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‘How on earth am I supposed to compare these two?’ One’s a furious inline-four, the other a glorious, supercharged V6. The red corner’s down 1004cc on the blue, yet it’s up 28 bhp and 1.1 kgm. Both come from their respective go-faster tuning departments, yet one looks the part and the other is content being a sleeper. Similarities don’t come hard and fast between Mercedes’ CLA 45 AMG and Audi’s S4, yet there was a compelling reason to line these two up.
Together, in India, they currently represent the most modern and affordable (I’ll refrain from using ‘cheapest’) access points into big-boy power figures and bar-night bragging rights. Think of these two as the small fish in a big pond — except these two could just as easily swallow you whole and spit you out if mishandled and taken for granted.

The Little Things
‘Snug’ is probably the best way to describe the CLA’s cabin. It’s also completely familiar, if you’ve been in either the A- or B-Class, and that’s not a bad thing. Granted, Mercedes has dipped heavily into the parts bin, but you won’t mind it all that much, considering there are quality bits all around you — especially that steering wheel. The level of feel it provides is simply stunning, but I’ll get to that a bit later. My immediate focus as I slipped into the cabin was the AMG seat. Driving this baby AMG around fast, in a seat that just envelopes you, is a blast, to say the least.

A couple of hours in, however, you’re sadly reminded that driving as, er, briskly as I had been isn’t an option all the time, not if you live in Mumbai, at least. This is also the point I realised that as sporty and sweet-looking as those AMG seats are, you will liken the experience to sitting on a big ol’ pile of rocks after driving the car for a while. It’s no La-Z-Boy, let’s just say.

The S4 is the antithesis to the CLA 45 AMG, if ever there was one — there’s very little to tell this car apart from its relatively pedestrian sibling. Without getting too much into detail, it’s safe to say the S4 does one hell of a job of masking the potential it’s got under the hood. Super comfortable seats, especially in comparison to the AMG, and a rather well put-together cabin complement the S4’s somewhat sombre exterior pretty well — a drastic departure from the CLA 45.
The essence of this story, however, lies not within the cabin or in how these cars look. As you might have guessed, it’s what’s under the hood that counts.

Of noise and speed
Let’s get one thing straight, right off the bat — what we have here are not your average cars. They both make in excess of 300 bhp and have a s**tload of torque to boot, so you’re not going to feel pedestrian in either. It’s the way these two put the power down — now that’s what makes them as similar as oil and water.

Where the CLA feels more urgent in its power delivery, all the while making that glorious brrraap noise with every high-rpm upshift, the S4 will make you feel like you’re driving a regular A4, for the most part. That, however, is only until you decide to mash the throttle, to see what the engine’s really capable of. Of one thing there is no doubt — the S4’s supercharged V6 is a lot more vocal and angry-sounding at higher revs than the CLA 45’s. Floor the throttle and it flares up like an angry bear. While this doesn’t translate into faster times (the S4 is about a second down on the CLA 45 when it comes to the 0-100 sprint), the S4 feels a lot faster. Confused? I felt the same way. The best way to understand it is to get behind the wheels of these two yourself — words can only do so much.

What I can describe is the way these cars ride and handle, and herein lies the real differentiator. Spend enough time in both and it’s clear that the CLA 45 prides itself on being the more track-focussed of the two. It begs you to push harder and faster pretty much all the time, the 4MATIC all-wheel drive assisting you through and through. Even at higher speeds, it’s got the kind of poise that really instills a supreme sense of confidence, and that steering weighs up just perfectly as the needle starts to climb. Need a car that makes you look a lot better as a driver? The CLA 45 is a safe bet.
That, however, isn’t to say that the S4 is willing to roll over and let the CLA 45 take all the credit in this department. It’s just that, in comparison, it feels a lot more docile, a lot easier to drive. The suspension, for instance, is set up in such a way that you’re comfortable the whole while, which is way more than what you can say about the CLA 45. You feel at ease in the S4, and as a result, pushing it right to its limit seems secondary, almost unnecessary.

Audi’s quattro works sublimely well, but it starts to wash out a bit as you reach the ragged edge. The pick of the two would be the CLA 45 if you’re keen on some corner carving, surely.
Where the Audi does pick up more points is with its seven-speed dual clutch transmission, which is a lot more eager and instantaneous with its gear changes. The CLA 45, too, makes do with a seven-speed auto, but it’s just not as quick as you’d like it to be.

Decisions, Decisions
Where’s your money to go, then? Like I said at the start, it’s a bit difficult to pick between these two; they both appeal to such different sensibilities. Look at it this way: the S4 is for the seasoned driver, the sort who likes to keep a low profile for the most part, but it’s also got a weapon in its arsenal that can do some serious damage when required — that fabulous V6.

The CLA 45, on the other hand, is what you’d buy to make a statement at all times. Going by the amount of stares we got on our drive, it’s flashy, to say the least. It’s also ready to pounce at a moment’s notice, eager to impress and, as you can see with its sub-5-second 0-100 kph time, seriously quick to boot. For the kind of money you’re putting down, I’d be willing to put aside its shortcomings and give the CLA 45 the gold medal here. It just makes more sense.