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Used test: Audi A5 Sportback vs Jaguar XE vs Mercedes CLA
The Audi A5 Sportback, Jaguar XE and Mercedes CLA all combine rakish good looks with surprising practicality, but which is the best used buy?...
Audi A5 Sportback 35 TFSI Sport S tronic
List price when new £34,790
Price today £22,000*
Available from 2015-present
The rakish roof gives the A5 Sportback its stylish look, yet it remains decently spacious inside.
Jaguar XE P250 R-Dynamic S
List price when new £35,505
Price today £26,000*
Available from 2017-present
With keen driving dynamics, the suave XE has its eye on being the driver's car of our three
Mercedes CLA 250 AMG Line Premium
List price when new £35,115
Price today £28,000*
Available from 2017-present
Sleek, modern and refined, the CLA screams 'classy' inside and out
*Price today is based on a 2019 model with average mileage and full service history according to the What Car? Valuation service, correct at time of writing
The Mercedes CLA wasn't born this athletic. It began life as the A-Class hatchback, then one Rocky training montage later, it emerged a four-door coupé – sharper, sportier and more muscular to look at. Is it a wild transformation? Well, no, but it's enough to make you ponder whether it drives with as much gusto as the styling suggests.
The same can be said about the Audi A5 Sportback. It's based on an executive car, the A4, although it's been running up stairs and punching meat just as much as the CLA has. It also retains lots of brains to back up its newfound brawn. The A5's interior is sophisticated, plus it's the only car here with a practical hatchback boot.
Our final contender is the Jaguar XE. It isn't a morphed version of a different model; rather, this posh saloon was born butch. To suit its style, it enters the ring with the most power out of the three, too.
By searching for 2019 examples of our used trio, you can benefit from a £7000 to £12,000 saving off new. Each car comes with a turbocharged petrol engine and an automatic gearbox, but which will hold its head high as our champion? Read on to find out.
Performance, ride, handling, refinement
If you’re after something really quite nippy, pick the CLA. Although it isn’t as powerful as the XE, it’s much lighter, so it blitzed its rival’s 0-60mph time by half a second in our tests. That’s still some way behind Mercedes’ claim, but because our test day was rainy and the CLA has front-wheel drive, getting it off the line without wheelspin proved almost as troublesome as alchemy. Despite being neutered by Mother Nature here, though, it’s undoubtedly the most potent in all scenarios, including overtaking.
The XE’s engine is strong, and being the only rear-wheel-drive car here gives it a huge traction advantage off the line in the wet. Nevertheless, it was way off the acceleration times published by Jaguar, and part of the problem lies with its eight-speed automatic gearbox. It’s much slower to respond than the CLA’s ever-alert seven-speeder, and that’s a particular problem when you ask for a surge of power. It dilly-dallies to the point of distraction before eventually shifting down and firing you forwards with, it must be said, some gusto.
The A5’s seven-speed gearbox is better than the XE’s but tardier than the CLA’s. The main reason the A5 is the slowest car in this test is a simple one: it lacks the power and shove of its rivals. Still, it’ll see you whizzing along the outside lane of the motorway without much stress.
The tuning of the gearboxes affects other things, such as how easy the cars are to drive smoothly. The slickness of their brakes and accelerators is another factor, and the CLA passes muster on all three fronts. As a result, it’s the easiest to drive like a skilful chauffeur.
The A5’s reluctance to kick down a gear fools you into pressing its accelerator ever harder, until eventually you get an excessive burst of revs. Combine this with the initially grabby brake pedal and it’s a little more staccato.
Nothing like as bad as the XE, though. Its brake pedal has no resistance at the top of its travel, so it’s incredibly hard to meter with any delicacy, and the accelerator is far too spiky, making it tricky to get going smoothly at times. Add in the recalcitrant gearbox and the most abrupt engine stop-start system and it’s a bit of a letdown.
At least the XE’s engine makes up a little of its lost ground by being quieter than the CLA’s, although the latter's motor isn’t unruly, instead fizzing away sportily. The quietest and smoothest propulsion, however, comes from the A5’s silky unit.
Once you’re up to motorway speeds, each engine melts into the background and the cars munch the miles with relative calm. The XE suffers the most blustering around its door mirrors and windscreen, while the CLA’s tyres make the grainiest drone. The A5 is the best in both these respects, but you can hear its suspension working away over bumps. The same is true of the CLA, whereas the XE is extremely well resolved in terms of this type of noise.
On the XE, some will find the suspension that you get with the R-Dynamic trim we have here quite firm, especially on 19in wheels. Other trim levels have a softer set-up, and adaptive suspension could have been optioned when new to help the R-Dynamic, but as tested it fidgets the most on motorways and follows the topography of the road more intently than its rivals. The payback is that the XE feels well tied down, so you’re not bounced out of your seat over asphalt moguls. It never crashes crudely over potholes, either.
The A5 does twang occasionally over sharper-edged stuff, but otherwise it’s undoubtedly the most supple car here, easing you over everything from pimples to speed bumps very effectively. Our test car rode on standard Comfort Dynamic suspension, the softer of the two available. Stiffer Sport suspension could have been specified, but if you value comfort, we wouldn’t recommend searching for an example with this fitted.
The CLA is betwixt and between. It’s comfortable in the main, no question, but it’s less forgiving than the A5 around town (there are some sharper ridges that even the XE copes with better) and bounces quite a lot over the sort of dips and crests you encounter regularly on country roads. It’s suitably smooth on the motorway, though.
What about cornering? Well, the XE is by far the most rewarding and engaging – not just because its rear-wheel-drive set-up is the most playful but also because it steers so sweetly. Keen drivers will revel in the way the weight builds gradually and intuitively from the moment you begin to turn the wheel. Why is that good, you might ask? Because it keeps you keyed into the front wheels, making placing the car a work of instinct rather than conscious thought. The stiffer R-Dynamic suspension minimises body lean and instability in high-speed turns, although the standard springs are pretty effective at this, too.
The A5 feels the most cumbersome, but it’s tidy and confidence-inspiring enough that you can jump in and go quickly from the get-go. Despite leaning more than the XE, it feels balanced through turns and finds plenty of grip – especially at the front, helping it tuck in to bends with zeal. Its steering is the main issue, lacking the delicacy of the XE’s and feeling gloopy and viscous as you wind the lock on or off. The A5’s front-wheel-drive layout corrupts the steering under power, too, tugging the wheel left and right in your hands.
Around town, the CLA feels the smallest and easiest to slot through gaps and, thanks to the lightest steering, takes the least effort to direct. If you break out in search of countryside and back roads, it’s perfectly capable at up to eight-tenths pace. Try to go any harder, though, and the steering provides the least connection of all three cars and the front end wants to run wide through corners the soonest. So, the CLA is the least composed if you’re trying to keep up along a twisty route that has a few challenging cambers and contours lying in wait.
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