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by Daniel DeGasperi

‘Premium’ is perhaps the word most difficult to define in the automotive lexicon.

To some, it may be about delivering an image above the mainstream and the connotations of a badge; to others it may be about the tangibles of a product and the engineering behind the façade.

With the introduction of the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class early this year, the entry point to ‘premium’ small car motoring was reduced to $35,600, which the also-all-new Audi A3 exactly matched when it arrived locally mid this year. The price of the base BMW 1 Series was also revised to exactly the same figure.

Premium hatch comparison 2

At around the same time, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta moved from a premium positioning towards the mainstream – its pricing slashed from $36,990 to $29,350 as featured here in middle-grade Distinctive trim.

The only other non-German in this test, the Volvo V40, hasn’t shifted from its premium pricing structure, costing $36,990 for the D2 Kinetic, which is the only diesel here as a base petrol isn’t available locally. 

Rounding out this comparison is the Volkswagen Golf, the class leader in the mainstream sub-$30,000 small car category that easily ousted Corolla, Mazda 3 and others in a CarAdvice mega-test earlier this year. The $31,990 103TSI Highline is the mainstream car to ultimately test whether premium motoring offers something a cut above, or just asks a pricing premium.

BMW 1 Series 1 BMW 1 Series 6

PRICE AND EQUIPMENT

Between this six-pack, the only common standard equipment items are Bluetooth phone connectivity, cruise control, alloy wheels and rear parking sensors.

The Giulietta and 116i are the least well-equipped cars here. Neither gets Bluetooth audio connectivity, though BMW groups that must-have function with the automatic headlights and wipers (standard on the Alfa Romeo) as part of a $620 option package.

The 116i is the only car here to get regular air conditioning, where the others all get dual-zone climate control with the exception of the A180 that gets a single-zone system.

Audi A3 1

Audi A3 6

The Golf is the only car here with both standard sat-nav and reverse-view camera.

Its VW Group cousin, the A3 1.4 TFSI Attraction, lists both those items on the options list for $2990 – bundled with auto parking, front sensors, larger screen and premium sound – despite already costing more. Our A3 is also the COD (cylinder on demand) version that uses a bit less fuel but carries a $2300 premium ($37,900).

The V40 gets a standard rear-view camera but optional ($2750) sat-nav, where the Giulietta gets (an aftermarket detachable TomTom) nav but no rear-view camera. BMW charges $1200 apiece for sat-nav and a rear-view camera (the latter together with front sensors and auto parking).

Mercedes-Benz A-Class 1

Mercedes-Benz A-Class 7

The Mercedes-Benz matches the VW with a rear camera and front parking sensors, but navigation is optional ($2718 – with digital radio, larger screen and Harman Kardon audio).

The A180 then eclipses the Golf, though, by being the only model here that can automatically manouevre itself into a parallel or perpendicular spot.

While the Volvo and Alfa can’t park themselves at any price, Volkswagen asks $1300 for its auto-parking package, which is bundled with adaptive cruise control and auto-braking function below 30km/h should the car detect a collision and the driver fail to brake.

Volvo V40 1 Volvo V40 6

The V40 is the only car here with standard auto-braking below 50km/h and, in case a pedestrian is hit, uniquely an airbag pops up the bonnet to cushion the blow.

The A180 gets closest to matching the Volvo inventory, with Collision Prevention Assist detecting a collision and alerting the driver, then Pre-Safe tightening seatbelts and raising windows for a collision. But at no stage will the Mercedes-Benz automatically brake for the driver, and adaptive cruise (to match the VW option) is bundled in with lane keep assistance and a blind-spot monitor as a $2264 option.

Audi also offers adaptive cruise control, and it too packages the feature with a standard-on-Benz system that tightens the seatbelts and raises windows in preparation for an accident, in addition to a blind-spot monitor and auto high-beam for $1800. The A3 can’t at any price auto-brake at low speeds as can be optioned in the Golf, however; conversely, the Volkswagen doesn’t offer the latter two features optional on the Audi.

