NEW AUDI A3 TAKES ON BMW, MERC RI­VALS

The Audi A3 cre­ated the posh fam­ily hatch­back class with a classy in­te­rior and ma­ture man­ners. But does it re­main ahead of the BMW 1 Se­ries and Mercedes A-class in its new gen­er­a­tion? Si­mon Davis ad­ju­di­cates

Autocar - - THIS WEEK - PHOTOGR APHY OLGUN KORDAL

Jimi Hen­drix. Paul Mc­cart­ney. John Len­non. Vin­cent van Gogh. Pablo Pi­casso. Richie Mc­caw. Michael Schumacher.

Chances are you’ll in­stantly recog­nise each and ev­ery one of those names. I’d wa­ger that it’s also likely you’ll have a rough un­der­stand­ing of the com­mon thread that ties them all to­gether, too. Un­doubt­edly, they’re all legends in their re­spec­tive fields – im­pos­ing names at­tached to out­stand­ing in­di­vid­u­als who have cast ex­cep­tion­ally long shad­ows over the worlds of mu­sic, art and sport. These are fig­ure­heads with whom all promis­ing new­com­ers will in­evitably be com­pared in some ca­pac­ity as they rise through the ranks of their cho­sen pro­fes­sion.

Now, I reckon that if you do a small amount of men­tal con­tor­tion­ism, you could prob­a­bly add the Audi A3 to that list. You see, in the car world, it’s the model that ar­guably kick-started an en­tire genre: that of the pre­mium fam­ily hatch­back.

Over its first three gen­er­a­tions, the lit­tle A3 went on to do pretty great things for the brand from In­gol­stadt. Not only did it tally up some 600,000 sales in the UK alone but also, over the course of its 24-year ex­is­tence, it es­tab­lished it­self as the bench­mark that all con­tenders needed to reach if they were to be taken at all se­ri­ously.

Solid re­fine­ment and a dy­namic char­ac­ter that was stereo­typ­i­cally Audi in its sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity were cru­cial con­trib­u­tors to the A3’s suc­cess over those years. But ar­guably more than any­thing else, it was the hugely suc­cess­ful way it show­cased how a rel­a­tively small, rea­son­ably af­ford­able fam­ily hatch­back could of­fer the sorts of out­stand­ing lev­els of ma­te­rial and de­sign ap­peal that had pre­vi­ously only ap­peared in cars of a larger foot­print sold at a higher price point.

In­deed, the shadow cast by its suc­cess was a long one. Now, with all of the ap­par­ent slick­ness of a

Usain Bolt ba­ton han­dover, a new, fourth-gen­er­a­tion model has ar­rived to main­tain its pre­de­ces­sor’s place at the top of the ta­ble. At least, that’s the plan. It sits on an up­dated ver­sion of the Volk­swa­gen Group’s ubiq­ui­tous MQB plat­form, sport­ing a hand­some but con­ser­va­tively evolved new look, multi-link rear sus­pen­sion and a heav­ily re­vised in­te­rior.

A mild hy­brid, a cou­ple of plug-in hy­brids and de­cid­edly more rau­cous S3 and RS3 per­for­mance mod­els are due to pitch up at some point in the near fu­ture, but for now, Audi of­fers the A3 with a choice of a 148bhp 2.0-litre four-cylin­der diesel engine or the 148bhp 1.5-litre tur­bocharged four-pot petrol tested here. On the sur­face, at least, it seems the A3 is in a prime po­si­tion to con­tinue the suc­cess of its pre­de­ces­sors.

Only it’s never that sim­ple, is it? Not when the Mercedes-benz A-class is ar­guably at its most ac­com­plished level yet, in its sleek fourth gen­er­a­tion, or when BMW’S new front-driven 1 Se­ries has solved so many of the pack­ag­ing prob­lems that the old rear-driven ar­chi­tec­ture his­tor­i­cally cre­ated yet re­tained a healthy level of dy­namic prow­ess in the process.

With this in mind, we’ve col­lected to­gether a 161bhp A200 AMG Line Pre­mium (£32,905) and a 138bhp 118i M Sport (£27,805) to see just how well they stack up against our 148bhp A3 35 TFSI S Line (£28,205).

