- Mercedes-Benz A-Class takes on Audi A3
- Both tested in frugal, fleet-friendly diesel form
- Which is the best premium hatchback?
The Mercedes-Benz A-Class is one of the company's biggest-selling models. The previous-generation car found thousands of homes every month in the UK with an appealing mix of badge appeal, sharp looks, and low-cost PCP finance options. Not to mention its appeal as a company car for many.
It's a similar story for the Audi A3 Sportback, which is now one of the oldest premium hatchbacks you can buy new, having been around since 2013 and updated towards the end of 2016. Here, it goes head-to-head with the latest A-Class. Can the old-timer from Ingolstadt hold out against the all-new Mercedes-Benz?
We're comparing frugal, high economy, low-emissions diesel versions of both cars – so, it's as much about running costs and finance as how they perform on the road.
Read on to find out which is the best premium hatchback
What are the spec details?
Mercedes-Benz A-Class: Tested here in A 180 d Sport form, the A-Class is powered by a 1.5-litre turbodiesel engine producing 116hp and 260Nm of torque. The 0-62mph time is 10.5 seconds, while Merc claims it'll return up to 67.3mpg and emits 111g/km of CO2. It comes exclusively with a seven-speed automatic gearbox.
Audi A3 Sportback: The A3 here is a 1.6-litre TDI SE Technik with 116hp and 250Nm of torque. The 0-62mph sprint is completed in 10.4 seconds, while claimed fuel economy is 68.9mpg on cars fitted with 17-inch alloy wheels. An S Tronic dual-clutch auto is available, but we're testing the six-speed manual here.
What are they like inside?
Mercedes-Benz A-Class: The A-Class is the first to use the company's new MBUX infotainment system, which dominates the modern-looking cabin with a slab of piano black plastic and a pair of screens. It's all controlled via a choice of touchpad, touchscreen or voice control (the latter of which is particularly impressive).
The smaller screen set-up on Sport models is a little disappointing, though, as the higher-spec models come with larger 10.25-inch screens for both the infotainment and instrument cluster.
The smaller ones look lost in the dashboard, and the expanse of shiny black plastic looks far less premium than you'd hope for a Mercedes-Benz. There are no complaints about the infotainment system itself, though, as it's the most user-friendly Merc media system to date, with clear graphics and a range of operation methods.
It's still a pleasant cabin, though, with a modern and solid feel, although some materials (such as the air-con controls) don't feel as expensive as you'd expect, and some rattles make themselves heard from parts of the dashboard.
Audi A3 Sportback: The A3 has been around since 2012 (the three-door; the five-door Sportback came in 2013), but its interior still looks fresh, especially compared with something like the BMW 1 Series, which is something of a button-fest inside. Next to the Mercedes-Benz, it does look a little dated due to the lower-resolution screen and plainer design.
However, the quality remains the best in class, with a more solid, substantial feel than the Mercedes. The controls are all very easy to operate, it's incredibly easy to get comfortable and Audi's MMI infotainment system is a doddle to use via the rotary controller located on the centre console.
SE Technik trim is a little sparse at the entry point to the A3 range, with the interior of our test car lifted by leather upholstery, upgrades to the infotainment system and luxuries such as dual-zone climate control and park assist.
Will my family fit?
Mercedes-Benz A-Class: The previous A-Class was a bit of a disappointment space-wise. Thankfully, Merc has sorted this out with a bigger cabin and boot than before, making it much more competitive.
However, at 370 litres, the boot still lags behind the A3 and Volkswagen Golf (just), but a nice low loading lip and wide opening boost access.
Inside, there's a good amount of adjustment in the front seats for people to get comfortable, while rear seat space is adequate if you're not too tall.
The main issue is the sloping roofline and slightly awkward shape of the rear doors, meaning taller passengers may find access a little tricky, with a slightly hemmed-in feeling when you're in the back due to the dark headlining. Space is actually quite good for a pair of adults, though, with plenty of room to stretch your legs out.