Volkswagen Golf 1 Volkswagen Golf 6

BMW offers a ‘light’ city braking function, blind-spot monitor and collision warning as a $1077 option. All these unquestionably premium safety features are unavailable on the Alfa Romeo.

The Alfa Romeo and Volvo are the only cars on test with cloth trim, where leather is standard on the others and can be optioned-in on the Golf ($2950), V40 ($2500) and Giulietta ($3000 – with electric seat adjustment and heated seats).

Fully electrically adjustable seating is also grouped in the Mercedes-Benz with heated (but not electric-adjust) front seats ($900), in the BMW with all of that plus keyless auto-entry ($2100), and in the Audi with all of that plus an auto-dimming rear-view mirror and auto-fold mirrors ($2990). The Volvo uniquely includes multi-way driver’s seat power adjustment with memory settings as standard.

Alfa Romeo Giulietta 1 Alfa Romeo Giulietta 6

INTERIORS

If the 116i seems sparse in terms of equipment, then that perception isn’t improved with its interior ambience. Vinyl-like leather trim – proper leather is yet another option ($1692) – and splashes of red trim fails to lift the dark interior that is made of only average plastics. At least its largest-here (6.5 inch) colour screen houses the most intuitive user interface – iDrive.

The Giulietta interior is more intriguing but the least premium here. There’s nicely-moulded soft-touch dash surfacing, but also mismatched door trims, a plasticky ‘DNA’ toggle – for Dynamic, Normal and All-Weather modes – and toy-like trip computer switches. Although a pixelated audio screen is shared with a $14,000 Fiat 500, the climate controls rotate nicely and look good with a piano-black finish. The Giulietta presents well for a sub-$30,000 model … which it now is.

Much more impressive are the interiors of the A180 and V40, both of which back their notable safety resumes.

Mercedes-Benz A-Class 8  Mercedes-Benz A-Class 6
Above: Mercedes-Benz A-Class

Our test Benz came with an expensive-looking AMG Line kit that mimics the A45 AMG range flagship. The (popular) package that includes 18-inch wheels – up from 17s – a bodykit, leather/Alcantara bucket seats, contrast interior stitching, carbonfibre-look dash inserts, sports pedals and a Nappa leather steering wheel, in addition to sports suspension, costs just $1990. In any case, the silver and white gauges and aviation-cool circular tri-vents make the A-Class feel thousands of dollars more premium than the 116i.

The centre screen of the Volvo may be the smallest here (5-inch to the remaining cars’ 5.8-inch units) but the high resolution graphics make up for much, proving superior to the aftermarket-looking Benz ‘pod’.  The way the driver interacts with the connectivity systems is also first rate, and better than the Mercedes Comand single rotary knob. The V40 isn’t as flash as the optioned-up A180, but the textured grey plastics and liberal use of silver brightwork present well.

Predictable though it might be, the A3 walks it in for interior design. More than one judge – myself included – summarised that inside is the area the Audi proves its worth over its Volkswagen cousin.

Audi A3 7

Audi A3 8
Above: Audi A3

Highlights include perfectly matched plastics; circular air vent dials that rotate with masterfully damped smoothness; toggle switches lining the dash that flick with well-defined clicks; and a thin centre screen that elegantly rises from the dashboard to display bright, high resolution graphics.

The Golf, meanwhile, has a superb interior for its $21,990 base price, but here, expectations raise with the pricing. The piano-black fascia of the 103TSI Highline is last year’s fashion against the light, art-deco simplicity of the 1.4 TFSI Attraction.

There’s a couple of areas in which the Mark VII Golf takes a slight step backward from the Mark VI, too – the door plastics don’t quite match the dash-top plastics as they used to, for example, and the rear doors get hard and scratchy trim (in the Audi, rear riders don’t get shortchanged with hard plastics). The screen resolution in the Golf hasn’t seemed to take a leap forward over the previous model, either, the infotainment graphics being the grainiest of the colour screens here.

Volkswagen Golf 7

Volkswagen Golf 8
Above: Volkswagen Golf

For long-distance drivers, both the Golf and A3 almost match the benchmark V40 for front seat support and comfort. The Giulietta gets the firmest, least comfortable seats of the group, but it at least offers grippy side supports. The Sport Line 116i goes a step further with electrically adjustable side bolsters and softer seats, tying for comfort with the sports buckets in the Benz.

