Premium hatchbacks offer a taste of executive car luxury in a smaller, more affordable package. The Audi A3 Sportback, BMW 1 Series and the Mercedes A-Class are three of the best in this class – but which one should you choose? Read our head to head group test to find out…
Audi A3 vs BMW 1 Series vs Mercedes A-Class prices
The Audi A3 is the cheapest car here to buy. Entry-level SE versions undercut the A-Class by a few hundred pounds and the BMW by more than £1,500. All A3s come with alloy wheels, xenon headlights, automatic wipers and cruise control as standard. Plenty of buyers will be willing to spend a little extra for edgier Sport and S-Line models, however.
The BMW comes with the firm’s brilliant iDrive infotainment system and a 6.5-inch display as standard. All 1 Series models offer DAB digital radio, sat nav and Bluetooth connectivity while a larger 8.8-inch screen with 3D maps is also available.
Every A-Class comes with artificial leather seats as standard, while mid-range models offer useful features including satellite navigation and a reversing camera. An optional Harman Kardon sound system is a noteworthy upgrade for discerning audiophiles.
Audi A3 vs BMW 1 Series vs Mercedes A-Class styling
From the outside, the A3 Sportback offers a similar smart look to its bigger Audi brothers. Numerous sharp creases, well-judged proportions and intricate details help it to look like a true premium product. It isn’t the most thrilling object to look at though – erring more on the side of caution than some rivals.
The BMW looks a little more exciting. The combination of a longer, slimmer bonnet and a squat rear end gives the 1 Series a distinctly sportier appearance. Its blunt front end and slightly fussy door surfaces might not be to everyone’s taste, however.
The A-Class tries to combine the purposeful look of the BMW with the understated class of the Audi. Its droopy nose is dominated by an enormous three-pointed star on the grille and its curvy body looks more distinctive than either rival. AMG-line models with big alloy wheels and an aggressive body kit look especially eye catching. Unfortunately, entry-level SE models look a little bit cheap in comparison.
Audi A3 vs BMW 1 Series vs Mercedes A-Class interior
The A3 makes up for its slightly plain body with a simply stunning cabin. Contemporary, understated and beautifully built, little else comes close at this price point. The material quality is better than its two closest rivals, too.
Audi’s MMI infotainment system is marginally less intuitive to use than BMW’s iDrive but the A3 is the only car in our trio to feature both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration. An added bonus is Audi’s excellent Virtual Cockpit – a system that replaces old-school analogue dials with a hi-resolution digital display.
The BMW feels the sportiest of the three from the driver’s seat. The 1 Series dashboard is angled slightly towards the driver and the seating position is suitably low and snug. Unfortunately, against more modern rivals, it feels a little dated and is further let down by a number of cheap-feeling scratchy plastic parts.
The Mercedes’ interior design looks a little more glitzy. Three chromed air vents, swathes of textured material on dashboard and lashings of leather trimmings help it to feel suitably upmarket. It’s still not quite a match for the A3 though – there are some cheap, hard plastics in places and the infotainment system is the weakest of the three. Apple CarPlay is fitted as standard, however.
Audi A3 vs BMW 1 Series vs Mercedes A-Class practicality
If you regularly carry people in the back seats, the five-door A3 Sportback is the clear winner here. Taller passengers may find the central seat a little uncomfortable but wide door openings make fitting a child seat a breeze. The A3’s 380-litre boot is also the largest here and it features a false floor to make loading heavy items as easy as possible.
The BMW offers good rear headroom but the worst shoulder and legroom of the three. Fitting a child seat is easy – thanks to the wide rear door openings – and the cabin features numerous useful cubby holes. Unfortunately, the 1 Series can’t quite match the A3 for outright bootspace – its 360-litre loadbay is 20 litres smaller than offered by the Audi.
Overall, the A-Class is the least practical car here. The rear hatch opening is tiny and makes accessing the compact 340-litre boot a pain. Rear passengers aren’t offered much headroom and access to the rear seats is tighter than in than rivals.
Audi A3 vs BMW 1 Series vs Mercedes A-Class engines
The A3 is available with a choice of two diesel and four petrol engines. It’s the only car here available with hybrid technology – the petrol/electric system can return a staggering 176mpg. Most buyers are more likely to go for one of the cheaper petrol or diesel models, however, and here the range offers a decent mix of performance and economy.
The 1 Series has a wider choice of engines than the A3, offering four petrol and four diesel units. At its most frugal, the 116d EfficientDynamics model tops 83.1mpg while the BMW’s other petrol and diesel options are more powerful those in both the Audi and the Mercedes across the range. The optional eight-speed automatic gearbox is one of the smoothest and most responsive available, too.
There’s a total of seven different engine options for the A-Class, all of which are a little less refined than those fitted to either the Audi or BMW. The A-Class’ aerodynamic shape does help it return a decent 70mpg in A200d guise, however.
Audi A3 vs BMW 1 Series vs Mercedes A-Class driving
The Audi A3 feels typically Audi-like on the road – stable, secure and predictable, if not particularly thrilling. All its controls feel well weighted and the Audi’s manual gearbox is the best in our trio. It’ll be the most comfortable car to cover long distances in, too, thanks to a supple suspension setup and refined road manners.
The BMW isn’t quite as relaxing to drive as the Audi thanks to more intrusive wind and tyre noise at motorway speeds. The 1 Series’ trump card, however, is its fun handling. It feels precise and balanced through the bends – more like a big, practical sports car than a boxy hatchback.
The A-Class lags slightly behind both the BMW and Audi in the driving stakes. Its ride is fairly harsh and it neither handles as well as the BMW, nor cruises as comfortably as the Audi.
Audi A3 vs BMW 1 Series vs Mercedes A-Class verdict
Each of these three chic hatches delivers the style and equipment levels that buyers in this class expect – but there’s still one that stands out as a clear winner.
Unfortunately for Mercedes, it isn’t the A-Class. It looks smart in the right spec and it has an eye-catching interior but it lags behind rivals in terms of both comfort and driving fun. Its unremarkable range of engines and poor practicality let the side down further.
The 1 Series will be the standout choice for some buyers – if only because it’s the sportiest looking car here. It drives well, boasts a great infotainment system and a range of strong engines so there’s plenty to like.
Overall, though, the Audi just edges into the top spot. The A3 is the most refined and the most practical car of the three. It’s almost as good to drive as the BMW and wins the in-car tech race too. It’s very difficult to fault, making it a truly deserving winner.
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