Audi A3 Sportback 1.6 TDI Ultra, BMW 116d, VW Golf 1.6 TDI, Front view 33 Photos Zoom

BMW 116d, Audi A3 1.6 TDI Ultra, VW Golf 1.6 TDI: Can the 1 Series with three cylinders claim victory?

For the first time ever, BMW brings a 1 Series with a three-cylinder diesel to the starting grid. A three-cylinder in the Premium league – can this work? The 116d hopes to prove itself when pitted against the efficient Ultra version of the four-cylinder Audi A3 Sportback 1.6 TDI and VW Golf 1.6 TDI. An exciting battle between the best compact four-door cars.

This can often be tricky if relying on intrinsic values. If the visual appearance doesn't impress, then cars are frequently overlooked. This was frequently the case for the BMW 1 Series. With all of the disaffection towards its less than masculine front, many people forgot that its real attraction lay to the back: rear-wheel drive – unique within the compact class. Following the most recent facelift, critics should be silenced: the 1 Series now looks more serious, more important and, most of all, more BMW-like. And the intrinsic values? It will have to demonstrate these when pitted against the Audi A3 and the VW Golf.

The BMW 116d with an impressive 1.5-litre three-cylinder diesel

From the extensive BMW range, we pick the engine version that we find the most interesting: the 116d with its new 1.5-litre diesel. With this engine BMW have installed a three-cylinder in the 1 Series for the first time– almost as a vanguard, as the budget engine is also planned for the 3 Series and could possibly even make it into even larger models. A jumpy three-cylinder in a BMW?

Before we lament the downfall of Bavarian engine culture, we want to inspect the heart that lies behind the kidney grille. So we press the start button and… even with a cold start there is nothing jumpy here. When cautiously applying the first touch of acceleration on the test stand the 1.5-litre engine is immediately recognisable as a diesel with three-cylinders, but there is no trace of moody engine knocking. We engage the D for Drive– BMW supplied the test car with the optional eight-speed converter transmission from ZF, with its long gear ratios – ad off we go.

The amazement continues. Ony when accelerating away at the lights do you become aware of the three-cylinder, and then the engine sound slowly fades out. The BMW 116d roars through the countryside, with tread and wind noise having long determined the acoustics. And if you listen to it briefly between short bursts of speed, then the three-cylinder engine sounds astonishingly petrol-like.

Incidentally, you shouldn't let yourself be deceived by the even power distribution: where the four-cylinder TDI in the A3 and Golf initially have to be asked before they then swing the turbo hammer, the Bavarian 1.5-litre pulls cleanly from the low revs, and pushes right to the limit. This seems unspectacular, but in spite of having the highest unladen weight it delivers the best nought to one hundred acceleration value. Still have some objections to a three-cylinder as a matter of principle?

The Audi A3 Sportback 1.6 TDI Ultra - agile but less comfortable

And so we come to another unique selling point of the BMW: rear-wheel drive. No drive influences in the steering, a willingly steering rear, optimal weight distribution- yes, we are aware of this. The test car now features Bridgestone Turanza tyres; these tyres, which are designed for touring rather than grip, rob the BMW of a little steering precision. Within the limit range the BMW 116d is well-mannered in holding its rear back, instead exhibiting noticeable understeer.

The car still has best-in-class feedback, just the drive dynamics values are somewhat disenchanting. Here the relatively light-weight Audi A3 Sportback 1.6 TDI Ultra, with its firm suspension shines, doesn't allow itself to be broken in by the Michelin Energy Savers and weaves its way in and out between competitors. The agility does seem a little synthetic, but in no way does the Ultra seem like a fuel-saving model.

And the Golf ? The wide 17-inch rims (optional) complete with Dunlop Sport Maxx tyres help it to achieve astonishing grip. And there's more: the VW Golf 1.6 TDI offers the best feel-good factor, winding its way neutrally through the corners, in exemplary fashion. Due to the relatively high seating position, it doesn't feel that sporty – however, you move quickly with very little effort at the wheel.

