Buyers in this market could sometimes be accused of choosing the badge first and the car they actually want second, but that would be unfair. There are reasons the 1-Series is desirable – the economical engines and classy interiors being near the top of the list – but experts also really like the fun-factor. If it’s your thing, this is a car that could make you grin on the B-roads, provided you pick the right engine.
The old Mercedes A-Class occupied a zone in the market that was a little scarce in alternatives – it wasn’t a crossover SUV, but it was quite spacious, and it was taller and a little larger than a hatchback and had an MPV-look to it even if it had ‘just’ five seats.
The new A-Class, however, is aimed squarely at stealing BMW’s customers away from the 1-Series, promising the three-pointed star on the bonnet, a Mercedes-grade interior and a range of good petrol and diesel engines.
So because it looks like the choice between the 1-Series and A-Class could pose a serious hold-up in your car-buying process, we’ve put together this side-by-side comparison of facts, stats and figures to see which one makes the better premium hatchback.
There’s no denying which car got the more significant makeover here – the A-Class has gone from looking like a stout mini-MPV to an intentionally designed hatchback, whereas the 1-Series has only been lucky enough to get the odd nip and tuck.
The first thing you’ll notice about the A-Class is that it’s been given the large, pronounced grille that a lot of new Mercedes have been getting lately – no bad thing, as it gives the car a stance when parked and it’s a feature that draws the eye in. The rest of the car is nicely defined too – bold lines run down the side and the roof slopes down too, giving it a decent side-profile as well.
The 1-Series styling polarises critics somewhat – some like the boldness and others really hate it. The “drop-nose” grille is a particular feature that splits opinion, not just on the 1-Series, but on other new BMWs too. The styling overall is more restrained than the A-Class and it doesn’t have the same defined lines, but it still looks like a premium product.
Interior and Practicality
Both the Mercedes and the BMW fall a little short of the exceedingly high interior standards set by the rivalling hatchbacks from the Volkswagen-group, but the good news is that they both retain a premium feel to them.
In all but the most basic A-Classes, you will find good quality materials and a plush cabin that could be taken from any other modern day Mercedes. The higher spec you opt for, the classier the interior becomes – although testers noted that, ergonomically, it’s not as sharp as it could be.
Unfortunately, the A-Class disappoints a little when you begin looking at how spacious it is – it’s actually a little larger in width and height than its predecessor but the boot is 94 litres smaller, and rear seat passengers have to contend with compromised headroom thanks to the stylish sloping roof-line.
Surprisingly for BMW, it had a bit of a hill to climb on interior quality, as the old 1-Series had a number of issues with below-par materials being used widely and poor build quality. The good news is that, with fewer cheap-looking plastics noticeable on the dashboard, the cabin has a classier feel to it than it once did.
Where it improves most of all is with interior space. Like the Mercedes, its width and height have been increased, with the result being one of the largest boots in its class – 360 litres with the seats up and 1,200 litres with them down. Driver and passenger room is good, even for taller occupants, but unfortunately the middle seat is not really a serious option thanks to the large transmission tunnel.
There’s a clear line between the two cars here – the Merc will give you a slightly classier interior but the BMW will prove to be the most practical in the long run.
If you read reviews of the A-Class and the 1-Series, you’ll see that this is where the two cars really differ. The 1-Series provides the only rear-wheel-drive platform in its class, giving it a unique selling point that it exploits to its advantage, whereas the A-Class is front-wheel drive with four-wheel-drive as an option. Testers agree it can’t really hold a candle to the 1-Series on the open road.
It’s true that some experts found it hard to say that the BMW was better than some of its front-wheel drive rivals, but in the real world the 1-Series should provide the average driver with enough entertainment thanks to sharp steering and excellent body control. The 1-Series is biased perhaps a little too much towards handling on M-Sport models, but critics found that the impressive refinement, especially on motorways, made up for any dips in comfort.
Completely opposite to the BMW, the Mercedes’ issues are caused by sub-standard body control and steering that provides little or no feedback at all. You can improve things slightly by opting for four-wheel drive or splashing out serious amounts of money on the A45 AMG. There’s always plenty of grip so it’ll be hard to ditch the car mid-corner.
