New Mercedes-Benz A-Class vs Audi A3 Sportback vs BMW 1 Series
Mercedes’ new A-Class promises to dazzle you with luxury as it renews its battle with the Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series at the top end of the family car class...
Behind the wheel
Driving position, visibility, build quality
It’s fairly easy to find a sound baseline driving position in all three, but there are some key differences. Both the A-Class and 1 Series seat you lower to the ground with your legs outstretched; this is perfectly comfortable, even though their pedals are offset slightly to the right. You sit more upright in the A3, but the alignment of its steering wheel, driver’s seat and pedals is spot on.
Each has plenty of height and reach adjustment for the steering wheel and a height-adjustable driver’s seat, but you also get useful extras such as seat squabs that you can angle up and extend – ideal for those with long legs.
None has adjustable lumbar support, and because lower back support is lacking in the A3 and 1 Series, we’d fork out the £195 and £250 required respectively to add it. Adjustable lumbar support for the A-Class is part of an expensive £3595 package, but its standard sports seats are so darned good that not one of our testers bemoaned its omission.
Mercedes talks of vastly improved visibility over the previous A-Class, but seeing out of that was like looking at the world through a peephole. It’s much better in the new model, but the fat rear pillars in both it and the 1 Series still limit what you can see over your shoulder. Thankfully, to make parking less dicey, the A-Class includes a rear-view camera. The A3 is the easiest to see out of, because its big rear quarter windows open up your view a treat, plus you get rear parking sensors thrown in. On the 1 Series, both a camera (£330) and rear parking sensors (£400) cost extra.
Any buttons that might need tweaking regularly, such as those for the climate controls, are placed handily near the driver, and the analogue instrument dials in the 1 Series and A3 read as clearly as Huw Edwards at 10 o’clock.
If you add the £1395 Technology Package to the A3, this swaps in a Virtual Cockpit – configurable digital dials on a 12.3in screen behind the steering wheel that can also show full-scale navigation maps and phone or media information. It works well, but the A-Class gets digital dials as standard and its crisp, glass-fronted screen is of even higher definition, albeit smaller at 7.0in. If size matters to you, the £2395 Premium Line Pack swells this to 10.25in.
With the digital instrument display abutting a 7.0in equivalent for the infotainment system (also enlarged to 10.25in with a cheaper, £1395 pack) to create one extra-large, wide-screen panel, there’s no doubt the A-Class looks the most arresting inside. A mixture of gloss black, brushed metal and turbine air vents, which glow like afterburners at night, further help to make the A-Class feel special.
The interior may look suitably posh, but start interacting with it and you’ll quickly realise that build quality isn’t so remarkable. The door pulls flex noticeably when you tug on them, for example, and some of the buttons and switches feel a tad flimsier than you might expect.
That isn’t an accusation you can throw at the A3. Its clinical design may not be quite as alluring as the A-Class’s, but better material and construction integrity you will not find outside of NASA. If you’re a fan of substance over style, the A3’s immovable yet plush-feeling surfaces and precise switches will get you giddy for sure.
In this company, the poor old 1 Series is reminiscent of Wilbur, the piglet from Charlotte’s Webb. It’s neither exciting to behold nor particularly solid to hold. Don’t get us wrong: if you were to step into it from, say, a Ford Focus, it’s plush enough to pass muster. But the other two are simply streets ahead.