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Luxo hatchbacks: the group test

  1. You are Mercedes. You have spent 15 years of grit, sweat and toil persuading the world it needs a brilliantly packaged, extravagantly engineered mini-MPV, and it’s worked. You’ve sold 2.2 million A-Classes. Congratulations. But now you’re going to squander your unique market position and risk losing your individuality and reputation for thinking outside the box. Sacrifice it all, in other words, merely to build an ‘ordinary’ hatchback. Punchy strategy, Merc.

    You are the reader of this magazine, and I bet you don’t see it like that. You’re thinking this one’s a damn sight better-looking than its nerdy predecessor and won’t fall over in an elk test. You’re thinking it’s a car you wouldn’t mind being seen in. That’s the gamble Merc is hoping will pay off.

    Words: Ollie Marriage
    Pics: Matt Howell

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. Some gamble. The A-Class has merely exchanged fringy practicality for mainstream desirability, a realignment that brings it into a neat and orderly line with every other premium hatchback. They’re all copying a template laid down by the Audi A3, ooh, about 15 years ago. Since then Audi has sold 1.8 million A3s. Yep, it’s been outsold by the Mercedes, which begs the question of why everyone is trying to shoehorn themselves into the A3’s parking space rather than the A-Class’s.

    Two reasons: firstly because it’s a bigger, more predictable and stable segment and, secondly, because these aren’t just cars. They’re brand extensions. The A3 is just one link in the four-ringed chain that progresses buyers from As 1 to 8, with allowable forays off into Q or S ownership. It’s a condensement of what Audi stands for in a way the old A-Class never was.

  3. It also explains why the BMW 1-Series is rear-wheel drive. Sure, there are nice engineering reasons, but there’s also a powerful marketing message in there - that driving matters. The Volvo V40? That’s potentially the odd one out here. As we’ll see, it has a slightly different outlook, like the whole
    car has been approached from a distinct perspective.

    Engine-wise, these are the cars you’re most likely to be looking at. Decent diesels, each with between 134 and 148bhp. With the exception of the Mercedes, all can be had with these engines for less than £22,000, but we’re assuming you’ll want yours to look and feel the part, which means taking a step or two up the spec ladder. So we’re talking £23,000-24,000, which, with the odd optional treat thrown in, ups the ante to, ooh, about £29,000 if most of these cars are representative (clue: they’re not - they’re overdone, especially the £37,510 Merc).

  4. The A-Class is more expensive, primarily because this one has a £1,450 double-clutch ‘box built into its list price, but also because, well, Mercs cost more. All have stop/start technology, The Volvo is in non-sport spec so rides on 16s, while the rest are on 18s. The BMW is available with either three or five doors, the Audi Sportback will be along shortly and the other two are five-door only. Not that that has put the V40 and A-Class at a visual disadvantage.

    It could be because familiarity has yet to take its toll, but both are striking cars. The Volvo is simply well executed. It’s not dashing, low or sporty, but instead accurately relays the strengths that lie within. Just don’t mention the unsightly row of washer jets across the bonnet. There’s more to talk about with the A-Class, chiefly because its design is not flawless. It looks odd, ungainly even, from some angles and distances. You need to step back, take in those flank feature lines, possibly move away from the lugubrious, heavily featured nose.

  5. But it’s a visual treat, a magnet for the eye and clearly reveals its in-house allegiances. Unlike the A4 and 1-Series, the A-Class isn’t a bottom step on the C-, E-, S-Class stairway; instead, it is more closely affiliated to the CLS. It has that sense of style. So, no, it might not work from all angles, but it beats the heck out of its German rivals for attitude and impact.

    I mean, be honest, can you imagine lusting after the A3? It might have the all-new Modularer Querbaukasten (MQB) platform underneath, but this is not a car to toy or tamper with existing owners’ expectations. Instead Audi has chosen to focus on and improve the areas it already does well. The shut lines are immaculate, and, inside, the cabin design and quality are second to none. From the glowing rings around the cupholders to the slender pop-up screen, it is notably better than anything else here. And the layout is so clean and clear.

  6. There don’t seem to be many buttons, and yet it has all the functionality you could want. Visibility is excellent, and space in the back is good, which makes it all the more baffling that the driving position is so wonky. To be specific, the seats won’t drop low enough.

