New Mercedes-Benz A-Class vs Audi A3 Sportback vs BMW 1 Series Comparison Review

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Mercedes’ new A-Class promises to dazzle you with luxury as it renews its battle with the Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series at the top end of the family car class

*** NOTE :  £1 = $1.30 (correct at time of post)

The contenders

Audi A3 Sportback 1.6 TDI 115 S line

  • List price £27,385
  • Target Price £25,329

Since 2012, the well-rounded A3 has consistently ruled the premium family car class.

BMW 1 Series 116d M Sport 5dr

  • List price £26,675
  • Target Price £24,556

Rear-wheel drive is a novelty in this class, so the 1 Series is often touted as a sportier choice.

Mercedes-Benz A-Class A180d AMG Line auto

  • List price £28,540
  • Target Price £26,676

The all-new A-Class represents a root and branch upgrade over the previous model.

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A class. To quote the Oxford English Dictionary, this is “a set or category of things differentiated according to grade or quality”. Alternatively, Mercedes describes A-Class as “youthful and dynamic, but grown-up and comfortable like never before”. That might sound like spin, but it has a point.

It’s referring to the new A-Class family hatchback, of course, and boy, has it grown up. Being longer and wider than before, it’s roomier inside, and its swish interior could’ve come from Sir Jonathan Ive’s design studio at Apple. Plus, it’s brimming with new technology, including a clever ‘Hey Mercedes’ voice command assistant. This controls many of the A-Class’s gizmos, so if you’re wedded to Amazon’s Alexa at home, you might think of Hey Mercedes as your bit on the side when you’re out on the road.

But we need to grade the new A-Class, for which we need some rivals. The Audi A3 Sportback is the most obvious one; it’s our favourite premium family car, because it’s comfortable and spacious and oozes engineering integrity from every polished pore.

But, of course, you can’t talk about Mercedes and Audi without considering BMW too. While the other two follow the convention of front-wheel drive, the 1 Seriesstands out in the family car class for offering a theoretically sportier rear-wheel drive layout.

Each car is represented here in a posh trim level but with a relatively small and efficient diesel engine. For now, the A-Class comes only with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox, while the A3 and 1 Series are fitted with a six-speed manual ’box (although you can have an auto if you’re prepared to pay extra).

Driving – Performance, ride, handling, refinement

With the words ‘small and efficient diesel engine’ still fresh in the mind, it’s fair to say none of our trio compels you to don a g-suit before setting off. But thanks to a good old slug of turbo shove from low revs, they’re all gutsy enough for both urban use and on motorway schleps.

There isn’t a great deal in it for outright performance, all three covering the 0-60mph sprint in a shade over 10 seconds. However, the 1 Series feels by far the slowest, because its 1.5-litre engine is the least willing to rev. With its best work done by 4000rpm, winding the motor up to its 5600rpm redline feels like torture.

By contrast, the A-Class’s 1.5-litre engine is way peppier. Perhaps that’s partly down to its extra (seventh) gear, but from a 30mph rolling start up to the motorway limit, it pips even the A3. We say ‘even the A3’ because in all other respects, the A3’s 1.6-litre engine is marginally gutsier.

The A-Class’s automatic ’box chooses its gears wisely and promptly most of the time, but not always. Occasionally it fumbles before kicking down a gear or refuses to change up, even when you’re just tickling the accelerator to hold a steady speed. At least the changes are mostly smooth.

The A3’s manual gearbox is slick and its light clutch pedal, with an easily determinable biting point, makes it a doddle to drive smoothly. Meanwhile, the 1 Series’ springy gearlever and woolly clutch action make it neither pleasurable nor particularly easy to drive in stop-start traffic.

Nor is it pleasurable to listen to the 1 Series’ rowdy three-cylinder engine rumbling away at idle. It buzzes in the background like an irate wasp trapped in a bin and transmits the most vibrations through its controls.

That said, its rivals’ four-cylinder motors aren’t especially quiet, either; both grumble at idle too. But from low to mid revs, the A-Class’s engine takes on only the lightest tinkle, even if does become a bit coarse when you work it hard. The A3’s motor is marginally smoother as a rule, but it develops a deeper bellow when you accelerate hard.

If you spend a lot of time on motorways, the A3 and A-Class offer the most peace and quiet. There’s fractionally less road noise in the A3, but the A-Class is better for wind noise, thanks to its superb aerodynamics. The 1 Series is the loudest at higher speeds, due to a combination of whistling wind and roar from its tyres.