Elsewhere, storage has improved dramatically. The door bins are big and sensibly partitioned, while a steering column-mounted gear shifter means there's a nice big cubby in the middle below the dashboard for odds and ends. There's also a lidded cubby between the front seats, but it's not as big as you might expect at first.
Audi A3 Sportback: Inside, the A3 doesn't feel quite as roomy as the A-Class, at least in the front. The way the Merc's dashboard is designed makes it feel like everything's further away and that there's more room for front-seat occupants to stretch out in. In reality, the difference isn't huge and you'd struggle to find the A3 uncomfortable, as there's a wide range of adjustment in the seats and steering wheel.
In the back, access is easier in the A3 thanks to squarer doors and a higher roofline than the A-Class, while an average height adult will find there's enough space behind a driver or front-seat passenger of similar proportions, with larger cutouts in the seatbacks for knees to fit in.
The A-Class sits noticeably lower than the A3, and means getting in and out of the Audi is much easier, as well as loading in small children with child seats. The A3 also feels more airy inside thanks to the larger windows and lighter headlining material.
There's little to decipher between the two in terms of outright space, though, it's just that access is easier in the A3 and there's a greater feeling of space in the rear seats of the Audi, while the Mercedes-Benz feels roomier in the front.
What are they like to drive?
Mercedes-Benz A-Class: The 1.5-litre diesel may not inspire any kind of excitement as a thrilling driver's car, but it's a good fit in the A-Class and feels surprisingly powerful.
The seven-speed automatic gearbox is smooth and responsive, although putting your foot down will result in a fair bit of diesel noise making its way in to the cabin and the car holding on to gears a little longer than you might like. It's never offensive though.
The steering is quick to respond, if a little devoid of feel and communication back to the driver, but this is unlikely to be important to someone trundling up and down the motorway or using the A-Class in town.
There's a bit of bodyroll but not to disconcerting levels, and the ride is supple enough over the worst surfaces in the road thanks to pleasingly high-profile tyres on this Sport model. It's okay, but just a little bland.
Audi A3 Sportback: In truth, the story is a similar one in the A3. The 1.6 TDI diesel feels slower to get going than the Merc's 1.5, despite having identical power outputs. The A3 makes more of a drone compared with the A's clatter, and the six-speed manual, while slick and positive in action, gets a lot of use. You'll find yourself changing up and down a lot as the car falls in and out of the usable torque band.
At a cruise, the A3 doesn't kick up as much road noise as the A-Class, and in a corner it feels more agile and feels less prone to bodyroll, too. The steering has a little more feel to it, too, although not to the level of something like a BMW 1 Series or Ford Focus.
Finance and running costs
- Claimed fuel economy: 68.9mpg
- CO2 emissions: 111g/km
- PCP finance monthly payment: £408*
Audi A3 Sportback:
- Claimed fuel economy: 68.9mpg
- CO2 emissions: 106-108g/km
- PCP finance monthly payment: £306/£399*
*Both finance quotes are with £3,000 customer deposit, over 36 months and 10,000-mile annual limit. First Audi quote is with an extra £3,000 deposit contribution from Audi, the second is with just £3,000 deposit contribution and zero customer deposit.
The Parkers Verdict
Neither of these cars will thrill or excite, but they get the job of providing fuss-free transport both around town on the motorway done in a refined, frugal and hassle-free way.
Despite its age, the A3 puts up a remarkably strong fight considering how new the A-Class is. The A3 feels higher-quality when you spend time slamming doors and prodding all the bits and pieces in the cabin, plus it has a bigger boot, easier access for rear passengers and a more composed ride than the Mercedes.
The A-Class, however, has more responsive engine and gearbox combination that makes life on the road easier, plus the infotainment system is much more modern-looking (albeit not the finest you can get in the Merc) than the Audi's, and easier to use thanks to a variety of operation methods.
There are some question marks over the quality of the interior materials (and how long they'll stay glossy and shiny), plus its high price (and expensive options) could make it an expensive proposition if you want to add extras.
With a weaker engine and because it's starting to feel its age, the A3 Sportback loses out to the Mercedes A-Class, which takes the win.