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Used test: Audi A3 vs BMW 1 Series vs Mercedes A-Class interiors
Buy any of these premium hatchbacks at four years old and you'll be able to get them for a bargain price. But which is best?...
Driving position, visibility, build quality, practicality
It’s fairly easy to find a sound baseline driving position in all three of these cars, but there are some key differences. The Mercedes A-Class and BMW 1 Series both seat you lower to the ground with your legs outstretched, which is perfectly comfortable, even though their pedals are offset slightly to the right. You sit more upright in the Audi A3 but the alignment of its steering wheel, driver’s seat and pedals is spot on.
Each car has plenty of height and reach adjustment for the steering wheel and a height-adjustable driver’s seat. You also get useful extras such as seat squabs that you can angle up and extend – ideal if you have long legs.
None of our rivals came with adjustable lumbar support as standard, although it was a fairly cheap option on the A3 and 1 Series when they were new. Adjustable lumbar support for the A-Class was part of an expensive (£3595) package, but its standard sports seats are so good that we wouldn’t go out of our way to find a used car with it fitted.
The fat rear pillars in the A-Class and the 1 Series 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 from new.
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 clearly.
As far as infotainment goes, the A3’s MMI system is intuitive and responsive, and is operated using a rotary dial controller by the gearlever and the 7.0in screen. Smart graphics and easy-to-navigate menus have always been hallmarks of BMW’s wonderful iDrive system, and the rotary controller is easy to use while driving.
In the A-Class, the system is operated with the 7.0in standard touchscreen (upgradable to the 10.25in from new as part of a £1395 pack) or by using touch-sensitive pads on the steering wheel and by the armrest. They're not too distracting to use while driving, but the rotary controllers in the other two cars are simpler.
If you find an A3 that had the £1395 Technology Package added when it was new, it will have 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 an even higher definition, although it's smaller at 7.0in. If size matters to you, you could look for one of the few A-Classes equipped with the optional-from-new, £2395 Premium Line Pack that swells this to 10.25in.
With the digital instrument display abutting a 7.0in or 10.25in equivalent for the infotainment system to create one 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 when you start to interact with it, you’ll quickly realise that the 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 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 you won't find better material and construction integrity outside 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.
Space abounds up front in all three of these cars. The 1 Series and A-Class are matched to the millimetre for leg room, although you won’t feel cheated in the A3 either, and all offer similar, respectable amounts of head room. The wider A-Class has the most room for your elbows, but not by much, and all three provide enough cubbyholes for odds and ends.
Our regimented method of measuring cars for the purposes of consistency suggests that the 1 Series has the most rear leg room. However, anyone sitting in the front of that car will want to slide their seat back further than in the A-Class and A3 to comfortably operate the clutch and accelerator pedals. The result? The 1 Series is actually the tightest for rear knee room and, by a fraction, head room too.
The A3 and A-Class seat six-footers in the rear with relative ease, but again, the tape measure seeks to deceive. Like the 1 Series, the A3 relies on restrictive slots in the front seatbacks to eke out a slight leg room advantage, whereas the A-Class has a more open space for your knees, so it’s more comfortable in practice.
Rear head room is marginally better in the A-Class as well, so it’s the most agreeable for two people. The A3 edges it if you add a third person back there, though, because its flatter-sided seat cushions give it a bit more shoulder room. The 1 Series is the most cramped for three in the rear.
The A3 is the only one with a height-adjustable boot floor, although you lose that if the car has the optional four-wheel drive or an upgraded B&O stereo. In its highest setting, it creates a separate underfloor compartment. In its lowest setting, the A3 has the tallest boot of the three. As a result, it holds six carry-on suitcases fairly easily. The A-Class can swallow six cases too (but at a push), while the 1 Series can manage no more than five.
All three come with 60/40 split-folding rear seats, which drop to leave a largely flat floor.
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