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Used test: BMW 1 Series vs Mercedes A-Class

Buy either of these desirable family cars at a year old instead of new and you'll save more than £10,000, but which is the better option?...

New BMW 1 Series vs Mercedes A-Class

The contenders

BMW 1 Series 118d M Sport auto

List price when new £31,040
Price today £18,000*
Available from 2019-present

This third-generation 1 Series is more spacious than ever, and it's a really strong used buy


Mercedes A-Class A200d AMG Line

List price when new £30,385
Price today £19,500*
Available from 2018-present

The latest A-Class is a top all-rounder, but can it hold off the cheaper 1 Series in this test? 

*Price today is based on a 2019 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing


To everything there is a season. A few years back it would have been unthinkable that a mainstream BMW would send its power solely to the front wheels rather than the rear, but just as a small drip erodes rock so does increasing competition change the plans of even the most well-intentioned manufacturer.

This third-generation BMW 1 Series is front-wheel drive where the previous versions were rear-wheel drive, a layout popular with enthusiastic drivers. But a front-wheel-drive platform can endow a car of this size with more interior space, and with the competition now boasting more of that precious passenger room it was only a matter of time before BMW followed suit. It helped too that BMW had a front-wheel-drive platform readily available from its Mini range, and it's that that underpins this latest 1 Series. 

New BMW 1 Series vs Mercedes A-Class

So far, the switch seems to have paid off, because the 1 Series has been a sales success. Buy one at a year old, as we're testing it here, and you can even save yourself enough to buy a pretty decent second car.

It doesn't have things all its own way in this class, though. The Mercedes A-Class has likewise been a huge success since this version was launched in 2018. Here, we're pitching a year-old 2.0-litre diesel example in a high-spec trim against a similarly priced and equipped 1 Series. Which one makes the most sense? Read on to find out...


Driving

Performance, ride, handling, refinement

Both cars are usefully brisk away from the lights and have plenty of verve in reserve for motorways as well. The A200d is a bit faster and builds speed more easily; the 118d has near-identical power, but the A200d's is more evenly spread across its rev range making it more usable. The 118d's is concentrated more at the top and bottom.

BMW 1 Series driving

It’s swings and roundabouts, though. Both automatic gearboxes change quickly, but the 118d’s is better harmonised with its engine; it has a knack of being in the most appropriate gear most of the time. The A200d’s fumbles occasionally to grab the ideal gear, plus it’s jerkier when pulling away. 

The 118d’s engine emits a deeper yet more distant rumble that’s fractionally less intrusive than the A200d’s higher-pitched clatter. The contrast is sharper in slow traffic. At idle, there’s more noise and vibration inside the A200d, and its engine stop-start system operates with a shudder, whereas the 118d’s is comparatively seamless.

You’d need keen hearing to notice either engine at 70mph, but the 118d just pips the A200d for peacefulness in other ways. Both cars produce more road roar and wind noise than the Volkswagen Golf, but the bluster in the 118d is focused mostly around the door mirrors, while in the A200d it comes from the mirrors as well as the rear side windows.

Mercedes A-Class driving

On top of that, the A200d emits louder twangs from its suspension over bumps in the road, although it does actually have a softer ride. You get the most benefit from that on gently undulating motorways or A-roads, where it’s appreciably calmer than the tautly sprung 118d M Sport. The flipside is that the A200d isn’t as well tied down, so you notice your backside bouncing off the seat more often when the road is really bucking. 

Oddly, the A200d isn’t a whole lot smoother than the 118d across broken town asphalt; it deals with initial impacts better but needs more time to compose itself after the disruptive calluses have gone. 

Most will find the softer A200d comfier overall, but there’s no doubting that the 118d does more to tickle the fancy of enthusiastic drivers. Its steering is quicker than that of the A200d, so it’s far more eager to scamper towards apexes, and, with much less lean and a more playful balance, it changes direction with greater alacrity while feeling more fun. Don’t write off the A200d, though, because it grips just as hard, is perfectly capable and is more relaxing to drive, thanks in part to its slower steering.