Today we’re bringing you a group test, comparing 4 of the most exciting cars in the premium hatchback segment and pitting their pros and cons against one another. All 4 cars have similar starting prices, similar performance and a similar target market. We’re going to explore where each car sets itself apart from the others and where each falls short. Lets get started…
Mercedes A Class - A180d - from £22,140
First up is the Mercedes A Class, the first hatchback Mercedes have ever produced. The A-Class is an extremely stylish hatch from the exterior and this continues to the interior too. It benefits from having the famous styling cues which set the Mercedes brand apart and, arguably, makes the A Class the most aesthetically pleasing car in this list. The A180d is the most popular model in the range, and this features a 1.5 litre diesel engine which is good for a whole 74mpg and is free to tax due to the CO2 emissions which fall at just 89g/km. For a hatchback from a traditionally expensive manufacturer, the A Class is actually a very affordable car to live with.
Where the A Class falls short is the refinement - an area where Mercedes have usually excelled in. The aforementioned diesel engine is uncomfortably loud from within the cabin of the A Class and vibrations are felt, quite notably, through the steering wheel and pedals. Another one of the major pitfalls where the A Class suffers in the ride comfort. The A Class has a low, sporty ride height and the suspension is firm and responsive, but when coupled with a (let’s be honest) slow 1.5 litre diesel engine, it’s all too race-inspired and the firm suspension quickly becomes crashy and irritating. Smashing in and out of potholes on the school run isn’t worth the benefits of having a sporty suspension in a car that isn’t particularly quick and isn’t particularly fun to drive enthusiastically. We’d rather diesel models had a more cushioned setup.
Oh, and the A Class is only available as a 5 door, make of that what you will.
BMW 1 Series - 116d - from £21,865
Next is the BMW 1 Series. We’ve had the 1 series here in the UK for over 12 years now, and the latest version is the best yet. This vehicle benefits from strong performing engines throughout the range, a best-in-class infotainment system and also the best driving dynamics. As with all BMWs that don’t feature the X Drive system, the 1 Series sends its power to the rear wheels to provide more precise handling through the corners and a far more rewarding sensation for the driver than any front wheel drive car can offer. The 116d SE starts at £21,865 in the 3 door model, and this offers 116hp from the 1.5litre 3 cylinder turbo diesel unit, their most efficient diesel ever. While the 114hp may not sound like much, the 270NM of torque makes this car a real hoot to drive, particularly on a twisty road where the turbocharger drags you out of one bend and sucks you into the next. This engine will also return a solid 83.1mpg, the best of this bunch.
The ‘cons’ of the 1 series are few and far between but certainly exist nonetheless. Firstly, while rear wheel drive is preferred for driving enthusiasts, it isn’t completely worthwhile in a 1.5 litre diesel, which isn’t all that quick. The rear wheel drive system can be a bit of a nightmare on the rare occasion it snows in the UK and some drivers will, undoubtedly, be left stranded. This is the reason BMW are apparently going to a front wheel drive car for the 2018 serious, much to the dismay of purists.
Infiniti Q30 - 1.5D - from £21,500
Next up, the Infiniti Q30. If you’re still yet to hear of the Q30 then you need to keep up. All automotive media outlets have been badgering on about this brand new entrant into the premium hatchback market from Nissan’s luxury range, Infiniti. The Q30 is based heavily on the Mercedes A Class, and when we say heavily, we mean it. The two cars share the same chassis, the same 1.5dci engine, the same drivetrain, loads of the same interior bits and bobs and similar on-board technology too. Where Japanese manufacturers have traditionally fallen short is on their interiors, which are usually plastic-dominated and sometimes rickety in build quality. This is far, far from true in the Q30, which is oozing with premium leather and Alcantara. The contrast stitching is a real delight too. The Q30 is built in the state-of-the-art Infiniti plant in Sunderland and although this new model is yet to stand the test of time, we’re confident the interior build quality in the Q30 is on-par with competitors in this prestigious segment. The Q30 offers an incredibly smooth and comfortable drive, thanks to the suspension upgrades (which, thankfully, were not carried over from the A Class) and although they both conceal the same 1.5dCi engine, it is considerably more hushed in the cabin of the Q30 than the A Class.
