Join Date: Jul 2003
Location: SF Bay Area
2011 328i 6MT
Edmunds: BMW 130i vs. Merc. A-class vs. Audi A3
Over the past decade, Europe has gone premium. Just as more and more people are turning to high fashion for their sartorial desires, so hatchback buyers are looking for upmarket brands to fulfill their motoring needs. In the old days, the VW Golf used to be the posh, anti-Ford alternative, but even that has become ubiquitous. In an image-obsessed market, today's buyers are looking to Audi, BMW and Mercedes.
The German Big Three have risen to the challenge. All three manufacturers have developed entry-level hatchbacks targeted at Europe's affluent youth. The 2006 Audi A3, 2006 BMW 1 Series and 2006 Mercedes A-Class are all priced to attract the aspiring Golf graduate, but while they perform a similar role, they're dramatically different cars.
One goal, three concepts
The Mercedes is the most radical. Eight years ago, when the original A-Class was launched, it threatened to revolutionize the midsize hatchback segment. Its innovative sandwich platform was monstrously clever. Here was a 142-inch-long car that had as much room inside as a C-Class, which is a full 3 feet longer, and because the engine slid underneath the seats in an accident, it offered excellent crash protection.
But the A-Class was flawed. When faced with the Swedish Elk test — essentially a high-speed lane change — the A-Class rolled, prompting a huge and costly redesign. The ride and handling never recovered, while the interior trim wasn't worthy of a Hyundai. It still had a three-pointed star badge, which helped it sell, but it never felt like a proper Benz.
The sandwich platform is retained for the latest version and while the A-Class has grown slightly to 151.1 inches in length, it's still 14.4 inches shorter than the fourth-generation Golf. Mercedes claims to have responded to criticism and fixed the old car's foibles. There's a bold new look inside and out, and Mercedes' engineers are confident they've improved the dynamics. For the first time there is also a three-door model (shown here), to accompany the five-door.
Driving pleasure is part of BMW's brand signature and the 1 Series has the familiar DNA. It's the only car in this class that's rear-wheel drive, and to ensure a perfect 50-to-50 weight distribution the engine is mounted well back in the chassis. It's almost front-midengined. At 166.4 inches long, it's bigger than an A-Class but significantly shorter than the 178-inch 3 Series.
The 1 Series is marginally longer than the 165-inch Audi A3. U.S. enthusiasts are offered the five-door Sportback but Europe also gets the three-door version tested here. The Audi shares its platform with the latest VW Golf and is the most conventional of our triplets.
The A-Class couldn't be confused for anything else. The simple, one-box shape of the first model has been retained for the newcomer but with added sophistication. Some of the detailing around the headlights is especially stylish and in three-door form, it's positively rakish. Whereas the original looked like an escapee from Toy Town, the new car looks like a proper grown-up alternative.
The 1 Series continues to polarize opinion. It's instantly recognizable as a member of the contemporary BMW family — the trademark grille and "flame surfacing" are all present and correct — but debate rages about how well these features sit with a hatchback body shell. The car pictured here wears an M sport body kit and 18-inch alloys, which makes a big difference. The entry-level car has steel wheels which look horribly puny.
Audi's A3 is the least likely to offend. It's understated, functional and very Audi. The three-door model was introduced in Europe a year ahead of the Sportback and it had to wait until a midlife makeover to receive its trapezoidal front grille. It looks a little heavy-handed, but at least it's distinctive.
First prize here goes to the Audi. Its handsome, beautifully rendered dashboard sets it apart from its rivals. The Audi feels like a special, quality product for which it's worth paying a premium. Inside, there's just enough room for a quartet of average-sized adults, and the trunk is adequate.
The A-Class finally has a cabin worthy of its price tag. Soft-touch materials abound and the circular, chrome-ringed instruments are a nice touch. Depending on which specification you choose, you can either have fake wood or fake aluminum on the center console. To our eyes, the latter is the more convincing. The A-Class is easily the most spacious of the trio with enough room in the rear for three adults. Choose the five-door body style and the Easy Vario Plus option pack and you can even remove the front- and rear-passenger seats to make use of the A-Class' excellent versatility.
The BMW is badly compromised by the position of the engine and the packaging demands of rear-wheel drive. Rear-seat space is ludicrously tight — even children will complain about the absence of legroom. And there's no room in the trunk for their toys. Cars in this sector are supposed to be practical and versatile, but the BMW is neither. The dashboard also feels substandard next to the A3.