Further rearward and the A-Class has the most legroom, with 270mm of space behind the front seat position of a 175cm-tall driver. Entry and egress to the Mercedes-Benz is hampered by small doors, however, and thanks partly to an optional sunroof ($2490 – with bi-xenons), there’s also the least amount of headroom here. Add a high beltline and black rooflining, and one rear-seat tester described it as like “sitting in a cave”.

The Alfa comes second for space, with only 10mm less legroom, but it offers much better access, headroom and a rear-seat air vent, but a flat bench.

Alfa Romeo Giulietta 7

Alfa Romeo Giulietta 8
Above: Alfa Romeo Giulietta

The only other cars that get rear vents are the Golf and A3 that equal the V40’s 230mm of back seat space.

The Volvo gets almost bucket-like rear outer seats that provide superb support but put the most squeeze on a middle rider. Despite a cheaper pricetag, the Golf gets a centre fold-down armrest where the A3 joins the 1 Series being the only cars to miss that feature.

Thanks partly to its rear-wheel-drive layout, the BMW gets only 190mm of legroom and a large centre tunnel makes for the least room for centre riders, too.

BMW 1 Series 7

BMW 1 Series 8
Above: BMW 1 Series

There’s also no air vents or map pockets, despite both being available on higher-grade 1 Series models.

Boot space ranges from 380 litres in the VW and Audi, down to 360L (BMW), 350L (Alfa Romeo), 341L (Merc), and 335L (Volvo). There are a few caveats, though, such as the Golf getting a space-saver spare to the A3’s full-size unit, but also including a ski port as an extension of the armrest where its cousin doesn’t.

In addition to the 60:40 split-fold backrests standard across all six cars, the only other models to get fold-down centre sections of the rear backrest beyond the Golf are the Giulietta and A-Class. Both the Alfa Romeo and Volvo also get full-size spare wheels, where Mercedes-Benz and BMW don’t get any, but utilise run-flat tyres.

Volvo V40 7

Volvo V40 8
Above: Volvo V40

ENGINES

The Audi A3 1.4 TFSI Attraction COD and Volkswagen Golf 103TSI Highline both feature a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol four-cylinder engine and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.

The Audi, however, uniquely includes cylinder deactivation technology that allows the engine to run on just two cylinders on light loads, to save fuel. The A3 produces its 103kW at a flat 5000rpm, where the Golf makes that same figure between 4500-6000rpm. Both make 250Nm of torque spread between 1500-3500rpm, and claim an 8.4 second 0-100km/h.

That time is six-tenths slower than the fastest car of the field, the Alfa Romeo Giulietta Distinctive, its 7.8 second 0-100km/h claim applicable both to the manual tested and optional dual-clutch automatic. The Alfa Romeo has the same engine size as the Volkswagen and Audi, but produces a healthier 125kW (at 5500rpm) and identical torque (at a flat 2500rpm).

Audi A3 5

According to the official ADR fuel figures, the Giulietta is a slightly heavier drinker, claiming 5.8L/100km in laboratory tests compared with the Golf’s 5.2L/100km and the A3’s miserly 4.7L/100km. On our tests in mixed conditions, however, the Alfa slurped 8L/100km, marginally behind the Audi’s 7.6L/100km (a flat tyre during our test prevented us getting an accurate fuel figure from the VW).

No coincidence that the lightest cars here – the 1235kg A3, 1265kg Golf and 1269kg Giulietta – are also the fastest and, with the exception of the diesel V40, the most frugal.

The A3 gets within striking distance of the V40 D2 Kinetic for economy, though. The Volvo 1.6-litre turbo claims 4.2L/100km in the official tests but consumed 7.4L/100km on test – narrowing its lead over the Audi from 0.5L in the laboratory to just 0.2L on the road.