None of our trio rides as comfortably as the Volkswagen Golf, but which of them is next best? Well, it’s a toss-up between the A-Class and A3. Both are very good, but the A-Class’s softer springs have more give over hefty urban bumps than the slightly firmer A3. Meanwhile, the A3 is marginally more settled on rippled sections of motorway, so it’s horses for courses. That’s assuming you’ve fitted softer Dynamic suspension (a no-cost option) in place of the A3’s firmer standard Sport set-up, though.

The 1 Series is the least cosseting. Its standard M Sport suspension is the lumpiest around town, the bounciest over larger crests and the most jittery on poorly surfaced motorways. As with the A3, you can opt for softer suspension for no extra charge, but this doesn’t noticeably improve matters.

“Ah, but it’s rear-wheel drive, so a bit of the jitters is worth it for sportier handling, right?” Sadly not; the 1 Series simply isn’t as crisp to drive as its rivals. Take its steering: it does the basics of turning the car left and right, but it’s so inconsistently weighted that you find yourself taking two or three stabs at the wheel through a bend that, in the sweeter-steering A3, you can swoop through with one fluid motion. The A-Class’s steering isn’t far off that level, but if we’re being picky, it isn’t quite as linear and predictable.

And while they all lean a bit in corners, the 1 Series needs the most time to settle down again, creating a sense of unease if you attempt to hustle it through a series of left-right switchbacks. That’s precisely where the A-Class is at its finest, with progressive body control breeding stability that imparts confidence. In the end, though, it runs out of front grip sooner than the A3, which is the most balanced and enjoyable, but the margins are small.

Behind the wheel – Driving position, visibility, build quality

Audi A3 Sportback

It’s fairly easy to find a sound baseline driving position in all three, but there are some key differences. Both the A-Class and 1 Series seat you lower to the ground with your legs outstretched; this is perfectly comfortable, even though their pedals are offset slightly to the right. You sit more upright in the A3, but the alignment of its steering wheel, driver’s seat and pedals is spot on.

Each has plenty of height and reach adjustment for the steering wheel and a height-adjustable driver’s seat, but you also get useful extras such as seat squabs that you can angle up and extend – ideal for those with long legs.

None has adjustable lumbar support, and because lower back support is lacking in the A3 and 1 Series, we’d fork out the £195 and £250 required respectively to add it. Adjustable lumbar support for the A-Class is part of an expensive £3595 package, but its standard sports seats are so darned good that not one of our testers bemoaned its omission.

Mercedes talks of vastly improved visibility over the previous A-Class, but seeing out of that was like looking at the world through a peephole. It’s much better in the new model, but the fat rear pillars in both it and the 1 Series still limit what you can see over your shoulder. Thankfully, to make parking less dicey, the A-Class includes a rear-view camera. The A3 is the easiest to see out of, because its big rear quarter windows open up your view a treat, plus you get rear parking sensors thrown in. On the 1 Series, both a camera (£330) and rear parking sensors (£400) cost extra.

Any buttons that might need tweaking regularly, such as those for the climate controls, are placed handily near the driver, and the analogue instrument dials in the 1 Series and A3 read as clearly as Huw Edwards at 10 o’clock.

If you add the £1395 Technology Package to the A3, this swaps in a Virtual Cockpit – configurable digital dials on a 12.3in screen behind the steering wheel that can also show full-scale navigation maps and phone or media information. It works well, but the A-Class gets digital dials as standard and its crisp, glass-fronted screen is of even higher definition, albeit smaller at 7.0in. If size matters to you, the £2395 Premium Line Pack swells this to 10.25in.

With the digital instrument display abutting a 7.0in equivalent for the infotainment system (also enlarged to 10.25in with a cheaper, £1395 pack) to create one extra-large, wide-screen panel, there’s no doubt the A-Class looks the most arresting inside. A mixture of gloss black, brushed metal and turbine air vents, which glow like afterburners at night, further help to make the A-Class feel special.

The interior may look suitably posh, but start interacting with it and you’ll quickly realise that build quality isn’t so remarkable. The door pulls flex noticeably when you tug on them, for example, and some of the buttons and switches feel a tad flimsier than you might expect.

That isn’t an accusation you can throw at the A3. Its clinical design may not be quite as alluring as the A-Class’s, but better material and construction integrity you will not find outside of NASA. If you’re a fan of substance over style, the A3’s immovable yet plush-feeling surfaces and precise switches will get you giddy for sure.

In this company, the poor old 1 Series is reminiscent of Wilbur, the piglet from Charlotte’s Webb. It’s neither exciting to behold nor particularly solid to hold. Don’t get us wrong: if you were to step into it from, say, a Ford Focus, it’s plush enough to pass muster. But the other two are simply streets ahead.