Rather un­for­tu­nately for Audi, it doesn’t take very long at all for you to re­alise that, in terms of the in­te­rior

de­sign ap­peal and ap­par­ent build qual­ity for which the A3 has al­ways been so highly re­garded, this new model has dropped the ball a bit.

The view from its ad­mit­tedly com­fort­able and ap­pre­cia­tively ad­justable driv­ing po­si­tion just isn’t as im­pres­sive as it once was. Sure, the Vir­tual Cock­pit and 10.1in touch­screen in­fo­tain­ment sys­tem (stan­dard even on en­try-level A3s) in­ject a healthy dose of tech­ni­cal ap­peal into the cabin, but from a ma­te­ri­als point of view, it seems that a fairly con­spic­u­ous level of cheap­en­ing has oc­curred as well.

Whereas the A3’s dash­board was once an ex­am­ple of clean, ef­fec­tive min­i­mal­ism and so­lid­ity, there are now vast swathes of shiny plas­tics

❝ The A-class is ar­guably at its most ac­com­plished level yet, while many of the 1 Se­ries’ his­tor­i­cal pack­ag­ing prob­lems have been solved

The A3 re­turned 42.5mpg on a con­trolled mixe­droads fuel econ­omy run. On the same route, the A-class scored 40.9mpg and the 1 Se­ries a dis­ap­point­ing 36.1mpg.

that sound hol­low to the touch and, along with some more hard and scratchy plas­tics on the doors, con­trib­ute to an over­all look that comes across as a step back­wards – which is a real shame, even if it might not be a deal­breaker in the mind of Joe Pub­lic.

Nev­er­the­less, of the three cars here, it’s the A3 that feels the most spa­cious, of­fer­ing up more com­fort­able amounts of sec­ond-row head and leg room than ei­ther the BMW or the Mercedes. Speak­ing of which, the 1 Se­ries and the A-class seem to take op­pos­ing ap­proaches to the field of in­te­rior de­sign and, su­per­fi­cially at least, it’s the A-class that packs the big­gest punch in terms of wow fac­tor. Its stepped dash­board, tur­bine-style air vents, choice ma­te­ri­als and crisp twin dig­i­tal dis­plays all in­ject a healthy amount of per­ceived qual­ity into its cabin. But dig a lit­tle deeper and

it too be­gins to slide; a few pokes and prods are all it takes to re­veal the odd creak or groan as sur­faces flex be­neath your fin­gers. And de­spite its com­par­a­tively large foot­print (it’s the long­est car here), its sec­ond row feels no­tably tighter than the other cars’.

Con­versely, the 1 Se­ries looks rel­a­tively plain from be­hind its typ­i­cally thick-rimmed M Sport steer­ing wheel, yet it pro­motes a level of stur­di­ness and tac­tile ap­peal that’s lack­ing in the Audi and the Mercedes. By shift­ing onto Mu­nich’s UKL2 ar­chi­tec­ture, the 1 Se­ries now has far more space to of­fer as well – no bad thing when you re­mem­ber how cramped the old rear-driven mod­els felt. The pay-off is that while the 1 Se­ries comes up a bit short on vis­ual pizazz, it’s also the car that’s the nicest to spend time in.

Round one goes to BMW, then, but an at­trac­tive and prac­ti­cal in­te­rior is only one dis­ci­pline in which a suc­cess­ful pre­mium hatch­back needs to suc­ceed. On-road per­for­mance and re­fine­ment are of even greater im­por­tance, and it’s here where the three cars most no­tice­ably be­gin to dif­fer in ap­proach.

For out­right com­fort and bump iso­la­tion, it’s the A-class that gets the nod. Its com­fort-ori­en­tated sus­pen­sion lends it­self very well in­deed to mo­tor­way driv­ing, but its no­tably pliant, softly sprung set-up does act as a dou­ble-edged sword. On fast B-roads and with height­ened lev­els of ver­ti­cal and lat­eral forces work­ing against it, the car be­gins to feel loose and com­par­a­tively lack­ing in out­right com­po­sure, even if it none­the­less grips well and has a like­ably weighted and ac­cu­rate steer­ing rack.