All three models are available with a wide range of engines. The A3's gasoline range kicks off with a 101-horsepower, 1.6-liter inline four and culminates in a 247-hp, 3.2-liter V6. But in Europe, the diesel models are the most popular and Audi's 2.0 TDI, which boasts 138 hp and 236 pound-feet of torque, is a terrific combination of performance and economy.
Our test car was fitted with the normally aspirated 2.0 FSi gas four-cylinder, which is shared with the VW Golf. When this engine was first introduced, it was criticized for a lack of refinement, but a series of subtle tweaks have helped its cause. With 148 hp and 147 lb-ft of torque, it's unlikely to worry a dragster, but it's competent — zero to 60 mph takes 9.1 seconds.
BMW's gasoline lineup starts with a 115-hp, 1.6-liter inline four and rises to the 3.0-liter straight six that's shared with just about every other model in the BMW range. Two turbodiesels are offered, including a powerful 2.0-liter with 163 hp and 251 lb-ft.
Our test car was the big daddy, the 130i. With 261 hp and 232 lb-ft, it's billed as a junior M car. Zero to 60 mph takes just 6.1 seconds and it's limited to 155 mph. This six remains one of the world's great engines, with its linear pull matched only by its smoothness.
The lowliest gasoline Mercedes' A-Class boasts just 95 hp from a 1.5-liter four, while the range is topped by a 2.0-liter turbo. A choice of three turbodiesels culminates in a 2.0-liter version with 140 hp and 221 lb-ft.
We drove the flagship 2.0-liter turbo. This is a recent addition to the range and boasts 193 hp and 207 lb-ft. It's quick — 0-60 mph takes 7.5 seconds — but while the passing punch is welcome, it doesn't turn the A-Class into a sports car. In Europe at least, the easy performance and refinement of the 140-hp diesel feels better suited to the A-Class' laid-back personality.
Ride and handling
This is the flip side of the BMW conundrum. While rear passengers are suffering from being cramped in, the driver will be reveling in the 1 Series' poise and agility. The steering is crisp, sharp and accurate and because the rear wheels are providing the propulsion, there's no torque steer. The gear change is typical BMW — quick and precise. The 1 Series is impressively agile, helped by its diminutive dimensions. With the stability control switched off, it will also engage in lurid power slides, although the relatively short wheelbase means you need to be quick to catch it. The ride is never less than firm, even without the M Sport suspension fitted to our test car.
The A3 also has sporting aspirations. It's set up more aggressively than a Golf, to the extent that it can feel uncomfortably stiff on poorly surfaced roads. Both front and all-wheel-drive quattro models are available and both offer safe, secure handling. It steers nicely and the gear change is slick, but the A3 still lacks the tactility and adjustability of the BMW. Ultimately, it's not as much fun.
You sit high in the A-Class, but the straight-legged driving position is more coupe than SUV. The Mercedes is less overtly sporting than the BMW and Audi, but it still handles with aplomb. You never quite lose the feeling that you're high above the ground, but it steers well and can be hurled through bends with some spirit. On the standard wheels it also rides well, but the 18-inch AMG wheels fitted to the Turbo model make it uncomfortably stiff. We were also concerned about the brakes on our test car, which faded badly after some hard driving, although experience suggests this is unusual.
The 2006 BMW 1 Series is great to drive, but it's too flawed in too many areas to be a great car in this category. It's also prohibitively expensive: a sensibly equipped 1 Series costs 3 Series money, which makes it almost irrelevant. The 130i M Sport pictured here retails for over £30K (about $50K U.S.), which is madness.
The 2006 Mercedes-Benz A-Class has much to commend it. It's spacious, practical and impressively versatile. This is no sports car, but it's a pleasing drive and the cabin quality in the second-generation car is much improved. It's not impossible to imagine this car doing well in the U.S., especially in metropolitan centers. The sandwich structure really works and it looks different enough to have some fashionable appeal.
The 2006 Audi A3 is arguably the best all-round proposition for a buyer in this category. It's more engaging to drive than the Mercedes but much less compromised than the BMW. It also has the best cabin and Audi's image has skyrocketed in recent years.
For most customers, choosing a winner will depend on their priorities. The BMW 1 Series will appeal to people who wouldn't even consider a Mercedes-Benz A-Class and vice versa. But it's significant that there's now a clear choice of fine product in a sector of the market that, in Europe at least, is growing. It would be nice if the same level of choice were extended to U.S. customers.
Gotta love hot hatches. They are like white twin brothers to sports compacts.
Last edited by Len; 01-27-2006 at 08:58 PM.