Infotainment systems

Audi A3 Sportback

Audi’s MMI is an intuitive and responsive system, operated via a rotary dial controller by the gearlever and a 7.0in screen. We recommend the Technology Pack (£1395), which adds a handwriting pad, more advanced sat-nav with dynamic route guidance, wireless phone charging, a 10GB hard drive and a subscription to online services such as Google Earth. The standard stereo sounds weak, so the £995 Bang & Olufsen upgrade is worth considering.

BMW 1 Series

Smart graphics and easy-to-navigate menus have always been hallmarks of BMW’s iDrive system, and the rotary controller is easy to use while driving. A concierge service is standard, but Apple CarPlay costs extra or is included in the Professional Media Pack (£900), which upgrades the display to an 8.8in touchscreen (pictured) with a handwriting pad, 3D graphics and online services. The optional Harman Kardon hi-fi (£600) sounds warm and punchy.

Mercedes-Benz A-Class

Known as MBUX, this new system operates via a 7.0in touchscreen (upgradable to the 10.25in unit shown as part of a £1395 pack) or via touchsensitive pads on the steering wheel and by the armrest. They aren’t too distracting to use while driving, but not as simple as the rotary controllers in the other two. The system responds swiftly to inputs and the menus are easy to interpret. If you say “Hey Mercedes” and read out a postcode, it’ll programme the sat-nav accordingly.

Space and practicality – Front space, rear space, seating flexibility, boot

Audi A3 Sportback rear seats

Space abounds up front in each of this trio. The 1 Series and A-Class are matched to the millimetre for leg room, although you won’t feel cheated in the A3 either, and all offer broadly similar, respectable amounts of head room. The wider A-Class has the most room for your elbows, but not by much, and all three provide enough cubbyholes for odds and sods.

Our regimented method of measuring cars for the purposes of consistency suggests the 1 Series has the most rear leg room. But anyone sitting in the front of that car will want to slide their seat back farther than in the A-Class and A3 to comfortably operate the clutch and accelerator pedals. The result? The 1 Series is actually the tightest for rear knee room and, by a fraction, head room, too.

The A3 and A-Class seat six-footers in the rear with relative ease, but again, the tape measure seeks to deceive. Like the 1 Series, the A3 relies on restrictive slots in the front seatbacks to eke out a slight leg room advantage, whereas the A-Class has a more open space for your knees, so it’s more comfortable in practice.

Rear head room is marginally better in the A-Class as well, so it’s the most agreeable for two people. However, the A3 edges it if you add a third person back there; its flatter-sided seat cushions give it a bit more shoulder room. Meanwhile, the 1 Series is the most cramped for three in the rear.

The A3 is the only one with a height-adjustable boot floor – provided you don’t opt for four-wheel drive or the upgraded B&O stereo, either of which deletes this feature. In its highest setting, it creates a separate underfloor compartment. In its lowest setting, the A3 has the tallest boot of the three. As a result, it holds six carry-on suitcases fairly easily. The A-Class can also swallow six cases, but at a push, while the 1 Series can manage no more than five.

All three come with 60/40 split-folding sear seats, which drop to leave a largely flat floor.

Audi A3 Sportback

Dropping the height-adjustable boot ¬floor to its lower level creates the deepest load bay here, capable of taking six cases easily, with the lowest lip for easiest loading.

  • Boot 380-1220 litres
  • Suitcases 6
BMW 1 Series

The 1 Series’ boot has the narrowest aperture and the biggest drop down to the floor, making the loading of bulky items harder. It’s also the smallest of the three.

  • Boot 360-1200 litres
  • Suitcases 5
Mercedes-Benz A-Class

A-Class’s boot is a usefully square shape, but there’s no height-adjustable floor option. Rear seatbacks split 60/40 on UK cars, not 40/20/40 as shown here.

  • Boot 370-1210 litres
  • Suitcases 6

Audi A3 Sportback

Buying and owning – Costs, equipment, reliability, safety and security

Haggle a bit and you can knock around £2000 off the list price of all three, but that still leaves the A-Class putting the biggest initial dent in your wallet. That’s not the end of the story, though. Weigh up the other financial factors involved – servicing, insurance, fuel and resale values – and the 1 Series is priciest to run over three years by £374 over the A3 and £924 over the A-Class. That turnaround is mainly due to the fact that the A-Class holds its value better.

