Luxo hatchbacks: the group test

The Audi never does. If the cabin is its zenith, dynamics are its nadir. Oh, it's safe, alright... and capable, but it comes across as, well, bland. There's no substance or character to the way it drives. It's just grey. Not so the Merc. Here's a car that appears to think the driving experience matters and is able to do something about it. Good brakes, nice steering and an agile, grippy chassis. None of the Audi's looseness on poor surfaces, but instead a sense it's thickly damped. This is a car you'll enjoy driving. Despite the flat engine.

In fact, this is a car you'll enjoy owning. There's something about this new A-Class that's very desirable. It's clearly been carefully and intelligently conceived. It's shiny and upbeat and appealing. You'll like it - it's very good and the best car here. The BMW is a strong second (or first, if you value driving above all). It's slick and has few weaknesses - barring the gearchange. The Volvo is a harder sell, as it approaches things from a different perspective to the Germans. It comes across as honest and carefully considered, and, as a result, there's a real warmth to it, and that's a valuable commodity. The Audi, meanwhile, comes across as cold-hearted.

It's not that the A3 is bad, more that it's... disappointing. Instead of raising its game in the face of such a concerted attack, Audi appears to have frozen in the headlights. It won't alienate existing owners, but it's left the door wide open for the others to storm through. And they have.

(Words: Ollie Marriage, Pics: Matt Howell)