Audi A3 Sportback 1.4 TFSI, BMW 116i, Mercedes A 180, Front view 26 Photos Zoom

Audi A3 Sportback, BMW 116i and Mercedes A 180: Premium compacts within the 130 HP category

With the A3 Sportback, 1 Series and A-Class, Audi, BMW and Mercedes are contesting for customers for whom the Golf and the like are too ordinary. Wherein lies the appeal of these petrol cars that come in around the 25,000 Euro mark?

The earlier you grab customers, the longer the cash register will be ringing – until the very last car is sold. Affordable cars are therefore important, even for the German premium brands that each have a different purpose in life. Audi went from small to large when Ferdinand Piëch made the transition to a premium brand. In contrast, BMW started off in the 1950s with a huge gap between the Isetta, 700 Series and Baroque Angel. Mercedes? They were always high-end and first demonstrated something akin to proximity to the people with the Baby-Benz W201, the 190 from 1982.

The Audi A3 Sportback offers plenty of space

Today the three manufacturers are beginning to produce miniatures à la A1, Mini and Smart and are also active within Golf territory. In this respect they are meeting customers' demand for something a little more refined, with the Audi A3 Sportback, the BMW 1 Series and the Mercedes A Class.

With entry level prices below 25,000 Euros for the four-door models, this is affordable fun. And with turbo-charged petrol engines that really aren't that anorexic, it is also guaranteed that the premium idea won't be taken ad absurdum from the very first press down on the accelerator. Let's take a look at what the three compacts have to offer.

Audi doesn't seem to want to offer a full-on utility estate on a par with the Golf. Thus the four-door model is called the A3 Sportback, has a three-and-a-half centimetre longer wheelbase than the two-door version and is a good seven centimetres longer. This doesn't seem much, but it does give the Audi A3 Sportback a noticeably airy interior with room for four adults. It looks stocky on the road, does without over-the-top design gimmicks and seems of high quality, rock solid and yet not too serious.

The Audi A3 Sportback produces 123 HP

The engineers in Ingolstadt have made the Audi A3 Sportback fit for this new era, offering all sorts of driver assistance systems and multimedia hubbub – right through to a WLAN hotspot. With regard lights, the customer even has the choice between the standard halogen headlights, xenon headlights (920 Euros) and the particularly bright LED technology (1,690 Euros). Vorsprung durch Technik: Audi also lives by this slogan in the A3, but in focussing on these very distinct secondary virtues has not forgotten the most important thing: in spite of clear top-heaviness, the chassis is finely balanced, meaning that the Audi A3 Sportback follows steering commands willingly and without a sense of sluggishness. At full throttle in the lower gears, the standard steering wheel pulls a little in corners, but otherwise the influence of the front-wheel drive is not noticeable.

The engine with the smallest capacity in this competition gets a remarkable performance out of its 123 HP and 200 Newton metres, as it hustles powerfully, almost from idling speed, and hangs attentively on the throttle. Beyond 4,500 rpm it starts to pound slightly.

BMW with weaker brakes

The fact that the drive performance in the Audi A3 Sportback is not the best is only a problem on paper, as you ffeel like you have plenty of engine power in all situations. In general, the entire car seems of a high all-round quality: comfortable seats, carefully thought out controls and harmonious suspension comfort are of daily benefit - the very good brakes in case of emergency.

When it comes to the latter, the 116i is somewhat lacking. The very car, that with its driven rear wheels, also provides a piece of BMW folklore in this category, before its successor indulges in the mainstream. The BMW's brakes are not lacking control, but rather assertiveness. Decelerating from 100 km/h, with its optional 205s meaning that it has narrower tyres than the competition, it comesto a stop a good 1.5 metres after the Audi A3 Sportback. From a speed of 160 it requires an additional vehicle length more.

Precise handling in the 1 Series

This contradicts the image of the sporty car just as much as the rough sounding and vibrating engine contradicts the very name of the brand. This consistently performing turbo is not really genuinely stimulating, which given the chassis, enhanced with Servotronic steering (100 Euros), is a bit of a shame. For once again in the form of the 116i, the 1 Series is agile, has precise steering and is great on corners, without any messing about. The fact that it is not the most spacious has not gotten around. The best seats are without doubt those in the front, especially when the optional sports seats are installed there. The narrow back seat isn't so pleasant for large passengers on longer journeys.

Even without adaptive dampers, the suspension in the 1 Series is now comfortable. The test car taught us this much, getting its driver joyfully through the day. However, it cannot be claimed that it conveys more active driving pleasure than the Audi A3 Sportback, at one time the main strength of BMW.

Coupé feeling in the Mercedes

Those thinking back to earlier A-Classes will miss one thing more than any other in the new model: space. The deceptively spacious wonder from back in the day is followed by a low-lying, boldly designed compact with sharp lines, curves and taut surfaces, whereby the thirst for a conquest seems to leak from every joint. No longer suspected of being an old person's car! The A 180 drives with a similar style. Sitting deep, below the high window line, the driver gets a Coupé feeling;the A 180 allowing knocks from the firm suspension as the springs compress and briskly follows the commands from its accurate steering.

The nicely finished, bulky dashboard enhances the impression of being integrated into the car, but does detract from the sense of space. There is still plenty of space up front, on the short Style trim sports seats, which lack lateral support. However, in the back, which has to be accessed via narrow doors, the flat side panels and small rear windscreen result in a dark atmosphere, which robs the objectively not too bad amount of space of its effect.

Audi A3 Sportback and A 180 with blind spot assistants

Once the engine has overcome its weaknesses upon start-up, it delivers better drive performance than the feeling would suggest. The A 180 even has its nose in front when it comes to test consumption. It also has the edge in terms of price, even if the difference would by no means be decisive when making a purchase decision. The fact that both the Mercedes and the Audi A3 Sportback both offer a blind spot assistant and adaptive cruise control – unlike the BMW – is commendable. At Daimler they do not miss a trick. The only thing you cannot get in the A 180 is an automatic transmission. A sign of excessive immaturity? No - business sense. In the case of the A 200 it actually does make business sense.



Hans-Dieter Seufert


28 April 2015
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