Alas, some relief is on the way as the German luxury brands furiously backfill their catalogs to stay in the all-important $35,000 to $45,000 segment, where monthly payments can still be swallowed by average Jills and Johns. There’s already some commonality to the formula: turbocharged four-cylinder engines mounted transversely, dual-clutch automatic transmissions, and optional four-wheel drive. Mercedes leapt first with the swoopy CLA, and a new family of Audis will be launched around the core A3 sedan. Both the Benz and the Audi are on sale now, and we secured a pair of comparably priced four-wheel-drive versions.
By cleverly moving parts-bin components around its vast chessboard, VW-Audi offers you what is essentially a GTI rendered as a four-door sedan. In fact, the Audi A3 1.8T starts at $30,795, right where VW Jettapricing gets silly. See what you can get away with by having a luxury badge to throw on? Okay, there’s a bit more to it than that, with upgrades to the equipment and styling. If you want an A3 Quattro, add a 2.0-liter engine with 220 horsepower and $3000 to your bill. We had a few more extras, including the 18-inch wheels, power seats, and auto climate control of the $2900 Premium Plus package, plus the full MMI gear for $2600, for a total of $39,845.
While VW has been turning front-drive commuters into premium goods for years, Mercedes-Benz is a rookie. It could have simply issued a B-class with a trunk, but instead the CLA250 looks the part of a much larger and more expensive Benz, relying on the same coupelike visual themes that recently have proved so successful for Team Stuttgart. The CLA starts right next to the A3, at $30,825. Adding 4MATIC is only a $2000 hit, but the 208-hp 2.0-liter engine remains the same either way. Mercedes doesn’t do packages; its options are a la carte. Included in our $37,455 example was a $1480 sunroof, navigation equipment for $800, 18-inch wheels and tires for $500, and, amusingly, an illuminated grille star for $550.
But what about that other German brand—you know, the one from Munich? Doesn’t it have a front-driver coming, even if no one at the company will confirm it? Indeed it does, in the 136-hp 2-series Active Tourer, which is based on the UKL platform that underlies the new Mini Cooper. But that 2-series is a quasi-minivan, a sort of German Pontiac Vibe, and we weren’t about to wait around for that.
Still, BMW does offer the 320i, a stripped-down 3-series priced to be an enticing distraction from all this front-drive madness. But because this test is aimed at those rooting around in the travel-size bins, we took the smaller, freshly redesigned 228i coupe as BMW’s representative. This is basically the old 1-series, that stubby bulldog of a two-door that excited purists but not aesthetes. It’s been updated for 2014 on the newer, compact rear-drive platform of the current 3-series, and agreeably restyled. The base price of $33,025 gives you a no-cost choice of a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic. To keep things level, we went automatic, though $5200 in options later, we had the M Sport package with 18-inch wheels and run-flat tires and a few other items to inflate the sticker to $38,225.
We hoped to learn through this chipmunk Olympics whether these venerable German brands have kept their core values intact despite the downsizing and price-cutting. And if the answer were simple, we could stop this right here.
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