Audi S3 Saloon, BMW M235i, Mercedes CLA 45 AMG 4MATIC, Front 43 Photos Zoom

The BMW M235i vs. the Audi S3 and Mercedes CLA 45 AMG: Speed demon undergoes comparative test

Notchback, boring? Certainly not in the case of these three examples: The BMW M235i, the Audi S3 saloon and the Mercedes CLA 45 AMG are the top models in their respective lines, produce between 300 and 360 bhp, require no more than five seconds to accelerate from 0 to 100, and in so doing make quite a racket . Comparative test.

So do you associate notchback saloons with tea and biscuits? Well, in our editorial office there were some staff members who still had to be won over – by the BMW M235i, the Audi S3 saloon and the Mercedes CLA 45 AMG. They have sufficient power, accelerate like a demon and can only be passed on main roads with great difficulty, even by sports cars.

All three represent the enhanced compact class, supplementing their technically structurally identical hatchback brothers, the M135i, S3 and A 45 AMG, with additional boot capacity, tacked on at the rear– and they do so in an extremely respectable manner. Well, not entirely: their exhausts at least make clear that beneath the civil exterior, aggressive anarchists lie in wait; ready to well and truly rock the establishment with underground campaigns.

The Mercedes CLA 45 AMG is expensive, uncomfortable but nippy

And some people may well flinch as the Mercedes CLA 45 AMG lets rip at the start of the race. But first it has to be programmed. Just in case you want to achieve domination via its driver seat at some point in the future, here is the procedure: ESP to Sport, dual clutch transmission into manual mode, left foot on the brake, pull both gearshift paddles, then pull just the right one again – as a confirmation so to speak – and put your foot down!

Wait until the rev count sits at around 4,000 rpm; when the limiter rattles that's you ready. Slide off the brake pedal and the acceleration descends on you: with the turbo whistling and the screech of the tyres, the Mercedes CLA 45 AMG tears out of the starting block as if it were competing at the Deutschland Rally. Your head slams against the seat and your arms extend. From 0 to 100 km/h in 4.7 seconds. Wow!

Nothing else provides better acceleration, more drama: the four cylinder engine whirrs from inside the engine compartment, and roars from the exhaust. And then there's the bang of the gear-shift – anything but reserved. Incidentally, is also anything but comfortable, as the basic chassis only concerns itself with suspension reluctantly.

Difficult access to the back of the CLA 45 AMG

Speed is the only attribute to which priority is given – at least this is what the poor rearward visibility, the difficult access to the back of the passenger compartment and the feeling of restricted space. The driver on the other hand glides along in a perfect bucket seat, whereby the broad fixture seems almost press-fitted. This means that nothing slips when the Mercedes CLA 45 AMG takes a fast corner.

When pushed to the limit, rear of the AMG swings out when cornering. The all-wheel drive system, with its maximum 50:50 power distribution does not allow genuine drift – but it can skid sideways in the event of a load change. This certainly helps to reduce the curve radius, but can provide a few terrifying moments. There's another shock when you take a look at the price list. Expensive, more expensive, AMG. At least there are a host of safety extras available for it.

The BMW M235i provides something for the active sportsman

The competitor from Munich with its eight-speed automatic transmission costs more than 10,000 Euros less (also available with manual transmission like the Audo – at a competitive price). The BMW M235i doesn't offer a great deal more space than the CLA, but two doors fewer. But it does have a perfect sitting position: only in the BMW M235i does the driver really feel in the thick of things, practically bang in the middle of the flow of information.

The steering of the BMW M235i, as the only one of the vehicles to be fully free of drive influences thanks to the rear-wheel drive, only provides information on the road conditions and traction. The chassis adds a few details – likewise unnecessary, such as motorway cross joints – and relays them to the driver's seat.

This in turn provides such clever support in the event of lateral acceleration that the driver can really feel the transition into the limit range. And it is just as well as the BMW M235i looks like a genuine sports car. Thus, you should learn to interpret the signs such as a jostling rear axle – lovers of rear-wheel drive will be celebrating.

Sport mode for the race track and Comfort for on the road

Sport setting for the race track and Comfort for the road, whereby the latter still provides notably firmer suspension than in the M135i, for example. BMW has created a typical sports chassis: only if the bumps and speed increase at an identical rate is the ride smooth.

And in a thicket of traffic cones? There the BMW M235i wipes the floor with its competitors. However, the real treat grumbles beneath the front bonnet of the BMW M235i: the supercharged three-litre engine. It keeps its turbocharger secret, placing the focus on the cylinder count. Six in series, unique in terms of tone. Plus: the best running performance, the most aggressive handling, the most eager revving – and an automatic transmission that, depending on how it is used, acts as a smooth converter transmission or a lightning fast sequence box.

None of the three so skilfully exhibits the passion of a sports car, none wants to be driven so actively – and must be subjugated to such an extent. Without ESP this is reminiscent of the times when quickly controlling a car and pushing it to the limits was reserved for the experts. The BMW M235i is a precision device and a guaranteed experience in equal measure.

The Audi S3 Saloon relies on comfort and suitability for everyday use

And the Audi S3? It doesn't have to be overpowered, it is a car for the Everyman. An all-wheel drive car as you imagine one would be: longitudinal traction is paramount. Except in the event of load change at high speed – here the saloon paces nervously back and forth. While the BMW M235i willingly allows itself to be controlled via the accelerator, the Audi considers it its calling to prevent precisely this.

Depending on the speed the Audi S3 tackles corners either neutrally or with a touch of understeer, pushes over the front wheels under load and can only be persuaded to allow slight oversteer if the driver has a host of tricks up his sleeve. The steering lacks response and the seats lateral support. This tough cookie feels different. And thus, the Audi provides the most comfortable suspension, the most space and the best circumferential visibility. In short: of the three it causes the least friction in everyday driving.

It also has the lowest consumption – although also the poorest acceleration. Work of art: the two-litre turbo provides the least power, exerts itself sensitively but powerfully and roars from all cylinders when you put your foot down. There is barely a legal four cylinder car on the road that drives with more emotion. The snappy dual clutch transmission is very much in keeping with this, although the clutch engages a little roughly when moving off.

The Audi S3 falters when braking

And there it is again, the both...and character, that doesn't just win victory for the VW Golf comparative tests. Any car that offers more space and gains more in driving comfort than it looses in handling may not necessarily be a lateral-dynamic wunderkind, but will end up with the most points at the end of the day. However, the Audi S3 must nonetheless wait in trepidation for the victory to be announced: its brakes falter in this environment – the only thing that is snappy is the calibration of the pedals. Thus, in the features assessment, the BMW M235i  not only cruises past the Mercedes, but also the Audi.

As is so often the case, the showdown comes down to cost and environmental performance. The heavy, loud and most importantly expensive AMG regain any ground here. On the contrary: the gap in points gets even bigger. And the BMW M235i? It must admit narrow defeat at the finish line. However, it can leave the race with its head held high as the most sporty of the three.

The Audi wins because it is more efficient and cheaper – but neither faster nor more agile.



Achim Hartmann


3 February 2015
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