In the handling section there is therefore little between the three cars. And with regard to safety? It's not just with regard to the infotainment that BMW have piled up the fire, but also the assistance systems. There is now radar-based cruise control including a stop-and-go function, an assistant that automatically takes control of perpendicular parking, and a sim card that is integrated into the vehicle for real-time traffic reports and map updates. However, the side airbags to the rear and a lane change assistant as found in the competitors are still lacking.

The VW Golf 1.6 TDI is the best allrounder

The Audi A3 Sportback 1.6 TDI Ultra slips up in other areas, coming to a standstill from a speed of 130 with warmed up brakes around three metres later than its two competitors – one disadvantage of the tyres, which have been designed for optimised roll resistance. Also, in the comfort section there is little going in favour of the A3. The front seats lack lateral support and the lowered chassis lacks suspension comfort. Regarding the chassis, the 1 Series has made up serious ground – the adaptive shock absorbers offer further bracing and respond better in the Comfort stage.

However, no other has suspension as slick as that in the Golf – as if the absorption of bumps isn't even worth talking about. The optional seats provide an enormous level of back support, allowing the mind to focus on the driving – safe in the knowledge that, if desired, your will be warned of lateral obstacles by the assistance systems.

Like no other within the compact class, the Golf represents an all-round care-free package. With simple, but all the more essential features, it makes everyday driving a pleasant experience. You can climb in easily to both the front and back, the interior offers plenty of space as well as practical storage compartments and the broad and tall loading hatch also allows the loading of bulky objects. In addition to this, the infotainment system can be easily operated via the large touchscreen. Thus, the Golf claims most of the points in the bodywork assessment – and claims victory in the features assessment using tried and tested tactics: simply no weaknesses are tolerated.

The BMW doesn't manage to keep up in terms of space quite as well as the Audi. Here everything is focussed on the driver. Climbing in to the back seat? No problem – provided you retract your head and legs. Loading? It's fine. Just as long as the goods to be transported aren't too bulky. And not too heavy seeing as you have to heave them over the high loading edge.

Minor weaknesses in the quality of the BMW

The fact that the 1 Series interior has been decorated with chrome since the facelift is nothing more than nice cosmetics. Nothing has improved with regard to the simple-looking plastic on the dashboard and door panels - previously the main point of criticism. Thus, as was previously the case, the BMW lags behind the Audi and VW with regard to the quality. However, both receive a points deduction: the Golf because there is a chirping sound from the area around the door panel when driving our test car on poor road surfaces; the A3 because the back of the car sometimes emits rattling noises.

In spite of the slight weaknesses in the finish, the VW is so far out in front that it is almost uncatchable. The BMW 116d still comes in second place, having made clear progress. However, the standings could still change due to the cost and the consumption assessments.

Audi A3 Sportback 1.6 TDI Ultra with the advantage when it comes to consumption

Audi sends the A3 out to race in the particularly efficient Ultra version, which quickly pays off: the A3 Sportback 1.6 TDI Ultra posts a test average consumption of 5.7 litres of diesel per 100 kilometres. The Golf and 1 Series on the other hand consume more than half a litre more. Why is the 116d less efficient, in spite of its effeicitn three-cylinder engine? For one, because the compact is so heavy. And secondly because the actual fuel-efficient model, the Efficient Dynamics, will only be available from the middle of the year, according to information from BMW.

The fact that the 116d steps up in the Sport Line version also puts it at a disadvantage in the cost section. Granted, since the model upgrade the standard 1 Series is better equipped, now with automatic climate control and a rain sensor. In the Sport Line version it also features sports seats, but is by far the most expensive in the comparison.

This costs it points, and the Audi once again makes up considerable ground, but in the end fails to overtake the BMW. The BMW is saved by its advantage in the area of comfort. And the Golf ? It wins once again – however, the points difference used to be was much clearer. The competition has made up ground.



Hans-Dieter Seufert


31 August 2015
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