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The Verna Industrial Estate in Goa is far from the prettiest sight in this small state, but up on the hillside away from the various factories, these large empty boulevards are the perfect place to give the Mercedes-Benz CLA a ride. The CLA 200 we were driving is the regular, non-crazy version of the CLA 45 AMG that we wrote about a few months ago.

This car will be the most affordable Mercedes-Benz sedan available in India. In the year and a half since it was launched globally, this front-wheel-drive sedan has become a bestseller for Mercedes; the company sold more than 100,000 units last year. The CLA 200 is an extremely attractive car; it has lovely flowing lines and encapsulates Mercedes’s new design language that started years ago with the CLS series. Although the toned version lacks the aerodynamic frills of the full-fat AMG model, it rides a bit higher on the road, and thankfully so.

It drives nicely, too. On the narrow twisting roads of interior Goa, the car handles superbly. Both the petrol and diesel engines have more than enough power to deal with traffic—they are not the most powerful engines in the range, but, as always, the simple question arises: “Do you need that much power in India?"

So overall, this is an attractive car with a fair bit of power, superb handling and wears a German luxury brand on its nose. The Mercedes CLA starts at 31.5 lakh and goes till 35.9 lakh. In the scheme of things, relatively affordable.

So should you buy it if you had that kind of money in the bank?

I would say no. Not before taking for a spin the Audi A3—another car we have written about in the past. When the Audi A3 was launched, it had no competition. Now, the A3, as we wrote back then, seems to be a product of Audi’s photocopier department; not that it’s bad car itself by any stretch of imagination. It is a lovely car, indeed, and on a recent drive between Delhi and Chandigarh, the diesel model delivered a stunning 19 kilometres per litre, while loaded with luggage and passengers.

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While the top spec Audi A3 costs Rs34 lakh, the car with basic specifications costs just Rs23 lakh.

But as Audi and Mercedes vie for the top spot in the luxury car market in India, Audi does have one ace up its sleeve. An ace that is a different philosophy to Mercedes. Eberhard Kern, Merc’s India chief, made it quite clear that Mercedes will not “de-specify" its vehicles before selling them. Every car will come with all the toys—sunroofs, navigation systems, full electric seats, stitched steering covers, basically the whole shabang. But as Audi India’s Joe King once explained, Audi wants to make its cars more affordable. So the signature LED headlights could be dropped, sunroofs can go, so can the electric seat on the passenger side, navigation system, and although the multimedia system remains, screen sizes can get smaller. And so does the price tag. Quite significantly, indeed. While the top-spec Audi A3 with all the toys costs 34 lakh, the basic specification costs just 23 lakh. Mercedes has a much higher starting price, and technically at a similar specification level is also pricier than the Audi.

These are fundamentally different sales philosophies; it is not for a reviewer to judge which one is the better. The top-spec Technology edition of the Audi A3 is a brilliant car with every possible feature onboard. The CLA, likewise, makes no compromises in terms of loading features. Both cars that feature similarly powered diesel and petrol engines are matched evenly when it comes to performance, with the Audi A3 possibly edging ahead of the CLA. That said, the CLA is easier on the eye.

Both cars are brilliant, but with the Audi costing a lot less, it will in all likelihood win the sales battle. But these two cars do raise the bar for BMW, which does have a small sedan available globally in their new 2 Series. But until now, BMW has made no indication that it will launch this car in India. There is little doubt that Audi and Mercedes will have an intense sales dogfight in the coming year and it won’t be the bigger, larger cars that lead the battle, it will these two brilliant little vehicles. And BMW India really ought to consider the 2 Series.

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