BMW 1 Series vs Mercedes-Benz A-Class

  • Premium hatchbacks go head-to-head
  • Is the newer BMW a match for the A-Class?
  • Whole model ranges for both compared

Small, premium five-door hatchbacks are big business here in the UK – many of them outselling cheaper alternatives due to the promise of impressive build quality and a good dose of desirability, allowing drivers to get the feel of a much more expensive model in a cheaper, compact car.

The BMW 1 Series is a prime suspect, and it’s been renewed with a new set of engines, a new look and an even newer sense of confidence thanks to that big grille on the front. Still fairly fresh is the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, a huge improvement over the model it replaced in 2018, and one that’s regularly found in the Top 10 lists for the number of registrations in some months.

There’s also a new Audi A3 just around the corner, but until we’ve seen exactly what it’s like, these two are your freshest options. But which one is best? Read on to find out.

Rear view of the BMW 1 Series vs Mercedes A-Class

What are the model ranges like?

Both cars are available with a wide range of engine, gearbox and trim level combinations, so much so it’s hard to keep up.

For the BMW, there are three diesels and two petrols (including the M135i xDrive hot hatch), and a choice of manual and automatics for almost all engines (some are auto-only). Power ranges from 116hp to 306hp, with those in the mid-range the most popular with buyers. BMW expects the 118i petrol to be the most popular, a 1.5-litre three-cylinder engine with 140hp.

2020 BMW 118i badge

In terms of trim levels, the familiar SE, Sport and M Sport hierarchy remains, with M Sport proving most popular in the UK. It doesn’t offer much more kit than the Sport, but does feature a sportier, more aggressive look. The kind of kerb appeal people are after. The M135i xDrive is a trim level in its own right.

Go for the Mercedes-Benz and there’s even more choice. SE, Sport and AMG Line trims are present, with various extra packages available to boost the kit on each. There’s Executive, Premium and Premium Plus available depending on which model you start out with.

In terms of engines, the range starts with the A 180 petrol with 136hp, and goes all the way up to the 421hp Mercedes-AMG A 45 S 4Matic+ Plus. There’s also a plug-in hybrid badged A 250 e.

2020 Mercedes A-Class AMG Line alloy wheel

Most buyers will be looking further down the range – the A 180 is a surprising gem with the manual gearbox, but most come with automatic transmissions that are quick to respond and smooth. The A 200 is surprisingly economical with enough power, while the diesels are impressively frugal yet strong – particularly the A 220 d.

What are they like inside?

Points go to the Mercedes-Benz for drama when you open the door. The interior of the A-Class is very eye-catching – way more so than the BMW’s look. But you need to pick the right model to get the full impact.

The simplified, stepped dashboard is standard on all, but the size of the digital screens in front depends on the model – unsurprisingly you have to spend more to get the full impact of two 10.25-inch screens laid out before you. Still, whichever you choose there’s a variety of control methods including a touchpad, touchscreen and voice control, the latter of which is really quite impressive.

2020 Mercedes A-Class AMG Line Premium Plus interior

Materials used for the seats are all pleasant, and swathes of aluminium look across the dash help the modern feel, but you can’t avoid that the A-Class’s interior is more about look than a seriously quality feel. The heating controls feel cheap, and the doors don’t shut with a solid thud like the BMW’s.

The 1 Series’ interior may not look as dramatic as the Merc’s, but the quality is top-notch, and it feels special when you consider a lot of the components are shared with the much, much more expensive 8 Series coupe.

The digital dials aren’t as eye-catching (or configurable) as the Merc’s which is a bit disappointing when you have to pay more for them, but the main infotainment system is a little more user-friendly thanks to simpler menus and a less-fiddly rotary controller. It too is a touchscreen with voice control as an option, but talking to the car is much easier in the Mercedes.

2020 BMW 1 Series M Sport interior

Which has the most equipment?

Unsurprisingly, you can get near-identical equipment lists on these cars. What’s also not surprising is that you have to pay extra to get the most high-tech version. Mercedes-Benz piles them into a choice of packages that bundle together popular options, with Executive, Premium and Premium Plus choices. BMW, on the other hand, does the same with packages like the Technology Pack and Comfort Pack, but you can still add various options individually.

Most buyers in the UK opt for sportier-looking versions of both (AMG Line for Merc and M Sport for BMW), and they still come with a good amount of equipment, but not necessarily a lot more than the Sport models that sit below. It’s largely cosmetic add-ons over anything else.

2020 BMW 1 Series 10.1-inch infotainment screen

All 1 Series M Sport models come with 18-inch alloys, LED lights, full bodykit, leather interior with heated front seats, electric folding mirrors and a slightly older operating system for the infotainment compared with the one offered in the Technology Pack. We’d suggest opting for this as it comes with more features with an internet connection, an upgrade digital display ahead of the driver and a larger main screen too.

The A-Class has a similarly-generous equipment list with things like keyless start, reversing camera, sensors and climate control on all models, but you’ll need to spend money like you do in the BMW to get things like the upgraded infotainment system. Otherwise you’ll get a set of two smaller screens that don’t really do the Merc’s cabin justice. That means you’ll need the AMG Line Premium at the very least, then you’ll get two 10.25-inch screens and a nicer interior ambience thanks to a huge range of ambient lighting options, nicer seats and keyless entry.

