Vehicle Comparisons

Mercedes-Benz A-Class

Mercedes-Benz A-Class

The improved third generation Mercedes A-Class distils the essence of its famous brand and puts it into a compact five-door hatch. Offering distinctive looks and a quality feel, the miniature Merc has proved a hit with consumers, but it's needed to up its game in the face of tougher competition from key rivals in the premium compact hatch segment like Audi's A3 and BMW's rejuvenated 1 Series. Hence this revised version, with its smarter looks, extra equipment and greater efficiency.

This MK3 model A-Class has always offered much more of a sporty drive than its predecessors but many reviewers thought that the original version of this car was just a tad too sporty. It certainly offered a firmer ride than some buyers were expecting. Hence Mercedes' decision with this improved model to offer all variants from 'Sport' trim upwards with a 'DYNAMIC SELECT' drive dynamics system able to offer a softer 'Comfort' suspension setting at the press of a button. The set-up also offers 'Sport', 'Eco' and 'Individual' options, all of which, like the 'comfort' setting, also modify throttle, steering and auto gearchange response.

The engine range is much as before, though small tweaks have been made to improve efficiency. At the foot of the petrol range lie the 122bhp A180 and 156bhp A200 models, with a 218PS A250 variant available for those seeking more power but not able to stretch up to the flagship Mercedes-AMG A45 4MATIC hot hatch version. Many though, will want a diesel, probably the frugally-minded A180d with 109bhp, but maybe also the A200d model with 136bhp. There's also an A220d derivative with 177bhp if you need more power but still want to fuel from the black pump.

This third generation A-Class delivered a design that was longer, wider and lower than before, with sharply defined edges and tautly-drawn convex and concave surfaces which seem to constantly change as the light catches them. Not too much has changed in this regard, except at the front where there's a smarter, more angular front bumper below a standard 'diamond' front grille. At the rear, the exhaust pipes are now integrated into the rear bumper while the tail-lights are revised. Overall, though the changes may be subtle, they do sharpen up the styling nicely.

Inside, the interior has been upgraded with smarter instrument dial housings, more seat adjustment, sleeker metal switches, plus a fresh choice of materials and dash trims. Higher end variants also benefit from a larger 8" touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and MirrorLink smartphone integration. This system is an option on lower models. Boot space remains competitive at 341-litres.

If you want a bit more attitude from your A-Class but can't quite stretch to the top Mercedes-AMG A45 model, there's a 'Motorsport Edition' package available on the pokier mainstream diesel and petrol variants, the A220d and the A250. This adds a large rear wing along with splashes of green trim inside and out that reference the livery of the Mercedes Formula 1 team.

Starting afresh in the premium compact hatch segment has worked well for Mercedes and this A-Class continues to represent a strong proposition in this aspirational sector. This thoughtful package of updates hasn't dramatically changed the proposition on offer here, but the extra efficiency and technology included will do enough to keep the car competitive against impressive rivals from Audi and BMW.

In summary then, if the objective here was for Mercedes to distil all that's exciting, fresh and modern about its business into one small package, then we don't think it could have done much better. Those who can afford A-Class asking prices will find this car sporty, self-assured and possessed of a feel-good factor that really does make you feel special if you've specced your model right. Which is exactly what owning a car of this kind is all about.

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BMW 1 Series Sports Hatch

BMW 1 Series Sports Hatch

BMW's 1 Series has been continually evolved in this second-generation form, most recently with updates to the interior and changes beneath the bonnet which have brought more power and greater efficiency. There's still the brilliant hot hatch model to head up the range, the M140i, but at the other end there's a super-economical three-cylinder 116d that can manage more than 83mpg.

We've touched on what's changed beneath the bonnet but here, we'll investigate that in more detail. There's a fresh 'Baukasten' 2.0-litre four-cylinder Twin Scroll turbocharged engine for the 120i and the 125i variants, respectively developing either 184 or 224bhp, a useful improvement on what was offered by the 1.6 and 2.0-litres units offered in these variants before. Meanwhile, at the top of the line-up, the sporting M140i hot hatch gets a new 3.0-litre straight six developing 340bhp and 500Nm of torque, enough to send this car to 62mph in just 4.6s if you specify the paddle shift auto gearbox. You may not have come across the three cylinder 1.5-litre entry-level engines ether, the 136bhp unit used in the 118i petrol model and the 116bhp powerplant used in the 116d diesel. Even the 2.0-litre diesel used in the mid-range diesel variants that most customers want has been tweaked in recent times. It develops 150bhp in the 118d, 190bhp in the 120d and 224bhp in the 125d, the latter variant benefitting from multi-stage turbocharging.

The majority of 1 Series models get a regulation six-speed manual gearbox, but the all-wheel drive 120d xDrive variant features as standard the eight-speed Steptronic transmission. The eight-speed Sport Automatic 'box is available as an option for the 125i, 120d, 120d xDrive and M140i models. This transmission is standard on the BMW 125d. It features faster gearchanges, shift paddles on the steering wheel and a Launch Control function.

BMW hasn't introduced any more exterior styling tweaks to this 1 Series model since its facelift update in 2015 but it has made further changes inside. The popular 'Sport' and 'M Sport' variants get a re-designed stitched dashboard. Plus, pearl chrome accents around the cabin and steering wheel stalks from BMW's executive 5 and 7 Series models give the interior more of an up-market feel.