Even the regular set-up, however, provides a crashy, fidgety ride, one of the poorest on the market according to some.
Mercedes have opted to keep its engine range simple, at least compared to BMW, and offer three petrols and three diesels, all turbocharged. They are punchy and smooth enough, although the diesels don’t like pottering around town, and disappointingly, there’s no real “super-green” option in the range which dips into the holy-grail “free-to-tax” zone most manufacturers aim for.
BMW’s list of engines available for the 1-Series is long and a little bewildering at first. However, this is a minor detail, considering that all engines are considered to be very smooth and refined, and at least there is a stand-out eco-model.
That model is the 116d, powered by a 116hp 1.6-litre turbo-diesel. Outright performance on the road is adequate at best, but it costs nothing to tax and can do nearly 75mpg. As an added bonus it’s also reasonable to buy, and throw in the smiles-per-miles factor too, and it is a tempting offer.
You can get the same 1.6-litre diesel in detuned 114d form, although you’d need to be seriously penny-pinching at point of purchase to opt for it over a more gutsy and only slightly less economical model. The 2.0-litre diesel in 184hp form – known as the 120d – tends to be favoured among critics as it offers good performance and decent economy.
Mercedes fights back, though, with its A220. A 168hp 2.0-litre diesel is capable of decent performance and will return just over 67mpg on paper, and costs just £30 per year to tax. You might think opting for the A180, with a 1.5-litre diesel engine, would save you money in the long run, but it only improves economy by 1mpg, and you lose 60hp.
If you’re doing fewer miles per year than most you might consider a petrol alternative of either car. The pick of the 1-Series is the M135i, a 3.0-litre straight six with 320hp – it offers amazing performance at the sacrifice of economy and a higher tax bill. The A-Class’s party piece is the A45 AMG, with a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine pumping out 355hp and offering supercar-scaring performance – yet, driven sensibly, 40+mpg is also on the cards.
Value for money and running costs
Both cars command prices at the premium end of the market, but you are still able to get a good deal if you are happy to settle for the basics. Both cars also play the typical premium-class game of having swathes of options that rocket the prices up alarmingly quickly – the Mercedes particularly so.
At entry level, however, the A180, with a slow-but-frugal 1.5-litre diesel engine, is not entirely unreasonable at a sniffle under £19,000. The standard kit list isn’t extensive but you won’t find yourself wanting much, although it’s a bit disappointing that climate control is a £500 extra.
Climbing the range a bit to avoid options may seem like a tempting idea, but this too sees a sharp increase in outright purchase cost. Jumping up two spec levels and one engine level to an A200 CDI Sport with the automatic gearbox, and the price to you is now over £25,000.
The 1-Series’ most basic models cost less than the A-Class, at a little over £17,000, but it’s hard to recommend any of the truly basic BMWs as they don’t offer much standard equipment and the least powerful petrol engines are not particularly desirable either.
But it doesn’t cost the earth to get a desirable model – just under £21,000 will net you a three-door version of the 116d EfficientDynamics, the super-frugal and cheap-to-run 1.6-litre diesel engine, and you will get more bang for your buck inside too.
The BMW certainly offers more performance for your money – the M135i is around £31,000, pricey at first considering what you get but, when you see the over £40,000 price-tag on the A45 AMG, you may conclude the the extra 30 or so horsepower you get isn’t worth the extra £10,000.
Ultimately, there’s no doubt that both cars will remain desirable and retain value in the future, especially the more frugal models.
Considering their wowscores for one moment – the BMW is the favoured among critics and experts with 8.3 from ten reviews. The Mercedes has a score of 7.2 from just five reviews, but the one thing all experts really agree on is the disappointing ride quality and handling.
The main problem for both cars are the premium rivals in the market that offer the same, if not a higher standard of build quality and interior refinement for a lower price – we can’t help but think of the Volkswagen Golf.
But if you must have one or the other, it’s hard to recommend the Mercedes given its less spacious interior, poor ride quality and propensity for becoming alarmingly expensive very quickly.
The BMW 1-Series may be a little pricey, too, once you get going with the option boxes, but as an all-round package it’s an accomplished, cheap-to-run family hatchback which, as an added bonus, is good fun on the right roads too.