Best small premium hatchbacks 2021

  • Which is the best small premium hatchback for your money?
  • Does Audi A3, Mercedes A-Class or BMW 1 Series come out on top?
  • Get our group test verdict, then read the full reviews for more details

In the market for a small premium hatchback? While in some respects we think it’s short-sighted to dismiss the mainstream these days...

There are so many good cars out there, if you want your family car to project a top-notch image you’re almost certainly going to have narrowed your selection down to these three, the latest Audi A3 Sportback, BMW 1 Series and Mercedes-Benz A-Class.

So we’ve brought them together in their most potent diesel guises and reviewed them back-to-back in a group test, to figure out which one gets the overall Parkers seal of approval. Each of these premium hatchbacks is a great car in its own way, but we still came out of the test with a clear winner.

Keep reading to find out which one we liked best.

Audi A3 Sportback

Model tested: 35 TDI 150PS S line S tronic

Audi A3 Sportback - profile view, driving

The A3 is the poshest rung of the Volkswagen Group’s ladder of hatchbacks – sitting above the Skoda Octavia, the SEAT Leon and the Volkswagen Golf.

Yet it’s also the one with the most conventional interior, featuring a simple infotainment touchscreen and plenty of physical controls, including a welcome (albeit confusing and unlit) climate control panel. The infotainment screen is one of the best in this segment, too, being bright, responsive, ideally placed and fully featured.

The A3 does feel a bit cheap inside, though - the chunky highlights on the dashboard are hollow-feeling plastic, and controls seem to have been placed with little care. Take, for example, the weird touch-sensitive volume pad next to the gear selector. It doesn’t work very well, it’s by no means intuitive, and it accomplishes no more than a regular volume knob would have done. 

So, the interior lacks that trademark Audi quality. It’s not particularly spacious, either, having the least space in the rear seats of these three and a fairly narrow boot.

Audi A3 Sportback (2020) front interior

It’s also the least powerful car here with a mere 150hp, but the 2.0-litre diesel and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission combination is a customer favourite that Audi’s been working with for donkey’s years - and the experience shows as the two work in tandem very smoothly. And extremely efficiently. We saw it easily match the claimed 65.7mpg economy figure on a long run.

There’s a pronounced diesel rumble regardless of speed, though, and the 19-inch wheels of this car do leave it rather firm over bumps in the road. It handles neutrally, which is by no means a bad thing – feeling safe and secure, without rolling about or threatening to lose grip in faster corners.

We’ve no doubt Audi will sell tons of these, and owners who place meaning into that four-ringed badge probably won’t be disappointed. But given that this car’s highlight is its efficient and smooth engine and gearbox, we’d opt for one of its mechanically similar – yet cheaper – siblings instead.

By Tom Wiltshire

Price: £23,875 (£37,480 as tested)
Lease this car: From £274 per month
Performance: 150hp, 360Nm, 8.4sec 0-62mph, 139mph top speed
Efficiency: 128g/km CO2, up to 57.6mpg (WLTP combined 

BMW 1 Series

Model tested: 120d M Sport

BMW 1 Series (2020) profile view, driving

Two things immediately separate the current BMW 1 Series from its predecessors – the way it looks and the fact it’s no longer rear-wheel drive. But in reality neither amount to anything like the negative hype BMW purists have been sending in this model’s direction.

Looks, after all, are subjective and it’s not like you’d call any of the earlier 1 Series generations pretty. Plus, we rather like the way this car has gone in a different design direction in a world where everything looks like a Volkswagen Golf.

The second point is an issue of principle more than anything else – yes, rear-wheel drive is the layout of choice for a powerful sports car and a traditional BMW hallmark. But in a hatchback likely to be propelled by efficient small petrol and diesel engines? We never felt the benefit on anything less than the top spec M140i, previously, and most buyers never cared anyway.

BMW 1 Series (2020) interior view

So those are the elephants in the room dealt with, the latter bringing a significant increase in trunk (sorry, boot) space as well as more room in the back. The previous 1 Series had luggage capacity that would make a supermini owner laugh and a huge transmission tunnel instead of rear legroom – the new model can easily swallow a large pushchair and shopping, while offering more passenger space than the other two cars in this test.

