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Mercedes A-Class A180 v BMW 1 series 116i v Audi A3 1.4 TFSI 2013

Entry-level five-door compact prestige cars compared. Mercedes A180 pictured.

Status symbols don't get any more prominent than a new prestige car parked in the driveway. Owning a German car arguably tops the list and the arrival of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class means such cachet has never been more affordable.

Rapid-response price 'realignments' on the Audi A3 Sportback and BMW 1 Series put the trio on equal financial footing, giving buyers unprecedented access to three of the most coveted brands.

VALUE

It is no coincidence the Mercedes A180, BMW 116i and Audi A3 1.4 TFSI are $35,600 each. To put that in perspective, entry-level five-door compact prestige cars now cost the same as a top-spec Ford Focus. With the price on a par, it comes down to looks and features.

The A-Class rolls on 17-inch wheels and has front sport seats in fabric and synthetic leather. It uses a 5.8-inch screen to drive the infotainment system with Bluetooth and audio streaming and has a reversing camera and front and rear parking sensors.

Audi's entry A3 Sportback likewise adopts a 5.8-inch infotainment screen, has Bluetooth phone connectivity but, as with the BMW, relies on rear parking sensors. Dual-zone airconditioning is standard and the front seats are a combination of real and synthetic leather. It rides on standard 16-inch wheels.

The BMW 116i is supported by 16-inch wheels and has a 6.5-inch infotainment display panel. Seats are synthetic leather and it has Bluetooth phone connectivity but you pay extra for audio streaming. In common with the Benz, it relies on regular airconditioning but is the only one here to drive the rear wheels.

TECHNOLOGY

Stop-start engine management is standard across the board. It's a quick and easy way to help trim fuel use. The Merc and the Audi use seven-speed dual-clutch automatics, the BMW an eight-speed auto. Audi has the fuel economy edge, claiming 5.0L/100km against the others' 5.8L, and also comes with tyre pressure monitoring.

The ace up the A180's sleeve is the standard parking software that will take over the steering inputs when parallel parking. Given the younger target audience and city-biased nature of the car, this is smart marketing.

DESIGN

The A-Class is the extrovert of this crowd. It was styled from the ground up to appeal to a younger demographic than the longstanding Merc buyer and consequently has more panel surfacing and interior textures than its opposition. Highlights are the carbon-fibre-esque weave across the dash, the SLS-style air vents and the swoopy lines that lift the exterior profile. The plastic steering wheel is one of the few downsides.

Audi's A3 Sportback is a practical package with a premium feel. The attention to detail is hard to fault and every element is designed to increase space or the sensation thereof. Boot space of 380L trumps the 360L of the BMW and the Benz's 341L. Carsguide's co-opted teenagers declared the rear the most accommodating.

A long bonnet on the 1-Series gives it the look of a wagon-hatch hybrid. It leads on the fuss-free design scale, with few bulging character lines to clutter - or jazz-up, depending on your preference - the exterior. The front end doesn't match the rest of the BMW range, with the kidney grille appearing squashed to fit between the headlamps. The interior works better but can't compete in terms of sophistication with its fresher opposition.

SAFETY

As expected, these are all five-star cars with high levels of safety for occupants backed by decent protection for errant pedestrians. The A3 scores 36.41/37 in the ANCAP crash-test analysis, is fitted with seven airbags and, like the others, has intelligent seat belt reminders on all pews.

Even with one less airbag, the 1 Series is just as safe. It scores 36.33 overall but in the side-impact pole test rated only "acceptable" in absorbing occupant chest impacts. The nine airbags in the A-Class add to a 35.8 rating. ANCAP has yet to assess its standard forward collision mitigation - audible and sensory warnings if the A180 gets too close to the carin front.

DRIVING

Plant the right foot and the BMW is a clear winner off the line. Rear-drive helps but so does its extra 10kW/20Nm. It hits 100km/h 8.7 seconds after launch against 9.1 for the Benz and 9.3 for the A3. Hit the twisties and the Benz and Audi make up ground, figuratively. European suspension tuning is invariably firmer than in Asian vehicles, just as the brake pads are typically softer, so all three corner harder than most buyers will dare and stop harder than passengers will appreciate.

The Audi is the most compliant of the trio. It cruises over speed humps without being soft enough to split the front spoiler or hard enough to slam occupants' heads on the roof. The steering isn't as precise as the other pair and loses a little in driver feedback. Road noise on coarse-chip surfaces is its biggest flaw. The Merc is stiffer-sprung without being close to the sports suspension on the A250. Much like the BMW, it is an intentional compromise between city commuting and sporty handling through curves. On both, the run-flat tyres accentuate small corrugations but ultimately corner harder than the Audi.

Both also have selectable driving modes that adjust accelerator and transmission response. In Sport mode, the 116i wins; it's willing and wailing high in the rev range. The base Merc holds on to gears too long on moderate throttle inputs in the same mode. Its speed-sensitive steering is light in town but weights up as the pace and steering lock increase. The rear headrests restrict vision but the reversing camera offsets this.

VERDICT

All-round excellence gives the Benz the win but the Audi is an uncomfortably close second, especially if it is bought for cachet and comfort rather than outright dynamics. The BMW is the quickest and most capable of the bunch but can't compete in terms of cabin and exterior refinement.

Pricing Guides

$28,990
Based on 121 cars listed for sale in the last 6 months
Lowest Price
$17,980
Highest Price
$47,990

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
A45 AMG 2.0L, PULP, 7 SP AUTO $36,990 – 47,990 2013 Mercedes-Benz A-Class 2013 A45 AMG Pricing and Specs
A180 BE 1.6L, PULP, 7 SP AUTO $17,980 – 26,800 2013 Mercedes-Benz A-Class 2013 A180 BE Pricing and Specs
A200 CDI BE 1.8L, Diesel, 7 SP AUTO $19,950 – 26,988 2013 Mercedes-Benz A-Class 2013 A200 CDI BE Pricing and Specs
A250 Sport 2.0L, PULP, 7 SP AUTO $23,980 – 36,990 2013 Mercedes-Benz A-Class 2013 A250 Sport Pricing and Specs