THE phone call from an Audi representative to their superiors in Ingolstadt at the 2011 New York Auto Show moments after the covers were drawn from Mercedes-Benz’s A-Class concept would have been a nervous one. Certainly, there would have been a similar call made in 2004 when BMW launched its first-generation 1 Series but, by then, Audi had introduced the second incarnation of the A3 and wasn’t yet firmly set on its evolutionary approach to design. There’s nothing like the launch of an exciting, designed-from-a-blank-sheet segment newcomer, especially one sporting the badge of a premium German rival, to highlight just how conservative Audi’s design language has become.
BMW, too, would have been keeping a watchful eye on the direction its Stuttgart-based rival was taking with the A-Class, but would probably have felt confident that the distinctly sharper lines of its second-generation 1 Series (launched at Frankfurt in 2011), together with the perceived dynamic advantage of a front-engine/rear-wheel-drive layout, had enough presence and poise to hold its own against any new rival.
Fast-forward to the present day and, sure enough, it was the all-new Audi A3 Sportback that, despite its taut, sleek new lines and clever use of LED lighting, garnered the least attention as we drove it in convoy with the Mercedes-Benz A180 BlueEfficiency and BMW 116i Steptronic for the purpose of this back-to-back evaluation. Although a striking Valencia Orange paint job aided the BMW’s catwalk appeal on the day, there could be no denying that it was the fresh new lines of the A-Class that turned the most heads.
While you have to take into account the novelty factor of Mercedes-Benz’s decision to change the shape (and marketing direction) of the A-Class, the majority of the testers felt the motoring public, brand loyalties aside, appreciated the svelte, chiselled, fresh lines of the newest Benz most. It would also be unfair not to mention the new Volvo V40 when handing out styling compliments.
Locally, the Sportback is easily the most popular A3 shape (the previous-generation outsold its three-door sibling seven-to-one). In the new third-generation A3 line-up, the advantage of the Sportback, aside from an extra set of doors, is a 58 mm longer wheelbase. And, in addition to several millimetres more rear head- and legroom, the stretch also liberates additional luggage space. Indeed, if rear-passenger comfort, usable luggage space and versatility were the deciding factors in this test, the Audi would be heading for the top step of the podium before an ignition key was turned. Meanwhile, by shrink-wrapping the A-Class around its MFA platform, Mercedes-Benz has granted just enough rear leg- and headroom for two adults but stopped short of affording them copious space for their luggage.
With one of the main criticisms of the first-generation BMW 1 Series being its cramped, tricky-to-access rear-passenger seats, an additional 21 mm of kneeroom was liberated when designing the new car, making the newest five-door 1 Series that much more practical. A further benefit of the expanded proportions of the new car is a welcome increase in luggage space. All three cars feature 60:40 split rear backrests.
Cloth upholstery is standard on all three contenders (although we’ve never actually encountered fabric seat trim in any 1 Series – press unit or dealer demo) and it stands to reason that each premium-car company understands customer requirements in terms
of outright comfort. That said, each car features a welcome variety of adjustment on the steering column and driver’s seat, as well as standard air-conditioning, a relatively comprehensive audio system and multifunction steering wheel.
The marques’ distinct exterior design languages have been carried over – with relative degrees of success – to the cabins. Whereas the new A3’s neat and unfussy exterior styling cuts a classy profile, the minimalist, uncluttered facia imbues a sense of sophistication to the Audi that the others can’t match. The perceived build-quality level of the vehicle that originated in Ingolstadt remains class-leading.
Mimicking the distinct, adventurous exterior lines of the new A-Class, it’s the Mercedes-Benz that feels the raciest from the snug confines of its well-bolstered (and impressive-looking) driver’s seat. What’s missing is that ultimate sense of roominess that the Audi offers, but in its place is an enveloping ambience. Some doubt among the CAR team remains as to whether there is any real benefit to positioning the transmission lever on the steering column, but the feedback on the quality of the Benz’s cabin materials was very positive.
Another key area in which BMW was keen to improve on the first-generation 1 Series was perceived build quality. In this respect, the newer 1 Series feels much improved, with just enough soft-touch plastic and insulation from the outside world to live up to the Munich-based brand’s premium reputation. The driving position is nice and low and, helped by the thick-rimmed steering wheel, the 1 Series still feels tailor-made for the buyers who enjoy driving.
All three contenders have long, potentially costly, options lists, but it’s worth noting that, since the launch of the A-Class, BMW has amended its specification list to include the large, full-colour infotainment screen as standard. Those displays are all the rage at the moment and the smartphone-like unit that rises gracefully from the Audi’s dash wins our vote. The Benz’s example, though neat, has the most aftermarket appearance.
