Both the A3 and A-Class have better close body control, crisper handling response and a more settled ride than the 1 Series – and yet there are key differences and relative attractions separating the German front-drivers too. Our Black Edition Audi came with passively damped sport suspension as standard, whereas the AMG Line Mercedes had what Stuttgart calls ‘lowered comfort suspension’ (although, confusingly, it’s the same set-up fitted to all twist- beam-equipped A-Classes).
The A-Class is the softer-riding of the two, as you might expect – but its handling only suffers by comparison with the A3 in terms of outright grip level. It steers more smartly than the Audi, turns as crisply and with better balance, and keeps its body almost as level. The A3 counters with a chassis that’s marginally more sure-footed and tolerant of being hurried along, although it’s a touch less engaging than the A-Class to drive. The A3 has the better outright body control of the two, but the less deft- and dexterous- feeling ride at normal road speeds. On balance, while someone in a hurry would probably prefer the A3, an interested driver would certainly prefer the A180d; even to the rear- driven BMW.
Which is just one reason among many why the new A-Class has the capacity to surprise. It’s a car that has made a giant leap towards the critical vanguard of the compact premium hatch pack, and it deserves boththe attention its eye-catching new looks will attract and a clean slate from which to impress anyone who has been less than convinced by its predecessors.
Is it good enough to dip for the tape in this exercise? Not quite. The A3’s blend of better space, deeper- seated quality, better refinement and performance and superior outright dynamic composure has to get itthe nod. If a low-emission diesel hatchback were on your agenda, it’d be the Audi I’d be sending you to test drive first.
But if other engines were part of the equation? I suspect the verdict could very easily flip the other way. Round one has slipped away for Mercedes here, then – but I sense that’s not the end of the story.
The best of the rest:
We chose to keep things simple here and let the A-Class compete with the wider hatchback field on another day. But had our test been open to the likes of the Ford Focus, Volkswagen Golf, Seat Leon, Vauxhall Astra and other non-premium five-doors, how many more humble family hatchbacks might have been capable of providing better ride and handling?
Where the non-premium ranks are concerned, I suspect only a well- specced Golf (pictured, right) would offer a more rounded and multi- talented chassis than the A-Class.