Mind you, because both Audi and BMW are offering substantial deposit contributions with PCP finance deals, the A-Class will cost you a lot more if you buy that way: £90 per month over the 1 Series and £64 over the A3. Yet if you’re looking at a three-year lease, the A-Class is cheapest and the 1 Series priciest, although the gap between them is relatively small.

The A-Class will cost you the most to run as a company car, but the extra outlay for a 40% taxpayer over three years is just £661 in comparison with the 1 Series and £721 over the A3.

Whichever car you choose, you’ll probably want to delve into the options list. You get the basics as standard, including electric windows plus a few niceties, such as climate control and LED headlights, but that’s about it.

In the A3 and 1 Series, you can pretty much add the bits you want individually, although Audi’s Technology Pack (£1395) is worth considering for the Virtual Cockpit dials and upgraded infotainment system it brings. In the A-Class, most of the things you’ll want are available only as part of pricey bundles. That’s fine if you happen to want everything that particular package includes, but it works out jolly expensive if not. Want heated seats? You’ll need to fork out £1395 for the Executive Line Pack. A rear armrest? That’ll be £2395 for the Premium Line Pack.

The A-Class has yet to be tested by Euro NCAP, but it comes with the most safety kit, including automatic emergency braking (AEB) and lane-keeping assist. Even more features will be available with the Driving Assistance Pack (£1695), but you can’t order that until the end of the summer.

Both the 1 Series and A3 received five-star NCAP ratings, but way back in 2012, so they wouldn’t score as highly under today’s more stringent tests. AEB is a £200 option on the A3 and part of the £390 Driving Assistant Pack on the 1 Series (which also includes lane departure warning)..

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verdict

It was obvious during testing that the 1 Series was trailing behind, even in areas where you might expect it to do well, such as handling. It has always struggled to match the practicality of its key rivals, too. The only good reasons for buying one are its top-notch infotainment system and relatively affordable PCP payments.

The others both make compelling cases for themselves. The A-Class’s interior alone will sell it to many, yet its comfortable ride, tidy handling and practicality give it real substance too. However, the A3 is competitive in all these areas while also being better built, even more of a delight to drive and cheaper to buy, as well as having a more practical boot and more user-friendly infotainment.

As a result, the A3 hangs onto its crown. Apart from a shortage of standard safety aids, it remains difficult to fault.

1st – Audi A3 Sportback

  • For Incisive handling; well-controlled ride; fine driving position; outstanding finish; intuitive infotainment
  • Against Important safety kit not standard; not very well equipped
  • Recommended options Technology Pack (£1395), Audi Pre-sense Basic (£200)
Specifications: Audi A3 Sportback 1.6 TDI 115 S line
  • Engine size 4cyl, 1598cc, diesel
  • List price £27,385
  • Target Price £25,329
  • Power 114bhp @ 3250-4000rpm
  • Torque 184Ib ft @ 1500-3200rpm
  • Gearbox 6-spd manual
  • 0-60mph 10.2sec
  • Top speed 125mph
  • Gov’t fuel economy 67.3mpg
  • CO2 emissions 109g/km
2nd – Mercedes-Benz A-Class

  • For Supple ride; feature-laden infotainment; dazzling interior; strong resale values; safety kit
  • Against Priciest to buy on PCP finance; restrictive and expensive options packs
  • Recommended options Executive Line Pack (£1395)
Specifications: Mercedes-Benz A-Class A180d AMG Line auto
  • Engine size 4cyl, 1461cc, diesel
  • List price £28,540
  • Target Price £26,676
  • Power 114bhp @ 4000rpm
  • Torque 192Ib ft @ 1750-2500rpm
  • Gearbox 7-spd dual-clutch automatic
  • 0-60mph 10.4sec
  • Top speed 125mph
  • Gov’t fuel economy 68.9mpg
  • CO2 emissions 111g/km
3rd – BMW 1 Series

  • For Top-notch infotainment system; strong reliability record; cheapest on a PCP
  • Against Lacklustre performance; least comfortable ride; unremarkable handling; tight rear space; least refined
  • Recommended options Driving Assistant Pack (£390)

Specifications: BMW 1 Series 116d M Sport 5dr
  • Engine size 3cyl, 1496cc, diesel
  • List price £26,675
  • Target Price £24,556
  • Power 114bhp @ 4000rpm
  • Torque 199Ib ft @ 1750-2250rpm
  • Gearbox 6-spd manual
  • 0-60mph 10.7sec
  • Top speed 124mph
  • Gov’t fuel economy 65.7mpg
  • CO2 emissions 114g/km

(whatcar.com, http://bit.ly/2KuShW9)

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