As for passenger space, well, one consequence of running a transmission tunnel through any compact hatch will be rather compromised rear seat accommodation. That hasn't really changed too much. The 1 Series is still a bit more cramped in the back than something like a Golf. Nevertheless, the cabin is a good deal better looking than most rivals and the package of facelift changes back in 2015 brought us a revision to the dashboard minor controls. Both the air vents and the controls for the radio and the automatic air conditioning feature chrome surrounds, while the radio and automatic air conditioning keypads are set against smart high-gloss black panelling. There's also a standard freestanding, 6.5-inch Control Display. Choose the optional new generation Professional Navigation system and a bigger 8.8-inch display is fitted. All 1 Series models are optionally available with a 40:20:40 split rear seat backrest: folding one or more of the sections allows boot capacity to be increased in stages from 360 to 1,200-litres.

Full LED headlamps with low and main beam are on the options list, with Adaptive LED headlamps a further option. These follow the path of the road ahead, and also adapt their beam according to the type of road and conditions at any given moment. At the rear, smart tail lamps with a familiar BMW 'L' shape design also use LED tech.

Slowly but surely, BMW are excising each and every flaw in the 1 Series' makeup. When the car was originally launched in first generation form, it had plenty of flaws. It wasn't good looking, interior packaging was awful, the cabin quality wasn't all that it could have been and it wasn't actually that exciting to drive. The second-generation model corrected many of these faults and this improved version finesses the package still further. While it's still not the most elegant looking hatch on the market, it's no longer conspicuously weird-looking. You could even call the latest car handsome, which would be a first for a 1 Series hatch.

Where this generation scores, is in building in so much value for the customer. The cabin looks and feels so much more aligned to more expensive BMW models and the engine range delivers so much more choice. One thing that hasn't changed is that the Munich maker continues to offer a balance between performance and economy that almost seems to defy the basic laws of thermodynamics. Expect this one to sell in serious numbers.

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Audi A3

Audi A3

This improved MK3 model A3 shows Audi at its slick, intelligent best. Its styling might still be low key and the engineering eminently sensible, but there's now a polish to this vehicle that escapes virtually all of its rivals. Efficiency and economy are excellent by class standards, especially when it comes to a much-improved range of petrol engines. And some of the high-tech options available are extremely tempting.

Lots of changes have been made on the petrol engine front, the range now beginning with a downsized 115PS 1.0-litre TFSI unit that, nonetheless, still generates a useful 200Nm of torque. Next up is the more family 1.4 TFSI COD engine with 150PS and the efficiency of its clever 'Cylinder-on-Demand' technology. If you want more power, then the next step is a 2.0 TFSI unit - this a new engine featuring 190PS and an innovative new combustion process. It can be ordered with a freshly developed 7-speed S-tronic auto gearbox and there's the option of quattro 4WD. Near the top of the range, the S3 hot hatch also gets 2.0 TFSI power - in this case with power upped by 10PS to a 310PS total.

The diesel line-up is more familiar from before, things kicking off with the usual 1.6-litre TDI powerplant developing 110PS and offered with either manual or S-tronic dual-clutch automatic transmission. Above that sits the consistently popular 2.0-litre TDI unit, available, as usual, with either 150 or 190PS and the normal transmission choices. Top diesels also get the quattro option. As before, lowered firmer 'Sport' or 'S line Sport' suspension set-ups are available and buyers can specify a progressive steering system for sharper turn-in. The Sportback e-tron petrol/electric Plug-in hybrid variant continues on for those with an eye on their tax status.

Exterior changes to the A3 are slight but the front looks a little more purposeful, courtesy of sharper lines for the familiar and now broader Single frame grille. The headlights are flatter, with distinctive outer contours and can now be ordered in Matrix LED form, so they are significantly brighter and constantly adapt themselves to avoid dazzling other road users, plus of course they never need to be dipped. Equally subtle changes at the rear aim to accentuate the width of this car - with the horizontal illuminated graphics of the rear lights and the separation edge above the redesigned diffuser.

Inside, the 'Virtual Cockpit' instrument display used in the TT and other pricier Audis is now available in this one as an option. This displays the most important driving-relevant information in high resolution on a 12.3-inch diagonal TFT screen. The driver can switch between two views by pressing the "View" button on the multifunction steering wheel. In addition, the menu structure that works the centre dash MMI infotainment screen has been redesigned and is now more intuitive. Otherwise, everything is pretty much as before, with classy materials and strong build quality. The hatch most will want with three or five doors has a 365-litre boot - and there's still the option of saloon or Cabriolet body styles if you want them.

The power of the brand. It's something Audi muses on at some length and it's the driving force behind the success of the A3. After all, an A3 is a Golf in a posh frock and commands a significantly heftier asking price. That won't change with this latest model. Nor will the fact that there will be many quite happy to pay that premium. Forget all the numbers that surround this latest A3. What Audi continues to do better than anybody else is tap directly into the often deeply illogical subconscious of the buyer. It sows seeds of desirability that are hard to bat away with simple financial rectitude. The A3 is an artfully laid trap that most of us can't wait to blunder into.

Is that wrong? Is it cynical? Not really. The A3 serves a need and serves it very well. The latest model is, by any reasonable measure, a smart, admirable and technically brilliant thing. The intelligent people who will buy it will nevertheless have the self-awareness to ask themselves whether they have been beguiled by brand awareness, even if only just a little. Those with typical Audi owner self-confidence probably won't mind either way.

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