Alfa Romeo Giulietta 5

Conversely, the Volvo is nowhere near the front runners for performance. Diesels are traditionally known as much torquier engines than petrols, but although the V40’s 270Nm (produced between 1750-2500rpm) is indeed the highest of this six-pack, it’s only 20Nm ahead of the smaller-engined petrol Volkswagen and Audi. The Volvo’s 84kW at 3600rpm is the lowest of the field, and when combined with a heaviest-car-here 1402kg kerb weight, the resulting 12.1 second 0-100km/h claim is disappointing.

The BMW 116i and Mercedes-Benz A180 both use 1.6-litre turbocharged engines like the Volvo, but those two petrol-engined rivals post much-faster 8.7 second and 9.1 second 0-100km/h claims.

The Mercedes-Benz almost matches the portly kerb weight figure of the Volvo, at 1395kg, where the BMW tips the scales at 1310kg. The A180 also makes barely more power than the V40, with 90kW at 5000rpm, and the least torque here – 200Nm between 1250-4000rpm. Perhaps the kerb weight combined with less grunt meant the Benz had to work harder on test, because across a mixed 500km loop it almost doubled its official 5.8L/100km figure with a disappointing 10.1L/100km result.

Volvo V40 5

The 116i claims the same economy on paper, and makes barely more power and torque – 100kW at 4400rpm and 220Nm between 1350-4300rpm – but its on-test result of 8.5L/100km proved far more impressive.

As with the tested consumption results, however, the driveability rankings didn’t exactly follow the on-paper claims.

The Giulietta may claim to be the fastest car here, but it doesn’t feel like it is because it suffers from low-down turbo lag. Below the 2500rpm peak torque figure it’s tractable enough, but feels dead flat when anything more than holding a set speed is asked. On even slight freeway hills, the dashboard indicator tells the driver to change from sixth to fifth gear and move revs higher than its 2200rpm (at 120km/h) if it is to maintain set speed.

BMW 1 Series 5

The A3 and Golf, by contrast, lope over hills in their taller seventh gears without searching for a lower one. The dual-clutch gearboxes in both of them aren’t perfect – still evident is some surging when the brake is slightly lifted in heavy traffic – but they are for the most part smooth and incisive partners to the best engines here.

The VW Group 1.4-litre turbo is superbly refined and super sweet to rev out. The Alfa Romeo engine is louder and less pleasant to the ear, the six-speed manual of the rubbery and long-throw variety, and the clutch take-up edgy.

In fact, the BMW 1.6-litre and eight-speed automatic is superior to the faster Alfa, transcending its lowly outputs on the way to running the VW Group drivetrains to the wire. An ultra-short first gear makes the 116i feel perky off the line around town, and there’s none of the slight stagger off the line of the Golf and A3. For many drivers, that will be enough alone to place it ahead of them.

Volkswagen Golf 5

The way the BMW engine swings quickly to redline, and sounds louder but raunchier than the Volkswagen and Audi, may also place it ahead for keen drivers. It never feels as brisk – although it’s only 0.3 seconds off their claims – but the slickness of the auto helps greatly.

Conversely, the A-Class feels slower than its performance claim, and it suffers from a thrashy soundtrack, which is heard often as the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic hunts for the right gear. The ‘E’ mode the transmission defaults to on start-up is selfishly economy-focused to the detriment of driveability, and although ‘S’ is quite intuitive during hard driving, it forces the engine to worker harder than it probably needs to around town.

Meanwhile the V40 feels every one of its many seconds to freeway speed. Although the diesel engine is quite refined, with a distantly growly but none-too-clattery soundtrack, it’s slow to rev and the dual-clutch automatic slurs between its six gears. Once up and running, the Volvo feels quite effortless and torquey, as expected from a diesel.

Mercedes-Benz A-Class 5

STEERING, RIDE AND HANDLING

If you’re looking at ‘premium-ness’ from engineering integrity, then the A3, Golf and 116i are in a league of their own against the Giulietta, V40 and A-Class.

The BMW may not quite match the beautiful ride of the Audi and Volkswagen, but this rear-wheel-drive master remains the one to beat for driver enjoyment on a twisty road.

