AS unlikely as this comparison test may have seemed just a few years ago, the fact that before you is a photograph of a seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf GTI lined up against a Mercedes-Benz A-Class bears testament to two truths. Firstly, Volkswagen has successfully evolved its Golf to a point where it is genuinely making a nuisance of itself in a segment previously considered too premium for Wolfsburg’s compact hatch range. And, secondly, that Mercedes-Benz, in changing the focus (and shape) of its A-Class offering to compete in this aforementioned premium segment, soon realised the sales potential that a well-sorted, sports-orientated hatch has. Coincidentally, proof of this potential can be found with the GTI badge.
Since the fourth-generation example was launched in 2000, GTI versions have accounted for an average of 50 per cent of all Golfs sold in South Africa. This despite VW’s (often-criticised) policy that states the styling updates between each generation must remain evolutionary rather than contemporary.
That said, it quickly becomes apparent that within this lineage, the new GTI is distinctive enough to be noticed in a crowd. Be it the LED daytime running lights, standard 18-inch Austin alloy wheels or the red pinstripe running across the front grille (and now into the headlamp clusters), the seventh-generation GTI manages to turn the heads of people in the know.
The fact that the A250 turns even more heads suggests there is a place for a bold, game-changing design in this largely conservative segment. Until the flagship A45 AMG (see page 116) arrives later this year, this A250 aptly manages its role as the sportiest model in the range. It also uses red detailing on its fenders and brake callipers to flaunt its pedigree, while striking a pose on 18-inch alloy wheels and suspension that is 15 mm lower than those of standard models. Bi-xenon headlamps are standard, as is a model-specific studded grille.
If the A250’s exterior styling doesn’t draw a clear enough battle line, there are racier garnishes inside the cabin.
While both cars feature well-bolstered, superbly comfortable leather seats and matching hide-wrapped (multifunction) steering wheels, it’s the A250 that feels the sportiest of the two. A lower-slung driver’s seat, red seatbelts, a carbon-look facia, brushed pedals, red air-vent surrounds and the obligatory red instrument needles highlight a cockpit that envelops its occupants and signals plenty of intent. By contrast, the GTI’s cabin feels more airy and less concerned about making a statement. While there is red highlighting, it is reserved for the stitching, door lighting and instrument needles.
As pointed out in previous reviews of the new A-Class range, its standard infotainment screen, though large and clear, lacks the refinement and ease-of-use of some of its rivals’ examples. To this end, the Golf’s touchscreen offers more convenience and arguably looks less aftermarket than Mercedes-Benz’s dash-mounted unit. Volkswagen also offers dual-zone climate control as standard fitment on the GTI, while the A250 includes a manually operated air-conditioning system as standard.
It says a lot about how far VW has brought its best-selling people’s car that the upmarket feel of materials and general build quality of a Golf’s cabin have surpassed those of the historically more premium Mercedes-Benz. While we noted some cruising-speed wind noise in both cars, it’s the GTIs interior that certainly makes a more premium impression.
Both cars make use of turbocharged 2,0-litre engines mated with dual-clutch transmissions. The re-engineering of Volkswagen’s tried and trusty EA888 unit has included a new cylinder head that incorporates a water-cooled exhaust-gas recirculation system, while in this application it produces 162 kW of power (exactly double that of the legendary Mk1 GTI). More significant, though, is the fact that the seventh-generation GTI now produces 350 N.m of torque available from 1 500 r/min, 70 N.m more than the previous example.
Where the A250 matches the Golf for available torque, it is available even lower down in the rev range (from 1 200 r/min). Its direct-injection motor produces 155 kW of power channelled exclusively via a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
While the ultimate refinement of Mercedes-Benz’s 7G-DCT transmission has scored negatively in many a comparative test since the launch of the new A-Class range, it manages to claw back some points when mated with the most powerful engine in the line-up. Upshifts feel meatier and more eager, while there’s less of a delay once the ‘box is asked to shift down. That said, there is still time to be gained by pre-empting downshifts via the left-hand steering-wheel-mounted paddle. In the A250, the driver has the option to dial in a manual, eco or sport mode.
