Mercedes A-Class vs VW Golf – family hatch showdown

A couple of years ago you probably wouldn’t have seriously considered a Mercedes A-Class if you were looking at the Volkswagen Golf. Although they may have technically fallen into the same class of car, the A-Class wasn’t anywhere near as desirable as the Golf, even with the prestigious three-pointed star on the bonnet.

The Golf was a car that appealed to drivers of all ages and demographics, but the A-Class was a frumpy lump of a vehicle that only really ticked all the boxes for buyers who cared little about how stylish their cars were.

To say the new Mercedes A-Class is better looking than the old model is like saying that rain is wet or that fire is hot. But the big question is: can the A-Class challenge Volkswagen’s Golf for the premium hatchback crown?

This part of the market is congested and fiercely competitive, but the Volkswagen is still very much the standard by which all others are judged. We’ve looked at all the evidence and expert opinions to come up with a comparison between these two German heavyweights to help you decide between the two.

Styling

Volkswagen has something of a track record for not straying too far from the path when it is updating its models, and the latest Golf is further evidence of this trait. Although it does feature some notable improvements on the last model such as stronger horizontal lines and a small front overhang that gives a slightly longer and more slender look to the car, it is still unmistakably a Golf.

The A-Class, however, is about as far away from the old version as you can imagine. Having said all that, all the German luxury manufacturer has actually done to the A-Class is to make it look more like all the other cars that occupy this segment. But the old model was so mundane that there surely won’t be too many tears shed over its demise.

If you have always liked the way the Golf looks you won’t be disappointed with the latest model, but you won’t be too surprised by it either. The Mercedes now looks like it is part of the company’s range rather than something a little obscure that carries the three-pointed star for some reason.

Interior and practicality

The Golf’s interior is an excellent demonstration of understated class, which is exactly what we have come to expect from it. Rather than following the lead of some of its competitors and making the cockpit look like the pilot’s seat from a sci-fi film spaceship, the Volkswagen is smart, comfortable, spacious and practical. Everything’s where it should be, which is exactly where you expect it to be. There’s isn’t a huge difference from the previous model, but why would you want to mess around with something that is so good anyway?

The A-Class is a worthy competitor for the Golf when it comes to interior quality and practicality. There’s the oozing of class that you would expect from the brand and there’s little evidence that interior space has been sacrificed for exterior styling. The Merc will seat four people without too much trouble and offers 1,157 litres of total load space with the 60/40 split rear-seats folded down.

Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz used to be famous for under-equipping their vehicles when it comes to standard trims. Thankfully this is now a thing of the past. Essentials such as air conditioning are now standard on all models. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the Mercedes wins out a little here. The A-Class also includes attention assist as standard fitment – this is a system that takes increasingly severe steps to keep a driver alert if it detects tiredness.

Driving

If you think that all Golfs will drive like the hot-hatch GTI, you may be a little surprised when you take one for a test drive. Basically, the Golf has got heavy over the years and our craving for economy means the available engines just counteract the car’s middle-age spread. The ride and handling are as good as you would expect; just don’t expect to win too many traffic-light sprints against the Golf’s main competitors.

The favoured engine choice for the A-Class over here will probably be the 134bhp 1.8-litre diesel, which accelerates well and will be fine for most drivers. It does lack a little when you get to higher speeds though, as it doesn’t have quite as much torque as we would have hoped for. The petrol engines perform better, but as so few people in the U.K. will consider anything other than diesel these days, they are somewhat superfluous. If Mercedes found its way to putting a really over-the-top, high-powered petrol unit into the A-Class at some point, this chassis would really come alive and find the car a whole new audience.

Engines

Like most other modern cars, the economy of this pair’s petrol engines make you question why you’d buy a diesel, unless you’re doing huge annual mileages. That said, the common perception is that diesel engines are more economical, and that’s why diesel-burning versions of these two will greatly outsell petrol models, and why so much development is put into Mercedes and VW oil-burners.

The A-Class has three diesels and five petrol variants. All three diesels are four-cylinder engines that are offered in 109,136 and 170hp versions. Petrol powerplants are also all four-cylinder units, but these vary between 122 and the 360hp in the A45 AMG.

Volkswagen offers some excellent small, light and economical petrol engines in the latest Golf, but the vast majority will go for the diesels. The entry-level 1.6-litre 88hp diesel does give a combined 74.3mpg, but don’t expect much in the way of performance. The 104hp version of the same engine is a better bet because it’s claimed to offer the same economy but with a bit more fun involved, and you won’t have to pin the throttle to go anywhere, which will likely improve your fuel economy. The 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel that features in SE and GT specs is probably the best bet, with a combined economy of 68.9mpg and more acceptable performance.

Value for money

There’s quite a bit of difference in the starting prices of these two, and the Merc doesn’t come cheap in any of its guises. However, the Mercedes name does carry considerably more kudos than Volkswagen, so £20,715 for the A180 petrol is probably to be expected and not too far off the mark.

If you are looking for value and aren’t too concerned about high levels of specification, the Golf looks like good value at £16,975 for the S model. But don’t come crying when the time comes to trade in your entry-level Golf, because the base model rarely raises much of a smile from potential suitors in the second-hand market.

When you head towards the top-end of the model ranges the disparity gets even more noticeable. A high spec Golf with all the bells and whistles will set you back somewhere north of £25,000, while the top-of-the-range Mercedes A250 4MATIC will get you closer to £31,000.

Verdict

It’s actually quite easy to separate these two because they really represent different areas of the same segment. The Golf is a mass-market mid-range family hatch (unless you opt for the range-topping Golf R), whereas the A-Class is very much at the top-end of this class.

The A-Class is better looking to many observers and the quality is also there for all to see. The Golf does what it does extremely well and it has been the one to beat for a very long time. The problem is that there are a lot of other makes out there that are stepping on the Volkswagen’s toes, but the A-Class separates itself from the rest by simply being more exclusive and upmarket.

It’s hard to believe too many people will find it difficult to choose between these two unless money is of little consequence. If you can afford it, the A-Class delivers in just about every way and if you choose the right colour and specification you will have a real head-turner of a car on your hands.

The Golf hasn’t got to where it is today though without being an excellent car throughout its long production run, and the current model is as capable, practical and well put-together as any of its predecessors. The bottom line is; if you’ve got the money go for the Merc, but if you haven’t, you won’t be disappointed with the latest Golf either.

Find out more

For more pictures, collated critics’ reviews, statistics and more, read our Volkswagen Golf review and Mercedes A-Class review.

Volkswagen Golf

Proven family hatchback with a classy interior
8.8
£17,625 - £27,785
RRP
Read review Compare offers

Mercedes A-Class

Great looking premium hatchback with a fine interior
6.5
£19,990 - £35,425
RRP
Read review Compare offers
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