Arguably the pick of the range in the A3 line-up is the 90 kW 1,4-litre turbopetrol. Mated with the slick seven-speed S tronic double-clutch transmission, progress is as smooth as the gear shifts are seamless. While we would specify steering-wheel-mounted paddles, if only to pre-empt downshifts ahead of slow corners and steep inclines, this engine/transmission combination (also available in the new Golf) is nevertheless one of the most impressive in this segment. Of course, a large part of what makes this T FSI technology so impressive is a CAR fuel-index figure of just 6,0 litres/100 km.
Step out of the A3 Sportback and straight into the A180 and you’ll soon realise why the Audi’s S tronic ‘box is so impressive. The Mercedes-Benz double-clutch 7G-DCT transmission is noticeably slower to react in most conditions, highlighted by sluggish pull-offs and scratchy low-speed shifts. While you do grow accustomed to the characteristics of this ‘box, and will gradually learn how to anticipate and smoothen shifts, the 7G-DCT is arguably one of the weakest aspects of the new A-Class. In the A180, this transmission is mated with an otherwise impressive turbocharged 1,6-litre petrol engine. While matching the Audi for both power and torque (90 kW/200 N.m), the latter figure is available 150 r/min lower down on the rev range than on the A3. Despite sharing a near-identical 0-100 km/h time with the Audi, the heavier Mercedes-Benz returns an slightly poorer fuel-index figure of 6,6 litres/100 km.
BMW has avoided the temptation to fit a double-clutch transmission to its 1 Series range and the 116i is a better car for it. The eight-speed automatic transmission does an impressive job of keeping the 100 kW/220 N.m turbocharged 1,6-litre direct-injection engine on the boil. The BMW boasts the best figures here (0-100 km/h in a claimed 9,1 seconds), yet the poorest (if only slightly) fuel-index figure of 6,72 litres/100 km.
All three test units wore larger-sized alloy wheels (17-inch rims) than standard. The A3 is the only car that doesn’t come equipped with run-flat tyres and this fact, together with the impressive ride quality associated with products built on the Volkswagen Group’s new lightweight MQB platform, gives the Audi an immediate edge over the Benz and BMW on the open road. While the A3 may be the least exciting car of this group to drive enthusiastically, much of this is attributable to the Audi’s near-unflappable ride quality. Round town, the A3’s suspension impresses with its compliance, refinement and light-on-its-feet feel.
If the Mercedes-Benz A-Class looks the sportiest of the trio, it’s because it is. At speed, the A180’s steering is precise, the front-end grippy and body roll is minimal. The dynamic ability vaunted by this entry-level model bodes well for more powerful versions (including the A45 AMG). The offset, of course, is that at regular speeds the relative firmness of this all-round independent suspension means that it is not as adept at dealing with road imperfections. We look forward to experiencing this same model wearing standard 16-inch rubber because, while not bone-jarring by any means, it seems a pity that an otherwise impressive entry-level package should need to feel so tightly sprung.
At the risk of highlighting the deficiencies of the previous-generation 1 Series, a further criticism of that model that BMW has worked hard to correct was the poor low-speed ride quality – not aided, of course, by first-generation run-flat tyre technology. On this particular 1 Series, the ride quality remains on the sporty (read: firm) side of the spectrum, yet the Beemer still does an admirable job of ironing out most bumps. While there isn’t enough power with which to exploit the optimal front-engine/rear-wheel-drive layout and 50:50 weight distribution, the 116i is still more than capable of inducing a smile from its driver.
When the Teutonic trio clashes in any comparison test, two things are certain: because each manufacturer has attempted to produce the definitive premium compact hatch, it will be a close contest; and each brand has the backing of a fiercely loyal fan base that won’t easily be swayed no matter what the outcome.
That said, the A3 Sportback is the best package. It boasts the best levels of refinement in terms of engine, transmission and ride quality, offers the most versatility and is the most comfortable to live with on an everyday basis.
Where the A-Class embarrasses the A3, however, is in its pure boulevard appeal. Like the impressive Volvo V40, it represents something fresh and exciting in the market and, based on the fact that A180 models are sold out until the middle of 2014, this is clearly a very strong selling point.
The 1 Series remains a solid proposition that, thankfully, is much improved over the previous-generation example. BMW fans will argue that it is the most naturally gifted driver’s car here and that, coupled with improvements to the build and ride quality, as well as usable rear seats, it’s the only car for them. Nevertheless, it scored the lowest total of the three.
Road Test Scores
Audi A3 Sportback 1,4T FSI S tronic: 81/100
BMW 116i Steptronic: 76/100
Mercedes-Benz A180 BE 7G-DCT: 78/100
Does the new A-Class alter the balance of power in the highly competitive premium C-segment? We compare it with the A3 Sportback and the 116i.