If Mercedes-Benz has lost points in the past based on the actions of its dual-clutch transmissions, VW has certainly gained many plaudits thanks to its impressive DSG unit. A six-speeder in this application, the GTI’s transmission seamlessly goes about its business, whether traffic-bound or being asked to think fast. Although never handed the full reins in manual mode (visit CARmag.co.za for a video of Deon Joubert’s Killarney lap) steering-wheel-mounted paddles nevertheless offer the driver a bit more involvement in the process. When left to its own devices, in sport or comfort mode, the quick-thinking, refined nature of this technology continues to impress. To this end, VW has increased the volume on its exhaust note actuator to be louder and somewhat fartier mid-shift.
Despite being built on Volkswagen’s widely adaptable new MQB platform, the GTI is, in fact, only 42 kg lighter than the previous model (the average saving throughout the range being closer to 100 kg). This makes it around 50 kg lighter than the A250. Despite this and its power deficit, the Mercedes-Benz managed to come within an admirable 0,23 seconds of the GTI’s 6,58-second 0-100 km/h time.
Indeed, even when the road gets twisty, as impressive as the new Golf GTI is, the A250 is never far off the pace, evidenced by the near-identical times they set at our Killarney track test (page 137)
Fitted with optional Adaptive Chassis Control (R10 200), the GTI driver is able to select between a steering weights, damper settings and throttle mappings to suit prevailing driving conditions. A three-stage traction-control setting also caters for a sportier (more lenient) driving mode while maintaining a watchful eye over proceedings. Despite what the scales say, the new GTI, like the rest of the range, feels decidedly lighter on its feet than the previous model. While the Mk6 GTI could certainly show many of its rivals a clean pair of heels, the new car, with its improved XDS+ electronic differential, new progressive steering system (variably reducing the amount of turn lock) and revised sports suspension (the GTI rides 15 mm lower than the standard car), shifts the goal posts even further.
A lighter, more precise front-end encourages higher corner-entry speeds, while newfound resistance to on-the-limit understeer, as well as minimal bodyroll, allow for a smoother transition onto the power and effortlessly composed changes of direction.
Fitted with a standard AMG-fettled sports suspension, the A250 sits a further 17 mm closer to the ground than the GTI. Combine this with an altogether firmer default damper setting and you begin to realise that Mercedes-Benz had a singular goal when it created its GTI rival. Aside from differences in cabin quality and the refinement of the pair’s dual-clutch transmissions, the rivals are really set apart by their respective ride qualities.
From the outset, the A250 is the firmer sprung and this fact will either add to a driver’s sense of occasion when behind the wheel or detract from the everyday driving experience – it all depends on road-surface conditions and your expectations of a premium hatch. On a smooth surface, the A250 is up for a challenge. Turn-in is precise and the electric power-assisted steering offers good weighting and feedback. If anything, some of the grin factor provided by the GTI’s enhanced engine note is missing from the Mercedes-Benz hot hatch, but the A-Class nevertheless impresses with its road-holding prowess.
Both manufacturers claim the same combined fuel-consumption figure (6,4 litres/100 km) for their respective products. On our fuel route, however, the extra gear ratio of the A250 helped it achieve a slightly more favourable 7,5 litres/100 km, as opposed to the Golf’s 7,9 litres/100 km.
Has Mercedes-Benz built a Golf GTI rival? Definitely. However, exactly which generation GTI the A250 best rivals is perhaps the more pertinent question. In a strange twist of fate, it seems likely that a humble Golf has outgrown an equivalent Benz.
Where the A-Class’s arrival into the C-segment hatch market has shone a spotlight on a few of the established players’ shortcomings in terms of design language, the A250 has introduced to the world a small Mercedes-Benz product that it not only very capable, but also fun-loving. The A250 exudes presence and character while offering potential buyers a glimpse into the premium world in which this Stuttgart-based manufacturer operates. It’s a world that is likely to influence resale values.
Where the A250 plays the role of focused, hard-edged “warm” hatch (let’s not forget the imminent arrival of the A45 AMG), the Golf GTI has already covered this ground in previous generations and has, in its seventh generation, moved on to offer buyers that much more. In its latest form, the GTI offers not only one of the most compliant and refined overall ride qualities, but also class-leading levels of perceived build quality.
Add to this enough power and useable torque to induce mischievous grinning while you take the long way home and, of course, the built-in dynamics on which the GTI heritage was established. Owners of rival products are likely to concur with what two testers had to say in their notes on the GTI: it’s annoyingly good.
Road Test Scores
Volkswagen Golf GTI DSG 84/100
Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport 7G-DCT 77/100
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