Text – Faisal Khan; Pictures – Om Vaikul
Shootout: Mercedes A-Class vs Audi Q3 vs BMW 1-Series
Price OTR Mumbai: Rs. 31.24 – 32.58 lakhs (Mercedes A-Class), Rs. 30.40 – 38.37 lakhs (Audi Q3), Rs. 27.78 – 40.35 lakhs (BMW 1-Series)
These cars are the cheapest way to enter the German luxury brigade and make a statement.
Times change, people change, but what remains constant is our quest for recognition. According to Abraham Maslow and his 1943 research paper, needs of human beings can be segregated into five major levels. Among the top is esteem, where respect from others, self confidence and achievement are key factors. To get here is something but to announce to the world you have arrived is another task altogether. Fortunately for those who want to make a style statement, the big three automakers from Germany are vying for your uncaged attention. Enter Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, three automobile manufacturers who offer cars that instantly solicit a second glance. In their quest to attract more buyers to their brand, all three have gone and launched cheaper vehicles. We take all three entry level cars from the three German companies and put them head to head to see which car makes the strongest impression.
Motor Quest: The A-Class is the oldest vehicle here with the first generation model dating back to 1997. The 1-Series was first launched in 2004 (replacing the 3-Series compact which was produced between 1993 to 2004). Audi launched the Q3 compact SUV in 2011 as a competitor to the BMW X1.
Styling – If you are spending close to 30 big ones in what is essentially a small car, you better turn heads on the road. Sadly though, not all cars here tend to attract stares and glares. The 1-Series is one such BMW which simply doesn’t have the charisma to pull off a style statement. The design is awkward at certain areas and the car itself looks bland, more so in the presence of the A-Class. The Audi Q3 has massive presence as it is the biggest car here and since it belongs to the SUV category, it’s macho appeal works in its favour.
Audi cars are well known for their LED headlights and that’s where the Q3 S falters. It’s the only Audi on sale in India which doesn’t get LEDs (neither in the headlights nor in the tail lights) and that really robs away a lot from its visual appeal. Meanwhile the A-Class flaunts style to the maximum. It’s without doubt the best looking car here and has the visual drama to impress people where ever you go. The 302-pin diamond grille is the highlight with the beautiful lines, detailed lights and neat wheels drawing lots of eye candy to the baby Merc.
Interiors – On the inside, the scenario is pretty much the same like the exteriors. The 1-Series has the most boring cabin and is shockingly devoid of many features which even entry-level hatchbacks like the Tata Nano get as standard. All the three cars are entry-level variants of the respective German brands so we naturally don’t expect them to be loaded but missing out features like Bluetooth, USB and electric seat adjustment isn’t acceptable at all. Even on the design front, the 1-Series doesn’t make you feel special at all while the cabin of the Q3 is much better than the BMW, it’s really the Mercedes which feels more expensive than it actually is. Even the build quality on the “Made in Germany” A-Class feels better than the others although not by much since all these German cars feel very well put together.
Working in the A-Class’ favour is the SLS inspired dashboard and the comfortable seats. But when you factor in cabin space, the Q3 easily emerges on top. The Audi being significantly bigger on the inside also has more space than the other two (both hatchbacks are equally matched in terms of space but the Benz has a claustrophobic rear seat) and also outdoes the A-Class and 1-Series in boot space, offering 460 litres against the 360 litres and 341 litres of the 1-Series and A-Class respectively. The boot of the 1-Series is more usable than the A-Class’ as there is no spare tyre while in the Merc, the spare tyre is placed inside the boot (not underneath it), hampering usability. In hindsight, the lack of a spare tyre is even worse since a puncture means you can only use the run flat tyre for 100 kms, thereby limiting where all you can drive.
Performance – These three cars are poles apart when it comes to powertrain options. The most powerful vehicle here is the Audi Q3 S which uses a 2.0-litre diesel mill to output 140 HP of power and 320 Nm of torque. What really sets this compact SUV apart is its 6-speed gearbox, it is the only luxury car in the country to come with a manual. The stick shift really transforms the driving experience and without a blink of an eyelid, we can confidently say the Audi Q3 S is the most fun to drive car of this pack. It’s so engaging and fun that nothing really comes close to the involvement it offers. You do feel a massive punch in the mid-range and the diesel motor is rev happy too.
