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VW Golf vs Audi A3 vs Mercedes A-class (2013) CAR review

By Ben Pulman (photography by George F. Williams)

CAR Features

11 March 2013 23:00

Which is the best premium German family hatchback – the VW Golf Mk7, Audi A3 or Mercedes A-class? CAR gathered an Audi A3 1.4 TFSI SE, a Mercedes A200 Sport and a VW Golf GT 1.4 TSI together in central London to bring you the definitive verdict.

VW has spent billions developing the seventh-gen version of the Golf, Europe’s biggest-selling car – but in doing so it’s spawned the new Audi A3, which besides superior badge kudos, boasts the same oily bits beneath the skin. It’s the enemy within.

And the enemy without is the revolutionary new Mercedes A-class. Revolutionary because it’s gone all conventional: the ‘sandwich platform’ of the Mk1 and Mk2 was groundbreaking, but also costly and complex, so this third-gen A-class is little different to any other front-drive hatch. But the conformist approach means it’s now a real Golf rival. Let’s begin.

VW Golf: evolutionary outside, revolutionary underneath

The Mk7 Golf, then. It sits on the VW Group’s new MQB platform, an acronym as baffling as TV’s TOWIE. But just as one will influence the fake tan take-up of a generation, so MQB will underpin everything VW that is front-drive and has transverse engines, from the Polo to the Passat and more besides. It’s a super-flexible architecture, but one that actually cuts back the complexity of past platforms and uses a standardised set of interchangeable parts from which a variety of different models can be built. And built quickly, as production times are cut by 30%.

But it’s not all out with the old and in with the new, as the modularity means some Golfs have torsion beam rear suspension not seen since the Mk4. So buyers beware: more powerful engines come with multi-link, but any car with 120bhp or less has a solid beam at the back. GTIs, GTDs and Rs aside, around 75% of all Mk7 Golfs sold in the UK will have the simpler suspension. You might not notice the difference on a 84bhp 1.2, but the bean counters in Wolfsburg will.

This press car (of course) doesn’t have basic rear suspension; instead it’s just about the finest-riding car I’ve driven. GT models like this one sit 10mm lower, but it still glides through London with the unruffled sophistication of an S-class. The £795 Adaptive Chassis Control – VW’s three-mode dampers – no doubt helps, but there isn’t a huge difference between Comfort, Normal and Sport, so you should be fine saving cash and sticking with passive shocks.

I bet the Audi has the usual rock-hard ride…

Actually, it doesn’t – the mechanically similar Audi rides nearly as well. It’s an entry level SE on fixed dampers, and rather than the expected firm, crashy ride, all is calm and comfy. The Golf is ultimately more supple, refined and isolating, but it’s remarkable – and following a trend started by the A1, softer SE suspension is a no-cost option on both Sport and S-line A3s, which come as standard with firmer set-ups.

And what about the A-class’s comfort?

I’ve driven three A-classes in the UK, and not one has ridden well. No surprise with a A250 AMG Sport on 18in run-flats, but the A200 CDI Sport (with the Dynamic Handling Package and Selective Damping System) felt like it had selected no damping. Doubtless the basic A180 on 15-inch steels – or an SE on 16s – will ride better, but both look weedy. Instead, this A200 (in top-selling Sport spec on standard 17s) is about the best compromise, as it sticks with the regular springs and dampers when the AMG Sport and Engineered by AMG models above are firmer. Pity the ride is still as resolved as the banking crisis. It’s what I was expecting of the A3.

But if you want a bit of excitement it’s the A-class you need. It might thump and fidget and crash along every road, but the upshot of the Merc’s ‘sporty’ set-up is the best body control and the keenest front-end to swipe into corners. The Golf, and this particular A3, play a different tactic, and their comfort-orientated approach means composure. They might not corner as flatly as the A-class, but on our awful roads both are able to ride out the bumps.

Nothing flusters the Golf, but the A3’s more engaging: even with the VW’s dampers set to Sport the Audi is a little firmer, tighter and tauter. Its 1.4 growls more enthusiastically too, and I prefer the steering: Drive Select is the reserve of Sport and S-line models, and shorn of it all this SE’s rack is sharp, accurate and kick-back free.

And better than the Golf’s. SE and GT models come with Driver Profile Selection, a Drive Select-style system that let’s you toggle between Comfort, Normal, Sport and Eco, or delve into Individual and set your preferred format. On our car you can tweak the dampers, steering, engine, cruise, lights and air-con – though all four settings aren’t available with every function. You can pick Normal or Sport for the steering, the latter adding a little extra weight, but regardless there remains a little lifeless, light spot through the first few degrees of turn – it doesn’t feel as incisive as the A3. For the rest I’d stick the dampers in Normal, the engine in Sport, and not bother with muddling over whether I want Sport or Eco adaptive cruise control.

So the Mercedes is the driver’s car of the three?

