-Class’ interior head and shoulders above the A3.

2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA 2019 Audi A3
Max. headroom, front 40.27 36.5
Headroom, rear 35.74 36.1
Legroom, front 41.81 41.2
Legroom, rear 33.89 35.1
Shoulder room, front 55.11 54.8
Shoulder room, rear 54.01 53
Cargo Room 16.24 cu-ft 12.3

Drivetrain and Performance

2020 Mercedes CLA vs 2020 Audi A3 Exterior
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Both the Audi A3 and the Mercedes CLA-Class come with a plethora of engine options, so you’re not going to have a lack of choices here. Unfortunately, the U.S. market is limited in that front, especially when it comes to the all-new CLA.

The only engine we’re getting is a 2.0-liter inline-four cylinder engine that produces 221 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 258 pound-feet of torque at 1,800 to 4,000 rpm.

The power figure represents an increase of 13 horsepower over its predecessor. The engine is mated to a seven-speed dual clutch transmission, which sends power to the two front wheels. You can also opt to avail of variable torque four-wheel drive, though that comes as an option on the CLA. Mercedes hasn’t mentioned any performance times beyond the electronically limited top speed of 130 mph, but you can look at the previous model to get an identity on how fuel efficient the CLA-Class is. The current front-wheel drive CLA250, in particular, returns 24 mpg in the city, which is average for a sedan of its size and status. It does, however, return one of the highest highway fuel economy ratings of any sedan in its class at 37 mpg. Those gas mileage figures drop to 24 mpg in the city and 32 on the highway if you’re driving an all-wheel-drive version of the CLA Class.

2020 Mercedes CLA vs 2020 Audi A3 Exterior
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It remains to be seen how well the new CLA-Class drives, but if it’s as good as the current model, then you shouldn’t have any problems with it. The current CLA is a breeze to drive. The steering is light and nimble and the suspension does its part in providing a poised ride. It’s not a perfect sedan, though, because road imperfections can sometimes be felt in the cabin, but for the most part, you’re not going to complain about what you’re getting out of the Mercedes. I would suggest swapping out the standard run-flat tires in favor of a more sophisticated set. That usually solves the minor ills attributed to the sedan’s ride quality.

If you don’t live in America, you’ll be happy to know that the CLA-Class also comes with a 1.4-liter unit that produces 163 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque.

It can be had with either a seven-speed dual clutch transmission or a six-speed manual. There’s also a diesel version, which is powered by a 1.5-liter diesel engine that produces only 116 horsepower but has 192 pound-feet of torque.

2020 Mercedes CLA vs 2020 Audi A3 High Resolution Drivetrain
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Like the Mercedes CLA, the Audi A3 only has one engine available in the U.S. market: a 2.0-liter four-cylinder unit that produces 228 horsepower at 4,500 rpm and 258 pound-feet of torque at 1,600 rpm.

The A3 is primarily a front-wheel-drive sedan like the CLA, but there is a way to avail of Audi’s famous Quattro all-wheel-drive system. Base it on the power figures and the A3 still has the edge over the CLA, but the difference in output is a negligible seven horsepower. The A3 also fares well in the mileage department. Front-wheel drive versions of the sedan actually have a higher EPA rating than the CLA-Class with a rating of 24 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway. Those are above average figures in its segment. The numbers naturally go down with an all-wheel-drive version of the A3. In that setup, the sedan returns “only” 24 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway.

Overall, the A3 feels like a peppier sedan than the CLA, especially if it’s equipped with the Quattro all-wheel-drive system. The steering has preciseness to it that not a lot of sedans can compete with. It makes for a light and enjoyable drive, the kind that’s suited for a wide range of drivers.

2020 Mercedes CLA vs 2020 Audi A3 High Resolution Exterior
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Over in other markets, the A3 is available with more engine options, including the entry-level 1.6-liter TDI that puts out 110 horsepower.

There’s also 2.0-liter TDI engine that offered in two different flavors: one that produces 150 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque and another that produces 184 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque.

Comparing the two models in terms of power and performance is hard because they return roughly the same figures. I will say that if you want a more refined ride, you get the Mercedes CLA-Class. Conversely, if you want a more sporty ride, you opt for the Audi A3. Either way, you win.

Mercedes-Benz CLA Audi A3
Engine 2.0-liter inline-four cylinder 2.0-liter four-cylinder
Horsepower 221 HP @ 5,800 RPM 228 HP @ 4,500 RPM
Torque 258 LB-FT @ 1,800-4,000 RPM 258 LB-FT @ 1,600 RPM
Top Speed 130 mph 130 mph

Final Thoughts

2020 Mercedes CLA vs 2020 Audi A3 Exterior
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As I mentioned, you need to see your priorities first before you decide to buy the all-new Mercedes CLA-Class or the Audi A3. By virtue of being completely new, the CLA-Class can practically sell itself without any trouble. It’s an impressive package all around, none more important than all the tech features it’s carrying. You can’t go wrong with the CLA-Class. The only caveat is that it isn’t available yet, so you’re going to need to wait a few months before you can get your hands on one. The Audi A3, on the other hand, is available today. It doesn’t pack quite same level of technological wizardry as the all-new CLA, but it can still hold its own. Visually, I prefer the A3, too, though I’m not going to dismiss the opinions of those who like the design of the CLA-Class more. It’s that close. I will say that if you opt for the current A3, wouldn’t it be better if you just wait for the next-generation model to arrive? Audi’s current timetable suggests that the next-generation A3 is coming later this year, so if you’re thinking of getting the current A3 now, it’s not the worst idea in the world to wait for the next-gen model and see how it stacks up against the all-new Mercedes CLA-Class.

Further reading

2020 Mercedes CLA vs 2020 Audi A3 Exterior
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Read our full review on the2020 Mercedes-Benz CLA.

2020 Mercedes CLA vs 2020 Audi A3 High Resolution Exterior
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Read our full review on the 2019 Audi A3.

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