There are some negatives to the Q30 though. That cushioned ride is brilliant for gliding over potholes and makes motorway cruising an absolute joy, but when you want to press-on the car suffers from a lot of body roll and tends to understeer more than you’d like. This isn’t helped by the fact the Q30 weighs 1,446kg, which is an extra 76kg over the A Class which is just 1,370kg. Remember though, this is the 1.5 diesel model and the purpose isn’t to be driven hard and cornered aggressively. If this is what you want then you’d be better to look elsewhere, but if you fancy something economical, attractive, quirky and with superior ride-comfort, then the Q30 is definitely one to look at, you’d be stupid to ignore it.
Audi A3 - 1.6 TDi - from £20,430
Lastly, the Audi A3. Audi’s family hatch has been around since 1996 now and still sets itself apart as one of the most well-rounded hatchbacks on the market. The A3 does well in all areas, the steering is precise and correct, the interior is (subjectively) the most luxurious on this list, the exterior is conservative but still stunning and the ride is smooth. The Audi still feels like a very well crafted vehicle, once inside the car you can immediately sense that the fit and finish which the Audi brand prides itself upon is still very much present. The 1.6TDI is the most popular and efficient diesel engine, and in the ‘Ultra’ guise it pushes out just 89g/km of CO2, so it is free to tax every year. The six-speed manual gearbox is a good selling point for the A3 too, it is an absolute pleasure to shift and really compliments the engine, and the 6th gear takes you up to a solid 74mpg on motorway journeys.
It’s still not perfect though, the Audi A3. Passengers in the rear will feel a bit cramped as leg room isn’t up to scratch when compared with competitors and, as with a lot 3 door hatchbacks, getting in and out of the back seats is a bit of an exercise. Also, while the ride comfort is exceptional, the handling is somewhat uninvolving and doesn’t really encourage you to push the car. The new A3 has softer suspension than the previous model and this has made the dynamics slightly more numb when taking it through the bends. The A3 does still sit flat in the corners though and doesn’t feel unsafe as such.
So - which is the best? Well it depends what you’re after, so we’ll help you out…
For a luxury interior - The A3 still feels like the most welcoming and prestigious car once you’re inside. Yes, the exterior changes are rather evolutionary, opposed to revolutionary, when compared to the previous model but the interior has come on leaps and bounds. Our favourite interior feature is the glare-free pop-up display which controls the Sat Nav, Infotainment, ride select and a whole load of other features, saving valuable real estate on the centre console and looking rather classy while doing so. The motion of the screen popping up upon ignition and withdrawing back into the dash when you turn the car off is also inredibly satisfying and completely silent. The A3 also has the lowest starting price too, whereas previous models have often been the most expensive compared to the competitors.
For Motorway Miles - The Q30 is the winner here by a margin. The Q30 has a higher ride height, the comfiest suspension and the most refined engine from within the cabin. If you spend a lot of time chewing up miles on our motorways, this should definitely be one to consider. It’s probably the best of all 4 if you just want to drive sensibly, you’ll also benefit from exclusivity with the Q30. This car only came out late last year and there aren’t many on the roads whereas the competitors have become extremely common, deservedly so - they’re very good cars, but common nonetheless.
For driving experience - The BMW 1 Series is the winner here. There’s just no getting round it. The rear wheel drive set-up is derived with racing pedigree and the old BMW slogan ‘the ultimate driving machine’ still rings true. With speed limits and enforcement in the UK, the fun is in the bends and the 1 Series was born and bred in the bends. The infotainment system is simple, intuitive and doesn’t distract from the road ahead, the steering feedback is encouraging and we think it will be a real shame when the next 1 series is released with front wheel drive, but apparently 80% of current owners didn’t even know their car sent power to the rear tyres, so most consumers probably won’t know the difference.
The A Class does seem to fall slightly short of the competitors in the premium hatchback segment, but this doesn’t mean it is a particularly bad car, far from it, but there’s certainly room for improvement to keep up with this fiercely competitive market. We feel the A Class suffers from an identity crisis, a hatchback with an economical 1.5 dCi engine doesn’t need to be fitted with such stiff suspension, which could seem almost torturous when smashing in and out of potholes on a rainy monday morning commute. It’s very pretty though and certainly has an aesthetic wow-factor. Although it’s entirely subjective, this is probably the best looking in the class - that bit’s up to you.