Prepare for take-off
Benz and BMW coupes compared — entry level and high end
THERE’S not a lot you can’t buy for $50,000. You can have lavishly equipped family car or SUV from Korea or Japan. Or you might opt for a big Australian muscle car with more grunt than you could ever legally need. The choice is nowhere wider than in this country.
One of the few things to which you couldn’t aspire at this sum, however, was a German coupe, at least not a new one or one that went any faster than a determinedly driven Corolla.
Not until now, that is. Now there are two, both potential classics, BMW’s 2 Series and the Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class.
For the upwardly mobile or young families aspiring to join the prestige motoring club the coupe-styled sedans start at just $50K.
The latest styling from their respective brands means this duo also dresses to impress with looks to justify heading for the reserved parking section. Apart from the CLA’s four doors being more practical than the two doors on the 2 Series, there is very little to separate them in terms of space or sophistication.
Carsguide took the entry level and top-tier models for a drive to help sort out the debate.
So you’ve made it to the ranks of “proper” prestige cars — those with a boot. Now the choice comes down to which car has the superior looks and value and drives better.
In this contest the base BMW 220i is dearer than the comparable Benz CLA 200. For $50,500 there’s a sweet 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder engine and eight-speed automatic transmission, plus satnav, Bluetooth, auto lights and wipers, adaptive cruise control and dual-zone aircon. In customary BMW fashion, the driving is done by the rear wheels.
The CLA 200 is $49,900. It adds a reversing camera, bi‒xenon headlamps, parallel parking assist, blind-spot warning and collision prevention mitigation. Yeah, the Benz is festooned with more fruit to tempt potential customers. But it also brings a smaller 1.6-litre turbo and front-wheel drive dynamics into the mix.
It is here that the two approaches divide.
The Benz isn’t as willing an accomplice to off-the-line charges as the Beemer, a fact reflected in their respective 9.4 second and 7.0 second sprints to 100km/h. These times also tell the story of their respective transmissions — the seven-speed dual-clutch auto of the Merc still has the telltale lag from start, unlike the eight‒speed torque converter auto in the BMW, which is one of the slickest around.
There’s not much between them once under way and roll‒on acceleration improves in the Merc — it isn’t found wanting for go in sport mode — but in point-and-squirt performance terms it can’t keep up with the 220i.
For those who want bang to go with the prestige badge, buy the BMW. Those with a more holistic approach will favour the Mercedes. It looks a more upmarket car (if you ignore the basic plastics that blight the lower half of both dashboards) and the CLA’s extra driver aids are genuinely useful, likewise the extra 60L of boot space.
But it must be said that those rear doors give access to seats that are useless for anyone more than 170cm in height.
The CLA’s ride is firm but well managed — there’s an impression of the suspension working and a rising appreciation of the fact it is harder than many cars.
The BMW has better composure over the small stuff but has a tendency to
bobble over corrugations as the shocks struggle with repeated oscillations.
There’s good news for buyers at the top end of the range — you can’t lose.
The BMW M235i and Benz CLA 45 AMG are hard to argue with. Both are focused prestige vehicles endowed with performance to shame outright sports cars.
Again, they go about their business differently — BMW sticks with rear-drive architecture against race-tuned part-time AWD in the Benz.
The M235i shows that BMW can still build a driver’s car with all the flair and ferocity that made the brand famous.
This has the best bits of the M3 distilled into a hugely enjoyable smaller car.
It’s not a genuine Mmachine so it suffers in direct comparison with the AMG, though the pricing is close enough to make it a valid test.
Our test example’s $79,900 sticker ballooned with a $1300 advanced parking package (adding park assist and reversing camera), $2600 for the sunroof (which any tall driver will eschew), $1350 for Harman Kardon audio with digital radio, $1560 for visibility pack with adaptive headlights and electrochromatic exterior mirrors, $3120 for comfort access with keyless entry, electric front seats with heaters and $1485 for metallic paint.
That adds $11,415 for options that are all standard on the CLA 45. And still the Beemer doesn’t have a limited-slip differential as in a full-on M car, although it’s kitted out with adaptive M suspension, upgraded M Sport brakes and 8.8-inch display screen.
The mercury-smooth 3.0‒litre six-cylinder turbo has been tweaked for 240kW/450Nm. It propels the M235i to 100km/h just 4.8 seconds after takeoff.
The Benz’s more powerful four clocks 4.6 seconds.
Where the Merc stands out is in mid-corner grip and suspension. It has to be driven harder than the BMW to bring out the best in the engine and chassis but when you do the previously uncompromising suspension starts to flex and make sense while the weighted steering wheel gives neural‒quick response to inputs.
The 2.0-litre turbo is an octane junkie, the world’s most powerful production fourcylinder, snarling and slavering for the full juice from the instant it barks into life. Indulge it and you’re propelled by an addictive 265kW/450Nm, yet claimed fuel use is 7.0L/100km.
As road conditions degrade, confidence in the CLA rises.
The AWD deals with mud, wet bark and rain-slicked surfaces with total disregard and only occasionally does the traction warning light flicker on in the dashboard.
For mine, the Merc wins out. It isn’t the purists’ delight of the BMW but it is no less engaging to drive near its limits. And ultimately, those limits are just a fraction further around the curve.
The performance mantle is clear-cut — it’s claimed by the CLA 45 — but that for the entry models is less so. The heart says BMW 220i — it is a better driving car than the CLA 200 — but the head highlights the futuristic look of the CLA and its standard equipment edge. And it’s hard to argue with.
MERCEDES-BENZ CLA 45 AMG PRICE $86,900 ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo, 265kW/450Nm
TRANSMISSION 7-speed twin-clutch auto; AWD THIRST 7.0L/100km
Picture: Jack Atley PRICE $79,900 ENGINE 3.0-litre 6-cyl turbo, 240kW/450Nm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed auto; RWD THIRST 8.1L/100km
BMW 220i PRICE $50,500 ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl turbo, 135kW/270Nm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed auto; RWD THIRST 6.0L/100km
MERCEDES-BENZ CLA 200 PRICE $49,900 ENGINE 1.6-litre 4-cyl turbo, 115kW/250Nm
TRANSMISSION 7-speed twin-clutch auto; FWD THIRST 5.7L/100km