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Used test: Audi A3 vs BMW 1 Series

These two premium family cars are fantastic used buys, but is it the Audi A3 or BMW 1 Series that impresses most?...

Audi A3 driving in front of BMW 1 Series

The contenders

Audi A3 1.4 TFSI 125 Sport Nav

List price when new £22,185
Price today £11,000*
Available from 2013-2020

A long-standing favourite of ours, the A3 offers incredible refinement for the money

BMW 1 Series 118i Sport 5dr

List price when new £22,460
Price today £11,000*
Available from 2011-2019

With more power than its rival, plus rear-wheel drive, the 1 Series looks like a true driver's car

*Price today is based on a 2016 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing

You don't have to be a super genius to understand why the Audi A3 and BMW 1 Series are so popular on the used market. These used family cars and their premium badges are available for less money than the cheapest new car in Britain – who wouldn't be intrigued by that?

Of course, you'll have to settle for a car with a few years on it, but don't let that put you off. Time has been kind to these cars and they objectively hold up very well. They're so good, in fact, that there's talk around whether these cars, which are previous-gen A3 and 1 Series, are actually superior to their respective successors. 

Used Audi A3 front cornering

However, that's a debate for another day. Here, we're going to dive into what makes these premium hatchbacks tick and find out which one is best. 


Performance, ride, handling, refinement

BMW’s 1.5-litre three-cylinder petrol engine has more power and torque than the 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol unit in the A3, but the 1 Series was actually slower during our testing. That’s because, although both have six-speed manual gearboxes – you can get autos versions of either car – the 1 Series has longer gearing. This blunts acceleration, particularly at slower speeds. A sluggish throttle response doesn’t help, either.

Used BMW 1 Series front cornering

The 1 Series isn't a horse and cart – after all, 0-62mph in 9.3sec is respectful – but the A3 just feels more energetic in every situation, plus its power delivery is smoother. 

The A3 has the more positive controls, too, especially its slick gearchange and easy-to-modulate brakes. The 1 Series has a slightly stiff gearchange but otherwise impresses. 

Used Audi A3 rear cornering

Sport trim A3s ride on sports suspension and our test car also had optional-from-new (18in) alloys. This combination delivers a firm low-speed ride, but things never become crashy. Even so, we’d recommend you go for SE trim and its softer suspension – seek out 17in wheels if you can, too.

The 1 Series feels softer to begin with, but when you hit a harsh bump it thuds through the cabin more abruptly. The 1 Series also fidgets more over rippled roads.

Used BMW 1 Series rear cornering

Often, BMW models possess class-leading driving experiences, but the 1 Series we have here isn't the sharpest tool in the shed. On paper, it should handle very well, thanks in part to its sports-car-like setup – the 1 Series is rear-wheel drive, while the A3 is front-wheel drive – and BMW's great reputation. In reality, it feels balanced, but it also has plenty of body lean and little feel through the steering. 

By contrast, the A3’s steering is precise, direct and delivers more feedback – the A3 is easily more agile than the 1 Series. It’s fun on twisty B-roads thanks to its quick responses and predictable, composed handling.

Next: What are they like inside? >>

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