It’s eas­ily the quick­est of our trio, with strong mid-range ac­cel­er­a­tion, but a com­par­a­tive lack of re­fine­ment un­der load (par­tic­u­larly at higher engine speeds) and an au­to­matic gearbox that can be a bit twitchy and overly will­ing to kick down un­der par­tial throt­tle in­puts are down­ers.

By com­par­i­son, the 1 Se­ries, on its stiff­ened and low­ered M Sport sus­pen­sion, feels far more tied down and con­trolled than the A-class yet doesn’t give up huge ground when it comes to out­right com­fort. Sure, it doesn’t yield quite as read­ily as the A200, and there’s more road roar gen­er­ated by its 225-sec­tion front tyres, but there’s an ap­peal­ing so­phis­ti­ca­tion to the way its springs and dampers iron out com­pres­sions and con­trol weight trans­fer lat­er­ally through quick corners.

The only trou­ble is that while its steer­ing feels ap­peal­ingly sporty in its gearing and it turns in to corners with a height­ened level of ini­tial keen­ness, it suf­fers from a bit of a short­age of front-end bite. That said, slip is man­age­able enough and might have been a prod­uct of the 35deg C heat on the day of our test. I cer­tainly don’t re­mem­ber the 1 Se­ries be­hav­ing like that when we tested it last year.

Even so, it served to sap a de­gree of con­fi­dence and left an im­pres­sion that the BMW isn’t quite the stand­out driver’s choice the pro­pel­ler roundel on its nose sug­gests it should be. Its three-pot mo­tor is also a touch rough at idle and very low crank speeds, although spin it up and it show­cases im­pres­sive re­fine­ment, if not out­stand­ing punch or ex­cep­tion­ally slick gearbox dex­ter­ity. It’s fine in both re­gards but noth­ing more.

And the A3? Well, Audi may have pulled money away from in­te­rior

The A3 and 1 Se­ries both have 380-litre lug­gage com­part­ments when their rear seats are in place. The A-class trails both but with just 10 fewer litres of boot space.

de­vel­op­ment, but it doesn’t seem like it has cut many corners as far as the A3’s on-road man­ners are con­cerned. Tauter than the A-class in its ver­ti­cal and lat­eral body con­trol yet with a level of pli­ancy that makes it com­fort­able enough on poorer sur­faces and around town, the A3 strikes an ap­peal­ing dy­namic mid­dle ground be­tween its two com­pa­tri­ots.

Front grip is strong and it takes a pleas­ingly neu­tral stance through fast corners, serv­ing to bol­ster a level of con­fi­dence that’s al­ready height­ened by its in­tu­itive steer­ing set-up. Add lock and the rack weights up su­perbly, and while its re­sponses aren’t as quick or as ea­ger just off cen­tre as those of the BMW, it’s ac­cu­rate none­the­less.

Add a com­mend­able level of poke, a slick (if slightly re­laxed) man­ual ’box and a level of engine re­fine­ment that stands clear of the oth­ers’ and the A3 paints it­self as an em­i­nently like­able, if slightly bland, pre­mium hatch­back.

De­pend­ing on your pri­or­i­ties, you re­ally could ar­gue why any of these cars should stand atop the podium. But for the way in which it blends prac­ti­cal­ity, dy­namic so­phis­ti­ca­tion and su­pe­rior re­fine­ment, vic­tory has to go to the A3. It’s a nar­row vic­tory, though, and the temp­ta­tion to knock it off its perch be­cause of its down­graded in­te­rior was very real. Had the 1 Se­ries gen­er­ated a bit more grip, it would have snatched the win.

So, the A3 re­mains on top. But the shadow it casts is shorter than ever.

A3 just pulls ahead, thanks to more grip and stronger engine

A-class has never looked so suave

A3 was in­spired by Coun­tach, they say

1 Se­ries is es­pe­cially un­gainly at front

BMW is classy in an un­der­stated way

Mercedes cabin re­ally grabs at­ten­tion

Audi is no longer streets ahead in­side

A3’s driv­ing po­si­tion is spot on and all the tech im­presses

Back of the A-class is no­tably tighter

Switch to FWD has worked won­ders

A3 gives most rear head and leg room

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