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Used test: Audi A3 vs BMW 1 Series vs Mercedes A-Class
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?...
Audi A3 Sportback 1.6 TDI 115 S line
List price when new £27,385
Price today £16,500*
Available from 2012-2020
The refined and well-rounded A3 Sportback puts the premium in premium family car.
BMW 1 Series 116d M Sport 5dr
List price when new £26,670
Price today £15,500*
Available from 2012-2019
As the final rear-wheel-drive 1 Series, it's somewhat of a novelty in this class.
Mercedes A-Class A180d AMG Line auto
List price when new £28,540
Price today £19,000*
Available from 2018-present
The suave A-Class is a comfortable and tech-centric alternative to its rivals.
*Price today is based on a 2018 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing
If a regular family car is a film in standard 2D, then a premium family car is IMAX. Both hit many of the same beats, but the latter tends to enhance, polish and refine the experience, albeit for a higher price.
Buying your premium family car used can be the answer to this problem. For example, you can save more than £10,000 on the Audi A3 – a former What Car? Car of the Year, no less – by going for a 2018 model. We adore its beautifully finished interior, strong engine range and excellent dynamics.
Mind you, for a little less money, you could have a BMW 1 Series. It's the enthusiast's choice, because it has sporty, rear-wheel-drive handling. Plus, it has the best infotainment system in the business.
But are both the A3 and 1 Series too dated now, what with being previous-generation cars? If so, then the a used example of the latest Mercedes A-Class might be the one to choose. Its interior is suitably classy, modern and ripe with tech, and the A-Class is another model that's good to drive.
So, all three are impressive, but which should you take home? Read on to find out.
Performance, ride, handling, refinement
Our trio all have smallish diesel engines under their bonnets, so it’s fair to say that none of them compels you to don a g-suit before setting off. But thanks to a good old slug of turbo shove from low revs, they’re all gutsy enough for urban use and on motorway schleps.
There isn’t a great deal in it for outright performance, and all three cover the 0-60mph sprint in a shade over 10 seconds. However, the 1 Series feels by far the slowest because its 1.5-litre engine is the least willing to rev. With its best work done by 4000rpm, winding the motor up to its 5600rpm redline feels gruelling.
The A-Class’s 1.5-litre engine is much peppier. Perhaps that’s partly down to its extra (seventh) gear, but from a 30mph rolling start up to the motorway limit, it pips even the A3. We say ‘even the A3’ because in all other respects, the A3’s 1.6-litre engine is slightly gutsier.
The A-Class’s automatic ’box chooses its gears wisely and promptly most of the time, but not always. Occasionally it fumbles before kicking down or refuses to change up. The changes are mostly smooth, though.
The A3’s manual gearbox is slick and its light clutch pedal, with an easily determinable biting point, makes it a doddle to drive smoothly. Meanwhile, the 1 Series’ springy gearlever and woolly clutch action make it neither pleasurable nor particularly easy to drive in stop-start traffic.
Nor is it pleasurable to listen to the 1 Series’ rowdy three-cylinder engine rumbling away at idle. It buzzes in the background like an irate wasp trapped in a bin and transmits the most vibrations through its controls.
That said, its rivals’ four-cylinder motors aren’t particularly quiet either, and both grumble at idle too. Still, from low to mid revs, the A-Class’s engine takes on only the lightest tinkle, even if it does still become a bit coarse when you work it hard. The A3’s motor is marginally smoother as a rule, but develops a deeper bellow when you accelerate hard.
If you spend a lot of time on motorways, the A3 and A-Class offer the most peace and quiet. There’s fractionally less road noise in the A3, but the A-Class is better for wind noise because of its superb aerodynamics. The 1 Series is the loudest at higher speeds, with a combination of whistling wind and roar from its tyres.
None of these cars rides as comfortably as the Volkswagen Golf (2013-2020) – but which of the three rivals is next best? Well, it’s a toss-up between the A-Class and A3. Both are very good, but the A-Class’s softer springs have more give over hefty urban bumps than the slightly firmer A3. The A3 is marginally more settled on rippled sections of motorway. That’s assuming you’ve bought a car fitted with the softer Dynamic suspension (a no-cost option from new) in place of the A3’s firmer standard Sport set-up, though.
The 1 Series is the least cosseting. Its standard M Sport suspension is the lumpiest around town, the bounciest over larger crests and the most jittery on poorly surfaced motorways. As with the A3, you could have opted for softer suspension for no extra charge, but this doesn’t improve matters noticeably.
Despite sending power to its rear wheels like many sports cars the 1 Series simply isn’t as crisp to drive as its rivals. Take its steering: it’s so inconsistently weighted that you find yourself taking two or three stabs at the wheel through a bend that, in the sweeter-steering A3, you can swoop through with one fluid motion. The A-Class’s steering isn’t far off the A3's level, but isn’t quite as linear and predictable.
All these cars lean a bit in corners, but the 1 Series needs the most time to settle down again, creating a sense of unease if you try to hustle it through a series of left-right switchbacks. That’s precisely where the A-Class is at its finest, and its progressive body control gives it a stability that imparts confidence. In the end, though, it runs out of front grip sooner than the A3, which is the most balanced and enjoyable, although the margins are small.
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