As with the 3 Series and 5 Series, the 1 Series has a pointy front end that loves to be rushed into corners before the throttle is flattened and the supreme chassis balance felt. The 116i is light, delicate and fluent, making the Golf and A3 seem remote and a bit soggy at the front end by comparison. Not only does rear-wheel drive have dynamic benefits, though, but it helps the BMW achieve an excellent, tight turning circle perfect for urban manouevring.

BMW 1 Series 3

BMW 1 Series 4

Without optional big wheels, its ride comfort is also impressive – third only behind the Volkswagen and Audi – and its rough road control the best here.

The only caveat to the BMW’s dynamic repertoire is the steering’s sizeable on-centre vacant patch. But we know from experience that choosing the optional ($669) variable-ratio steering on 1 Series is a valuable selection, improving sharpness and on-centre tactility.

Interestingly, the standard BMW steering splits the difference between the VW Group cousins. The Golf’s steering has greater weighting consistency than the A3 and feels more progressive as you start to move the wheel off centre. The A3 is too light in the first degrees of steering movement before it gets heavier.

Audi A3 3

Audi A3 4

But the Audi and Volkswagen both have nicely balanced and really quite enjoyable handling characteristics, though each prefers more sweeping and flowing roads to the tight mountain passes the BMW revels in.

The upshot is superb ride quality. There’s nuances of suspension difference between the Audi and Volkswagen, too – the A3 is surprisingly softer, with a slight floatiness but not necessarily a plusher urban ride. The Golf has a fantastic comfort-versus-control compromise but seems to pick up slightly more imperfections on the freeway at speed.

There’s less bodyroll in the Alfa Romeo Giulietta and Mercedes-Benz A180 than the Audi, BMW and Volkswagen, but far worse ride quality. Around town the Giulietta rides with firmly disciplined compliance, and although it can be a touch busy, it isn’t as constantly grumbly as our tested A180 on sports suspension.

Volkswagen Golf 3

Volkswagen Golf 4

On our back-to-back country road loop, the Alfa showed a slight lack of both compliance and control, proving both fidgety and flighty depending on the bump. Over undulations it would bounce too much, yet it would crash through sharper edged imperfections.

The Alfa has quite immediate, reactive steering, resulting in a keenness to turn-in that implies a high level dynamic ability. At least on smooth roads, the Giulietta is surprisingly grippy and stable, rather than playful and adjustable.

The A180 has more progressive steering, but its fast 2.1 turns lock-to-lock is deceiving because the large wheels impact the turning circle, which is massive. There’s also a looseness to the steering as lock is wound on that betrays the superbly tactile response of other Benz systems in the C-, E- and even S-Class.

Alfa Romeo Giulietta 3

Alfa Romeo Giulietta 4

Yet the handling of the Benz is anything but progressive.

It sits flat, grips better than any car here at the front, and the rear end slightly pivots to help the nose point. Clearly, there’s more A45 AMG in the A180 than just the bodykit, but as with that performance flagship it is one-dimensional and likes bumps even less.

On country roads the A-Class was the worst car here both from a driver control and passenger comfort perspective. It crashed through badly over pot holes, and slammed into its bump stops over undulations which then caused the whole dashboard to shudder.

Mercedes-Benz A-Class 3

Mercedes-Benz A-Class 4

The Benz’s country road ride proved as poor as the Volvo’s urban ride. For a car riding on 55-aspect Michelin ‘eco’ tyres, it’s surprising the way the V40 picks up every minute bump or ripple on the road and sends it through to occupants.

At speed the ride improves, and the Volvo was better than the Alfa and Benz on our country road test. It’s at least quiet and absorbed big hits far more smoothly than those two, although it remained restless.

Steering is also the highlight of the Volvo’s dynamics, with decent on-centre feel and consistent mid-weighting as lock is wound on. The chubby ‘eco’ tyres lack some grip though V40’s chassis balance is decent, even if it does feel heavy on its feet and will understeer early.

Volvo V40 3

Volvo V40 4

VERDICT

There’s a likeable car in the stylish and nicely finished Volvo V40, which also offers smart technology such as the pedestrian airbag and City Safety auto-braking as standard. But it needs suspension refinements, a competitive engine and either more equipment or a lower price.