It’s also got the most user-friendly interior. There are buttons for everything and they’re all where you’d expect them to be, while the latest iDrive infotainment system remains brilliantly logical. The dashboard and door cards also feel more solid than the A3 and A-Class, albeit without their over-the-top lavishness.

Finally there’s the way it drives, which a triumph thanks to a brilliantly balanced chassis and strong grip levels. Teamed with the top-spec 120d diesel engine (190hp and 0-62mph in 7.3 seconds), this is an easy thing to drive quickly but also a quiet and refined cruiser. The proper eight-speed automatic gearbox is the best in this test, too.

By Adam Binnie

Price: £33,395
Lease this car: From £264 per month
Performance: 190hp, 400Nm, 7.3sec 0-62mph, 144mph top speed
Efficiency: 133g/km CO2, up to 55.4mpg (WLTP combined)

Mercedes-Benz A-Class

Model tested: A 220 d AMG Line

Mercedes-Benz A-Class (2020) profile view

If you want your premium German hatchback to draw approving glances from across the company car park, you may as well stop reading now and head straight for the Mercedes showroom. The A-Class easily trumps the others here for sleek, road-hugging style, especially with the AMG body kit and 18-inch wheels of this AMG Line model.

It’s also something of a showstopper when you open the door. While the BMW and Audi have certainly embraced the latest infotainment trends, they still basically look like conventional cars on the inside; Mercedes has gone a much more radical route, with a pair of screens snugged together on the dashtop in one tremendous slab of modernity. Worth noting that this car has the optional 10.25-inch monitor upgrade, though – fitted as part of a Premium Plus pack that costs over £3,500.

Completing the instant appeal are smart, sporty looking seats and a boot that although technically the smallest here (by 10 litres) still somehow manages to be the most practical when it comes to loading in a pushchair and luggage – the space being usefully broad and square, the aperture wide and accommodating.

Mercedes-Benz A-Class (2020) interior view

Things start to go wrong when you drive it. Ever had one of those days when you’ve drunk too much caffeine, and your every move has become twitchy and over-exaggerated? That’s what it’s like to drive this 190hp A 220 d – body movements are abrupt whether encountering bumps or dealing with cornering forces, while the hypersensitive accelerator and eight-speed dual-clutch automatic serve up the admittedly vigorous performance in spurty bursts. We had to dull it all down by switching the dynamic mode to Eco, just to save our passengers from revisiting their lunch.

Turns out those eye-catching front seats are a pain in the back on a longer journeys, especially compared with the excellent chairs in the Audi. But we easily topped an indicated 70mpg on the motorway, and with smaller wheels and a less over-exuberant engine you can see how this car would be a highly attractive all-round package.

By CJ Hubbard

Price: £31,575 (£38,660 as tested)
Lease this car: From £286 per month
Performance: 190hp, 400Nm, 7.0sec 0-62mph, 146mph top speed
Efficiency: 114g/km CO2, up to 57.7mpg (WLTP combined) 

Verdict

As you’ll have gathered, each of these cars has their strengths and weaknesses, and in an area of the market where image is key, if you have a preferred brand we don’t think any of these premium hatchbacks will leave you disappointed. But for us it was the BMW 1 Series that stood out above the Mercedes and the Audi during this evaluation.

BMW 1 Series (2020) front view

The A3 has a great engine and gearbox combo, but feels cramped inside and is really starting to suffer in comparison to its less-premium siblings, which offer almost the exact same experience for less money. The A-Class, by contrast, seems to be trying a touch too hard, its appearance a glossy veneer over depths that are slightly lacking in finesse.

As a result, the BMW comes across as just right. It has a high-quality interior with sensible controls that work while still appearing up to date, it’s the roomiest for passengers and the most accomplished to drive. The Daddy Pig looks take some adjustment, but you can’t see them from the inside. In the end, it was clearly the car that every involved in the test would prefer to take home with them.

You read much more about each of our contenders in their full Parkers reviews:

>> More Best Cars content on Parkers