    Not that the Merc does it much better. Here the pedals are too far up the footwell. No biggie, but an oddity considering this is a purpose-built new chassis. You’ll get used to it, and while you do, you’re free to relish the ambience engendered by this cockpit. It’s great, beautifully detailed and lovely to spend time in. It has the best seats, too - wraparound chairs with built-in headrests that are standard on all but the base model. Their chunkiness does serve to make the rear compartment even darker (excepting the panoramic roof fitted here) than it already is, though. Think claustrophobic.

  7. Which brings us on to practicality. Because you should be as shocked as I am to learn that the BMW, despite all the rear-wheel-drive gubbins packed into the back, has the biggest boot. It’s at least as generous for passengers as the Merc, and nothing, not even the Volvo, feels as perfect when you drop into the driver’s seat. It fits. Doesn’t seem to matter what size or shape you are, you get in the 1-Series, and everything from the steering wheel to the pedals and gearlever is precisely where you want it.

    The V40 manages to pull off the same trick nearly as well, just with a more sedate feel. Mind you don’t judge the interior on first impressions, which will likely be coloured by the huddled nest of buttons on the centre console. After a short while, you realise how well organised they are, the only snag being that - unlike the other three with their transmission-tunnel-mounted Comand/MMI/iDrive controls - here you have nowhere to rest your elbow while prodding buttons.

  8. With that and the customisable dials and digital screens, there seems to be a lot going on in the Volvo, but, despite that, it’s just so relaxing. It eases your mind and body. Great seats and a driving experience that isn’t constantly egging you on (step forward, BMW) or overly sharp at low speeds (take a bow, Audi). The Volvo asks nothing of you, other than you drive safely and courteously.

    So you do. You potter and trundle and generally ignore the fact that this is easily the quickest car here. I know the figures say otherwise, but the five-cylinder, 2.0-litre, 258lb ft V40 is a muscular machine. And, despite that extra cylinder, efficient as well. No science here, I’m afraid, but, in equivalent driving situations, we got 56.5mpg from the Volvo, 55.0 from the Bee-Emm and Audi and around 52.0 from the A-Class.

  9. I suspect the Merc lagged due to its auto gearbox. It initially seems out of place on a car of this size, and it’s not the savviest at low speeds, principally due to its short gearing, which sees it rattle through the first four of the seven ratios before it pauses for breath. At least the shifts are swift, but, all in all, it’s not as satisfying a drivetrain as it should be. Noise intrusion is the issue here. It may not waggle its gearlever at start-up like the 118d, but nor is it as smooth and silent as the peachy V40. Once up and running, it’s as if there’s a giant fizzing Alka-Seltzer in the engine bay. It’s quite distracting.

    And it’s not like the engine’s performance is engaging enough to draw attention away from it. It’s flatly consistent, doing nothing of real interest other than modestly increasing your speed. The Audi and Volvo provide more low-down shove ‘n’ punch, while the BMW is more exciting. For a diesel. Quick tip: both the Audi and BMW have switchable modes to enhance the sportiness of the throttle, steering, etc. In the Audi, it makes a bit of difference. In the BMW, you’ll swear the car is literally asleep in Eco Pro mode; up the ante to Sport, and it’s like you’re driving a different car, one that responds snappily and does all the eager stuff you want.

  10. Just be warned the gearchange is obstinate - it won’t be flicked lightly like the other manuals here but needs to be pulled determinedly into each gate. Otherwise, it’s hard to criticise the BMW. On the move, it does nothing badly and plenty of things tremendously. Even with modest power and fat tyres, it’s detectably and enjoyably rear-wheel-drive. It has great steering, changes direction with no slop and is perhaps the most refined and comfortable cruiser here. This car does you credit, BMW.

    The Volvo is the anti-BMW. Not because it’s awful - because it blatantly isn’t - but because it can’t be fussed with that ride and handling nonsense. It does the job well enough, but not so well that there aren’t flaws in the over-assisted, springy steering and occasionally patchy ride. But if you do choose to give it the berries, something odd happens - there are hints that it wants to join in the fun.

  11. 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.

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