The other car here with a diesel engine is the Mercedes A-Class, employing a 2.2-litre motor to output 107 HP and 250 Nm, coupled to a 7-speed automatic. This oil burner lacks outright performance and the A-Class isn’t a match to the other two cars in terms of acceleration numbers. The saving grace for the baby Benz is the NVH levels which are by far the best here, while the A-Class is also the most efficient car of the trio (the A and 1 get stop/start systems). You also get paddle shifts (Mercedes’ gear selector is stalk mounted and thus the lever can’t have tiptronic function, thereby making it necessary to offer paddle shifts). The A180 CDI does respond better to throttle inputs once you get into S mode and keep the pedal mashed and it does make good progress.
However when it comes to outright speed and acceleration, the 1-Series is far ahead. The 116i’s 1.6-litre petrol mill thrusts out 136 HP and 220 Nm but since it weighs less than the Audi (more than 200 kgs lighter), it is a whole second faster to 100 km/hr too. The diesel 1-Series is even faster with its 143 HP and 320 Nm output but is significantly more expensive with the base variant being stripped out completely while the top-end trim being priced as much as a 3-Series. The 8-speed ZF gearbox used in the 1-Series is quicker with shifts than the 7-speed unit in the A-Class. Speed aside, the Audi Q3 S has the most fun engine and gearbox combo among the three cars here.
Driving Dynamics – All three cars are compact and offer excellent dynamics but the BMW 1-Series is the sharpest here with a steering which is beautifully calibrated. The Bavarian is so good in handling that it almost feels like a go-kart. The Mercedes A-Class isn’t far behind the Bimmer, offering sharp handling with a feedback rich steering. While the BMW and Mercedes are quite close in handling, they are quite different in terms of underpinnings, the 1-Series is rear-wheel drive while the A-Class is front-wheel drive. Even the Q3 S is front-wheel driven and although good in handling, the Audi doesn’t match the other two in the dynamics department with its steering not having the feel of the other German cars.
Where the Audi Q3 excels is the ride quality, it’s easily the best riding car here although it’s not as stable as the BMW and Mercedes at high speeds. Both the 1-Series and A-Class are stiffly sprung but have acceptable ride quality. The A-Class has slightly better high speed ride as the 1 tends to bounce a bit on bad roads where the Merc absorbs most things in its stride. Braking performance of all three cars is good, the A180 offering better pedal bite while the Q3 S offers better engine braking owing to its manual gearbox.
Safety – All the three cars have received 5-star safety rating from Euro NCAP. These vehicles come with quite a few electronic systems to keep things safe in all types of conditions. From ABS to TCS, all cars also get front and side airbags (the Audi gets 4, the BMW gets 6 while the Merc gets 7 airbags). The A-Class is the only car here which also gets ATTENTION ASSIST, tyre pressure loss warning system, brake pad wear indicator warning and acceleration skid control which makes it the most loaded vehicle in the safety department.
Verdict – So which car emerges as the winner? It’s the Mercedes A-Class. Yes, the A-Class isn’t the fastest here, nor is it the sharpest or the most spacious but it still emerges on top. You see, if you are going to spend around Rs. 30 lakhs on a car, you have a plethora of choices. If you want space, there is the Toyota Camry, if you want features, the Skoda Superb is for you, if you want a full-sized SUV, there is the Hyundai Santa Fe but you are letting go of these options to buy one of these Germans, for a reason. The reason is simple, you want a car whose badge itself is worth in gold and that’s where Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi come in the picture.
However even more than the badge, you want a car which makes you feel special and signifies to on-goers you have arrived. The Mercedes A-Class looks the part and makes you feel special with its feature loaded and appealing cabin. It’s also quite fun to drive with its sharp steering and engaging dynamics, not to forget, it’s the most frugal of the trio. The A-Class easily wins this battle, after all it’s the only car here which feels worth the asking price, in spite of it being the only completely imported model here. The A therefore definitely sets your pulse racing.
All these three entry-level German cars have a lot to offer but the Mercedes A-Class makes you feel the most special and that’s what helps it clinch victory in this shootout.
Further Reading –
Audi Q3 S Review
Audi Q3 Diesel Review
Audi Q3 Petrol Review
BMW 1-Series Diesel Review
BMW 1-Series Petrol Review
Mercedes A-Class Diesel Review
Mercedes A-Class Petrol Review
BMW 1-Series vs Mercedes A-Class