Audi A3 2.0 TDI 150 Sport
List price when new £22,730
Price today £11,000
Available from 2012-present
The Audi A3 kick-started the posh hatch trend; this latest version is brilliant to drive, classy inside and remarkably cheap to run.
Mercedes-Benz A200 CDI Sport
List price when new £23,270
Price today £13,000
Available from 2012-present
The most recent A-Class did away with the tall, boxy styling of older models and gained a much more appealing look.
Price today is based on a 2013 model with average mileage and full service history, correct at time of writing
When Audi first launched the A3 in the 1990s, it struck a chord. Here was a car which offered the space and practicality of a family-sized hatchback, combined with the upmarket image and beautifully built interior Audi was fast becoming known for.
The idea caught on and now, over 20 years later, hatchbacks wearing premium badges are a common sight on our roads. And it isn’t hard to see the appeal: these upmarket family cars are available at fairly reasonable prices, yet offer all the high-quality appeal of their pricier saloon brethren, and throw in a helpful slice of extra practicality, too.
Today’s Audi A3 is one of the best. It still has a fantastic interior, but now it’s matched to driving dynamics that’ll entertain even keen drivers, fine ride quality and plenty of space.
However, Mercedes has now turned its A-Class into a small, sporting hatchback, after two generations of trying to make its original idea mini-MPV body style work. As a result, the latest model is considerably more attractive, and as a result, it’s also extremely popular. But which of these posh hatches should you splash your cash on? That’s what we’re here to help you decide.
What are they like to drive?
The Audi is the quicker car; that’s hardly a surprise, given that it weighs less than the Mercedes and has a more powerful engine.
More impressive than outright pace, though, is the way the A3 delivers its power. It pulls harder than the A-Class from low revs and revs smoothly and quietly beyond 5000rpm – unusual for a diesel. Work the Merc’s engine hard, and you’ll wish you hadn’t, because it’s coarse and clattery.
The A-Class we’ve tested here was fitted with the optional seven-speed automatic gearbox. Gearchanges are relatively smooth, but the ’box often shifts down unnecessarily when you just want to accelerate slowly. For that reason, we’d stick with the manual gearbox with this engine, although even then the Audi’s gearbox has the sweeter shift.
Confusingly, Sport versions of the A-Class, like this one, came fitted with ‘comfort’ suspension – but even then, there isn’t anything comfortable about the way the Mercedes rides. It crashes over bigger bumps and fidgets nervously on any road that isn’t perfectly smooth.
Our test car was fitted with the optional 18-inch alloy wheels and run-flat tyres which only amplified the problem. However, even with the standard 17-inch wheels and regular tyres, a drive in an A-Class is decidedly bumpy.
Such an uncomfortable ride would be easier to forgive if the A-Class rewarded you with agile handling, but it doesn’t. The Merc feels heavy and clumsy through corners, and its body rolls by a surprising amount. It’s a shame, because the steering weights up nicely when you turn in to a corner and there’s a reasonable amount of grip.
The Audi feels much tighter. It stays bolt upright through twists and turns, and reacts the instant you turn the wheel. The steering is super-sharp and accurate, but it could do with a bit more weight around the straight-ahead.
Despite its tight body control, the A3 rides remarkably well. It deals with bumps in one hit, so there’s none of the shimmying that characterises the Merc. In fact, only on really lumpy roads will you wish there was a bit more give in the Audi’s suspension.
What are they like inside?
Anyone downsizing from a larger Mercedes saloon will feel right at home inside the A-Class. It truly feels like a high-quality product.
You operate the audio and satellite navigation functions by scrolling through menus using a rotary dial between the front seats. Unfortunately, the menus aren’t especially intuitive, so the system can be frustrating to use, particularly on the move.
The Audi A3’s menu system is much more user-friendly. You control it with a dial on the centre console in much the same way as the Merc’s, but the on-screen menus are more instinctive and there are some handy shortcut keys to help speed things up.
What’s more, the Audi has an even classier feel. The interior features the sort of materials you’d usually expect to find in an executive saloon, while beautifully weighted switchgear and millimetre-perfect panel gaps only add to the feeling that no expense has been spared.
The A3 we’ve tested here is a three-door model which gives the five-door Mercedes an obvious advantage in terms of practicality. However, getting into the back of the A-Class requires some stooping because the roofline juts into the door openings.
If you want a truly practical car, your best bet is to go for the five-door version of the A3, called the Sportback. It commands a small premium over the three-door, but it’s worth the extra, because it still works out cheaper than the Mercedes, yet makes the A3 much more practical.
Once you’re inside, both cars have enough space to comfortably accomodate four six-footers. There’s slightly more leg room in the back of the A-Class, but less head room. Both cars can seat five at a push, but only for short trips.
In either Audi, the boot is longer, deeper and ultimately bigger than the Merc’s, which is quite a bit wider, but suffers from a narrow boot opening.
What will they cost?
Our current purchase price figures, which are based on actual cars for sale at the time of writing, suggest that the Mercedes-Benz A-Class has retained more of its value than the Audi A3. That sounds like a good thing, but the downside is that the price you’ll have to pay is far higher as a result, meaning you’ll have to set aside a greater budget if it’s the Mercedes you want – or make do with a higher-mileage or older example.
Conversely, the Audi is cheaper to buy, and even though it’ll lose a greater percentage of its value, you’ll probably actually lose fractionally less in cash terms, simply because the price is lower to start with.
The case for the Audi builds when you look at fuel consumption and tax. The official figures suggested put its average fuel consumption at 68.9mpg, to the Merc’s 62.8mpg. The consequent lower emissions figures mean the Audi costs less to tax, too – although the difference is minimal, at £20 per year to the Merc’s £30.
The Audi is the cheaper of the two cars to service, too. Mercedes-Benz doesn’t offer a fixed-price servicing option, meaning getting your A-Class serviced at a dealer will cost you a far more, and even at an independent specialist, the cost to service the A3 will be lower.
In fact, the only area in which the Mercedes has potential costs in its favour is in terms of reliability. We don’t have individual data on each of these models, but Mercedes-Benz has consistently finished higher than Audi in the JD Power Vehicle Dependability Study which suggests that the A-Class may be a more reliable option than the A3.
There’s no doubt that the Mercedes-Benz A-Class is a tempting proposition. It looks fantastic, for starters, and climbing aboard, its luxurious interior only heightens the appeal. Those are two reasons it’s been such a popular car.
The problem is, that appeal rapidly dissipates the minute you start driving the A-Class. The jarring ride and slack handling make it feel both uncomfortable and unexciting to drive, meaning there’s very little pleasure to be gained by driving it. It’s also noisy, its engine grumbling away in your ear the whole time. And for all this, you have to pay more than you will for the Audi, both when you’re buying and while you own it. All of which makes it very tough to recommend.
There’s a clear winner in this test, then. The Audi A3 has always been streets ahead of the Mercedes A-Class as a new car, and as a used proposition, that gap only widens. We’d pick the five-door Sportback rather than the three-door model here, but otherwise it’s very hard to fault the Audi – except for the fact that its ride is perhaps a smidge on the firm side.
But if you can live with that – and we certainly could – you get one of the best family cars around. The A3 can boast a fabulous interior, both neatly styled and beautifully made; what’s more, it’s delightfully quiet at any speed, comfortable, enjoyable to drive, and cheaper to run than the Mercedes. It is, quite simply, the best used posh hatch money can buy.
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