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Clash of the Teutonic titans: Mercedes CLA 45 AMG vs. Audi S3

Entry-level German luxury performance fans are going to have a difficult decision this spring. Both Mercedes-Benz and Audi are sending some riotous compact performance sedans into showrooms: the CLA45 AMG and the S3.

Both cars are powered by turbocharged four-cylinders, and both offer upwards of 300 horsepower, which is sent to all four wheels. So aside from branding and looks, it might be difficult to know how the two differ and which one is best.

Accordingly, I’ve torn the two apart and compared them side-by-side for your edification.

Exterior design

Both the CLA45 and the S3 are both striking in their own, Germanic ways. While the S3 is mostly business as usual for Audi, the CLA45 is anything but. The all-new compact four-door coupe brings together the dynamic proportions of the popular CLS four-door coupe with the new, sporty lines of the 2014 S-Class with some hints of the SLS.

The S3 is the first notchback A3 variant to be sold in the U.S. and is nearly on par in exterior dimensions to the original A4 of the 1990s. While the body might look similar to all other Audis, engineers have cleverly lightened the understated form. The hood, for instance, is aluminum, and the passenger compartment is constructed from high-end, hot-formed steel.

The S3 dash has been carefully shaped to give a wraparound feeling… designed to cocoon the passengers in comfort and information.

Look at the shape of the S3 and you’ll notice the roof is nearly flat. This removes any need for a bulky C-pillar, which allows the roofline to gracefully glide into the shoulder line. Beneath that is what Audi calls the tornado line, which accents the flared wheel arches.

Although the single-frame grille doesn’t look too different in the S3 than it does the standard A3, I do still rather like its unpronounced attitude. It’s proud but nicely under the radar – very German.

The CLA45, on the other hand, is very shout-y indeed. The already gorgeous and standout bodylines of the CLA250 have been improved by the mental minds at Mercedes AMG. The lower air inlets have been stretched and framed with black winglets, the “twin-blade” grille has been painted matte titanium grey, and twin-spoke AMG light-alloy wheels have been bolted to all four corners. Finishing the metamorphosis off completely, a “TURBO AMG” badge is added to the front fenders.

Optional extras on the CLA45 interior include a carbon-fiber front splitter, side sill panel inserts, rear fascia trim, and red painted brake calipers.

While I love the chunky and muscular lines of the S3, I can’t help but fall head over heels for the CLA45. It, too, is muscular, but in a lean and aggressive way. It looks like a CLS63 – but for half the price. The S3 looks like an S4. That’s not bad, but it’s not great either.

When it comes to exterior design, the CLA45 takes the cake.

Interior design, comfort, amenities

Amazingly, for how different these two cars are, they’re strikingly similar on the inside. Sure, they have distinctions, but they also have common broad strokes. The infotainment screens jut out from the center of the dash, with round air vents directly beneath, the climate controls are clean and simple, and the steering wheels are misshapen and sporty.

On the CLA45, the seats are wrapped in man-made leather with “DINAMICA microfibers.” Yeah, I don’t know what that means either. Essentially, this is Merc’s way of jazzing up the fact that you don’t get real leather in your AMG. These man-leather seats are accented with red stitching and red seatbelts that I think are totally boss. Merc will also allow you – for more coin – to upgrade to AMG Performance seats.

Standard interior trim on the CLA45 is aluminum, but buyers can upgrade to the carbon-fiber trim pictured above. I’m not sure how much it costs but I am sure it’ll be both A.) Very expensive and B.) Totally worth it.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG interior front

Audi brags that the S3 interior “delivers the same prestige and high-quality materials found in Audi’s flagship sedan, the A8 with standard leather seating surfaces and exceptional ergonomics.” So if you’re keeping track: AMG gets man leather, S3 gets cow leather.

The S3 dash has been carefully shaped to give a wraparound feeling, which is designed to cocoon the passengers in comfort and information.

Where the CLA45 is more sport oriented, the S3 is more tech-savvy. The S3 features a 7.0-inch infotainment screen as standard that is controlled through a touchpad located in the lower center stack down by the shifter. When a driver digs into the Audi MMI system, they’ll find a whole host of tech treats, including navigation powered by Google Earth with Street View for easy navigating, and a WLAN hotspot that’s capable of connecting up to eight devices at a time to the Internet.