2020 Mercedes A-Class MBUX 10.25-inch screens

Overall then, they’re on a par with each other for equipment because you need to pay more to get the full choice of features, and while the Merc’s sits in what looks like a nicer interior and with crisper screen displays, it’s the BMW’s that’s easier to use.

What are they like to drive?

Biggest news here is that this latest 1 Series has turned to front-wheel drive where the old car was rear-wheel drive. For the vast majority of drivers, this won’t matter at all, so let’s not dwell on that. Faster versions of both cars are all-wheel drive, however.

The 1 Series is the model to go for if you enjoy driving, however. The ride is firmer on all models (especially M Sport) and body control is better than in the Mercedes, which is the better option if you prioritise comfort. That said, the BMW is much quieter in terms of road, wind and engine noise finding their way into the cabin. It also feels more responsive with heavier steering, but this comes down to personal taste.

Rear view of the 2020 BMW 118i M Sport with M Sport Plus Pack

You can tweak the driving modes in both cars, with Individual programmes available on both (BMW will even let you set individual selections for particular existing drive modes - keeping up here?). What we’d do is just leave both in the respective Comfort/Normal modes and the leave the car to it.

Automatic transmissions are becoming ever more popular on this type of car, and the ones available on both is these are excellent. Both are quick to respond and change gear smoothly, and are a good fit on most engines available, especially the diesels. If you do prefer manuals, the BMW’s heavier controls may become tiring for some.

In terms of engines, a vast number are available for both. The 118i petrol will suit many down to the ground as it’s quiet and efficient, with enough power for most situations, however BMW’s choice of diesel engines are always strong and always economical. The Merc has a much wider spread of engines available, but we’d say a mid-level petrol like the A 200 is a good choice as it’s economical and powerful, while the diesels (in particular the A 220 d) are very strong and much quicker than you’d expect.

Rear view of the 2019 Mercedes A-Class AMG Line

Read the full reviews of the Mercedes A-Class and the BMW 1 Series for the full verdict of all the available engines.

Which is the most practical?

Again, it comes as no surprise that these two are fairly evenly matched. Previously, both models fell short of the Volkswagen Golf and Audi A3 when it came to interior space, but both companies have vastly improved things.

If you want the biggest boot, you’ll want the BMW. But at 380 litres, it’s only 10 litres more than the Merc’s load area. It does come with the option of an electric tailgate, but we’re not sure that’s worth shouting about in a car like this – there’s no point in it really. With the seats folded down in both, the Merc offers just a little more space, but this only matters if you’re regularly carrying large loads. If you are, you’re probably better off with an estate or a van.

380-litre boot offered in the 2020 BMW 1 Series

In terms of passenger space, there’s not much between the two either. However, the A-Class sits a little lower to the ground, so access is a tiny bit more restrictive if you struggle with something like getting in and out of a car.

The A-Class feels like it has a slightly wider and more open cabin due to the design of the dashboard appearing more pared-back, but there’s a similar amount of space for occupants. There’s a good amount of headroom up front with most drivers able to get comfortable, while opting for electric seats in the front will let you hone your driving position more accurately. There’s a bit more storage space in the front of the Merc thanks to a larger armrest cubbyhole, but the doorbins will hold big bottles in both, and there’s a pair of cupholders up front in both as well.

Mercedes A-Class's 370-litre boot space (2019)

In the back, the A-Class has a more sloping roof than the BMW, so access is a little easier. Once you’re in, you feel a little less hemmed-in in the 1 Series, although both do offer enough head and legroom for an average height adult (around 5ft 10ish). The Merc features chunky front seats with integrated headrests though, and this can limit the view out for those in the back.

Verdict

BMW 1 Series vs Mercedes-Benz A-Class - front view

The competition is fierce among premium hatchbacks. While at the time of writing the Volkswagen Golf Mk8 hasn’t quite reached the UK and the Audi A3 isn’t far behind, it leaves the BMW and Merc to fight it out. And they’re quite difficult to split.

The Merc’s interior looks the most impressive with a futuristic design, crisp screens and sporty seats. It has the wow factor. But, while the BMW’s may not look quite as fancy, it easily beats the Mercedes for quality. All of the materials you touch and the buttons you use feel much more solid and premium. The infotainment system is also easier to operate than the A-Class’s, even if it doesn’t look quite as modern.

It’s also a little easier to drive and get in the BMW, although we’d suggest you look at the A-Class if you want more engine choice and comfier ride. The BMW can fidget and fuss over rough surfaces. Be sure to test drive them both.

The BMW is also cheaper to purchase on PCP finance than the A-Class, and it’s also cheaper to lease. Everything could change once we get the new Golf and A3 together later in the year, but for now the BMW is the best premium hatchback to buy.

Further reading:

>> Best hatchbacks to buy in the UK

>> Hatch not for you? Try one of these SUVs 

>> Need an automatic? Here's our choice of the best

Our winner is the 2020 BMW 1 Series, just beating the Mercedes