Yes, though I’d like a different gearbox in the Merc. It’s the optional seven-speed double-clutch, but it feels like one heavily slipping clutch, so slow is take-up off the line. In the interest of smoothness it slurs shifts, but then feels like an old Maserati automated manual, so you switch it to Sport, and even then it only snaps through the changes at the redline. Plus, unless you turn off Eco mode it won’t kick down until you’ve pushed the throttle through the firewall. A six-speed manual is standard, but have you ever seen a stick-shift Merc? Nearly half of A-class customers are expected to pay £1450 for the 7G-DCT – I extend my deepest sympathies to you herewith. There’s little between the Audi and VW: both have light, slick manuals, but the A3’s stubby gearstick makes it feel the tighter shift.

Are the Audi and VW as closely matched for engine specification?

Yes: this pair also share new turbocharged, direct-injection petrol engines. The modular design is too dull to discuss, but the version in the Golf is particularly impressive: it’s a 138bhp 1.4-litre four, but also a 0.7-litre twin, because the same Active Cylinder Technology that already turns an Aventador’s V12 into a straight-six can shut down half the cylinders under light loads. Official mpg goes up from 54.3 to 58.9mpg, and CO2 emissions fall from 119 to 112g/km, nearly on-par with the (£505 more expensive) 148bhp 2.0 TDI’s 68.9mpg and 106g/km.

It’s an incredible engine: hybrid-quiet at idle, really punchy through the bottom and middle of the rev range, still smooth when you wring its neck, and it spends more time in two-cylinder mode than out of it. An ‘eco’ symbol appears on the screen between the rev counter and speedo to signify when you’re running under two-pot power, and it’s the only indication you’ll have of the change taking place – the switch between four- and two-cylinder mode is imperceptible.

Go on then, does the Golf have an Achilles heel?

The downsides? Despite MQB’s flexibility, VW UK has chosen to offer this intriguing engine in top-trim GT-spec only, so it’s a pricey £23,465 for our five-door. Want the non-ACT 138bhp version? VW UK doesn’t sell that, so next rung down is a 120bhp version of the 1.4 – and that comes with the beam back axle.

The 120bhp engine is the same one that’s in our A3 (it gets the ACT 1.4 later this year) but the difference between the two feels more than 18bhp and 36lb ft. The VW has low-end diesel-like torque, but the Audi could be atmospherically aspirated – it’s smooth, but it’s flat. The A-class is the opposite: 154bhp means it’s the most powerful of our trio, but it’s coarse and it’s loud and, matched to that lethargic gearbox, feels no faster than the Golf.

Talk me through the interiors...

The Merc’s the least refined of our trio too, with the most wind- and road-roar. The Audi shows it up with just a whistle from the wing mirrors – and the VW just blows it away. It’s not Phantom-quiet, but as in the Rolls you spend the first few minutes simply marvelling at how little of the outside world infiltrates the Golf’s cabin. And then you marvel at the quality, from the intricate buttons on the steering wheel to the glovebox lid that closes like a bank vault. And then you spend ages trying to catch out the enormous 8in sat-nav screen. Witchcraft means it senses when your fingers are near, and extra buttons that would otherwise clutter the display suddenly appear. But you think you can be quicker, so you play peep behind the curtain and try to sneak up on it from all angles before it sees you coming. You never win.

It’s a £1100 extra, but all Golfs come with a 5.8in colour touchscreen, plus DAB radio, Bluetooth, air-con, stop/start, tyre pressure monitors, seven airbags and the diff-aping XDS electronics first seen on the Mk6 GTI – and if that’s not enough you’re as ungrateful as Reg was with the Romans. The leader of the PFJ would be equally unimpressed with the extra 16mm VW proudly boasts of between the brake and accelerator: matched with the throttle pedal no longer being floor hinged it’s now a little harder to heel ‘n’ toe.

I challenge you to find fault in the Audi. The Golf’s interior is staid, but the A3’s is hyper-minimalist, with a sliver of dashboard intersected by a thin aluminium strip. It’s truly special, even in SE trim: the wafer-thin pop-out screen makes the A-class’s tablet-style display look like a Chinese knockoff; the air-con controls are beautifully lit and click with way more quality than the others; and if it had the top-spec MMI multimedia system I’d have been eulogising about the ‘touchpad’ integrated into the rotary controller. Could actually do with a bigger rear-view mirror though, and I’d wait for the more practical five-door Sportback.

The A3’s interior feels unique amongst other Audis, but I’ve got no issue with the A-class pinching parts from the rest of Merc’s range when it’s got the air vents from an SLS, the steering wheel from a CLS and a style all its own. And despite the slightly cheap gloss black trim around the iPad-esque screen, it’s Merc’s Comand multimedia system that’s the most intuitive to use. But the seats are stylish rather than supportive, visibility isn’t very good, and we recommend the B-class if you’re planning on carrying any passengers.

Verdict

It all sounds quite damning for the Merc, doesn’t it? There are almost no areas in which it matches (let alone bests) the VW and Audi. And yet, when you’re struggling to tell the Golf and A3 are actually new, it’s an appealing proposition.

But be in no doubt the other two are better. Which is actually best? The Golf offers up a little more ride comfort and refinement, the A3 has one of the best ever interiors, but just as mere seconds might decide which royal tot is heir to the throne, right now it’s too close to call.