While the interior looks of the CLA45 are more sporting, I like the gentlemanly interior of the S3. It’s a bit less boy-racer. I feel I could put a date in the car without being embarrassed. The CLA45? I’m not sure. “What’s all that carbon fiber making up for?” I’m afraid she’ll think in one of the AMG Performance seats. In the S3, she’ll just be thinking, “Wow! This is really nice. Which Volkswagen did you say this was?”

As much as it pains me, I’m giving this one to the S3. I like the CLA45, but not enough for it to beat the tried-and-true Audi interior.

Powertrain

Let’s not waste any time mucking about. The CLA45 has the most powerful turbocharged four-cylinder engine ever to go onto mass production. The 2.0-liter four-banger under the shapely hood of the AMG makes no less than 355 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque.

How did AMG do such a thing? I think it put it most succinctly itself: credit a “twin-scroll turbocharger, minimized restrictions in the exhaust system and an innovative injection strategy.” In other words: German magic.

The CLA45 has the most powerful turbocharged four-cylinder engine ever to go onto mass production.

In reality, though, it’s just a 26.1-PSI turbo and very exacting engine components. To put 26.1 PSI into perspective, your dad’s Volvo 740 Turbo had a 9-PSI turbocharger. So your turbo will be 17.1 better than pop’s. That high-pressure turbo forces cold air into the engine thanks to a cooling system ripped from the Mercedes SLS AMG GT. That’s right, the CLA45 doesn’t just look kind of like an SLS, it’s got real performance bits from it, too.

Distinctively, each CLA45 AMG is hand built by a single man. When Helmut is handed a hammer and a socket wrench, and charged with assembling your AMG’s engine, he’s not allowed to go home to his strudel until he’s finished.

Helmut’s hugely powerful four-cylinder is mated to an AMG SPEEDSHIFT DCT seven-speed sports transmission. Although you can mash accelerator the pedal in automatic mode, you can also control the shifts yourself with a pair of paddle shifters mounted behind the steering wheel.

From there, that Teutonic torque is sent to all four wheels through a performance-oriented AMG 4MATIC all-wheel drive system. The standard CLA250 is front-wheel drive with a regular Mercedes front drive axle. The CLA45’s has been mucked about with by AMG and includes a limited-slip clutch. Power is primarily sent to the front wheels of the CLA45 but in a pinch, torque is routed rear word up to a 50:50 split, to improve performance and traction.

2015 Audi S3 motor

As for the Audi, the S3’s turbocharged 2.0-liter TFSI four-cylinder engine makes 300 hp and 280.27 lb-ft. Mated to the S3’s 2.0 is either a six-speed S tronic transmission or a manual transmission. From there, power is sent to all four wheels through Audi’s quattro all-wheel drive system, which is controlled in a similar fashion to that of the Merc. It, too, is electronically controlled with hydraulic multi-plate clutch that affects the route of power to the wheels.

If the simple power output numbers weren’t enough, the CLA45 wins for its hand-built heritage.

Performance

Delightfully, this should be a competition.

The S3 does 0-62 mph in 4.9 seconds with the S tronic transmission and 5.3 seconds with the manual gearbox. It will then eventually hit an electronically limited top speed of 155.34 mph.

The CLA45 makes a mad 0-60 sprint in 4.5 seconds and then will also hit an electronically limited top speed of 155. There’s only one transmission offered in the U.S. for the CLA45, so no other acceleration numbers need to be considered.

You will immediately and astutely notice that the automakers gave us varying acceleration benchmarks. 62 mph is a higher speed, yes, but send the S3 to 60 mph from a dead standstill and I am confident it’ll hit it in more time than the CLA45. I am going to wager the S3’s 0-60 time to be around 4.8 seconds.

Clearly, then, the CLA gets the checkered flag.

Price

The CLA45 AMG starts at $47,450 but can quickly be optioned – I am sure – to near the $60,000 mark.

The S3 has not yet been priced. I have a hunch it’ll be less expensive than the CLA45.

Without truly knowing the price break, it’s hard to make this call. This is the least expensive AMG ever, though. So even if it’s more expensive, getting the AMG nameplate for under $50,000 is too enticing not to give the CLA45 the pricing crown.

Cool factor

This one comes down to taste. Although I love the understated German feel and look of the S3, I can’t also help but be enamored with the craziness of an AMG version of an entry-level Mercedes.

The S3 will always blend in. Few people will notice it. The CLA45 though will growl and strut, making its presence known all over town. If that’s your sort of thing, which it is for me, the CLA45 AMG wins hands down.

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