The Mercedes-Benz A-Class, likewise, looks good outside and in and features standard technology, plus its petrol drivetrain is superior to the V40’s, if thirstier. The A180 does, however, lacks the premium engineering expected of Mercedes-Benz.

A much more realistic value equation lifts the Alfa Romeo Giulietta into fourth place.

Volvo V40 2

Mercedes-Benz A-Class 2

 

Its ride and handling balance is marginally more convincing than the Benz and Volvo, although its interior is the least impressive here, its turbo engine is laggy and it lacks some safety equipment. The characterful Italian isn’t premium, but then it doesn’t ask a premium, either.

The BMW 116i should challenge the front runners in this contest because, although it isn’t premium in terms of its interior furnishings, it absolutely is in its engineering and that’s the brief for this comparison test – for these small hatchbacks to genuinely feel a cut above the mainstream small car crowd.

The value equation needs to be much more convincing, though.

Alfa Romeo Giulietta 2

BMW 1 Series 2

Which leaves the Audi A3 and Volkswagen Golf cousins. From a driving perspective, the Golf is the better car, with nicer steering and slightly more accomplished underpinnings.

Conversely, the A3 feels more premium in its interior furnishings and fit out. With the brief in mind, the Audi has the potential to be the winner – and many buyers who could afford the extra would clearly opt for the Audi badge as a preference. As with the BMW, however, the value proposition is left short with the likes of optional navigation and a reverse-view camera that shouldn’t come at a premium on a premium car.

Its cheaper cousin has those items standard, still leaving buyers with plenty of room to option premium safety tech that still remains optional on the A3. And, by the narrowest of margins, the Volkswagen Golf wins by being a hatch that successfully bridges the mainstream/premium divide with sufficient luxury and a wealth of refinement.

Audi A3 2

Volkswagen Golf 2

This comparison review first appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of the CarAdvice iPad magazine app. Head to the Apple App Store to download the entire issue.

Photography by Easton Chang.

Alfa Romeo Giulietta Distinctive
 
Price: $29,350 (as tested)
Engine: 1.4-litre 4-cyl turbo petrol
Power: 125kW at 5500rpm
Torque: 250Nm at 2500rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
0-100km/h: 7.8 seconds
Fuel consumption: 5.8L/100km claimed (8.0L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 134g/km

Audi A3 1.4TFSI Attraction COD
 
Price: $37,900 ($42,890 as tested)
Engine: 1.4-litre 4-cyl turbo petrol
Power: 103kW at 5000rpm
Torque: 250Nm at 1500-3500rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
0-100km/h: 8.4 seconds
Fuel consumption: 4.7L/100km claimed (7.6L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 110g/km

BMW 116i Sport Line
 
Price: $35,600 ($39,720 as tested)
Engine: 1.6-litre 4-cyl turbo petrol
Power: 100kW at 4400rpm
Torque: 220Nm at 1350-4300rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 8.7 seconds
Fuel consumption: 5.8L/100km claimed (8.5L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 134g/km

Mercedes-Benz A180
 
Price: $35,600 ($40,080 as tested)
Engine: 1.6-litre 4-cyl turbo petrol
Power: 90kW at 5000rpm
Torque: 200Nm at 1250-4000rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
0-100km/h: 9.1 seconds
Fuel consumption: 5.8L/100km claimed (10.1L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 135g/km

Volkswagen Golf 103TSI Highline
 
Price: $31,990 ($35,440 as tested)
Engine: 1.4-litre 4-cyl turbo petrol
Power: 103kW at 4500-6000rpm
Torque: 360Nm at 1500-3500rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
0-100km/h: 8.4 seconds
Fuel consumption: 5.2L/100km claimed
CO2 emissions: 121g/km

Volvo V40 D2 Kinetic
 
Price: $36,990 (as tested)
Engine: 1.6-litre 4-cyl turbo diesel
Power: 84kW at 3600rpm
Torque: 270Nm at 1750-2500rpm
Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
0-100km/h: 12.1 seconds
Fuel consumption: 4.2L/100km claimed (7.4L/100km on test)
CO2 emissions: 110g/km