In today's day and age, urban traffic congestion is an inescapable problem. While earlier, there were some brief instances of relief to be found, it's a rarity today. Sometimes, however, a window opens up briefly. Much like the parting of the clouds, there are moments of sunshine before the traffic closes in again. As luck would have it, we are currently experiencing one such break. The freshly paved and elevated back roads that lead out of Mumbai are miraculously traffic-free this morning and we are determined to make the most of it. Time to play.
Power, performance and pace
I select Sport via the toggle switch on the centre console of the BMW and push the gear selector over to the left into manual. Sharper throttle responses, more revs in each gear and better control over the gearbox are the gains in this case. There are no paddles, so it’s pull back the gear lever for an upshift and push forward for downshift: the reverse of what is normally the case on other cars. BMW claims it’s more natural to push forward for a downshift when you are braking. It takes a bit of getting used to, but soon I’m using all the performance on offer.
Much to my surprise, there is quite a bit here. The 116i’s 1598cc and 134bhp may not seem like much on paper, but there’s a turbocharger and direct injection for more torque, and you get an eight-speed gearbox too. The 1-series takes off with plenty of urgency, even when I give it a casual dab of the right foot, all the 22.4kgm of torque making its presence felt.
Performance ramps up even more aggressively when I squeeze down harder. There’s a lightness and zing to the engine that makes it plenty of fun, and the motor’s willingness to rev hard makes all the difference too. In Sport mode, it also pulls cleanly to 6500rpm with a kick in performance towards the end, which I find particularly pleasing. You can even hear a nice snarl from the engine and the pops of the wastegate from under the bonnet as all the excess energy of the turbo is released. Cycling through all the eight gears, with the tachometer flicking back and forth, also immerses me in the driving experience, the BMW even feeling quick on wide, open stretches. Of little surprise then is the impressively rapid 0-100 time of just 8.8 seconds.
The Mercedes A-class actually ‘feels’ more sporty when I climb in behind the wheel. You sit lower down in this car, and the AMG steering, paddle shifts and snug one-piece ‘Porsche-type’ seats feel really special. I select S for Sport on the central console and the A-class responds pretty nicely to a dab on the throttle. In isolation, it feels peppy enough. But the throttle responses aren’t as positive as on the BMW and I notice that the mid-range on the Merc motor isn’t as strong or as responsive either. The Mercedes’ motor also feels a lot more strained and vocal, which is a bit of a shock; it is a Merc, after all. The seven-speed twin clutch box, however, is reasonably quick to respond when you intervene via the paddles and this makes it easier to access all the limited performance. This motor, like the BMW, also displaces 1.6 litres and uses a turbo and direct injection, but it doesn’t spin as hard, as fast or as freely as the BMW. It pulls till only 6100rpm in comparison and, at 122bhp, also makes less power. There’s considerable bite in the top end of the engine though, and it feels pretty quick when you make good use of the gearbox; which, of course, makes it fun to drive hard. And its 0-100 time of 9.7 seconds isn’t off by too much either. We did however experience some unexpected knocking at part throttle from the engine, especially in the high gears.
Steering, handling, grip and ride
The A-class is fun to drive in an enthusiastic manner. Unlike Mercedes’ larger rear-wheel-drive saloons, like the E or C, this front-wheel-drive A is much, much sharper. I find there’s no soft wooliness here from the suspension when I go from one corner to the next, and no inches and inches of exaggerated spring travel either. So when you attack a corner, the A just darts in. The springs are stiff, body control is good, and while the quick steering feels a bit lifeless, it’s clear after the first set of corners that the ‘pointy’ A-class really is fun to throw around. There is a hint of understeer in longer corners once you start to push really hard and get the wheels sliding, and the Merc does display some front-wheel-drive traits, but that’s only to be expected.
The rear-wheel-drive BMW 1-series is, of course, fundamentally different in the manner it puts power down to the road. And its setup is also very different. Now you’d expect this more driver-focused rear-wheel-drive arrangement to have the sportier suspension setup; it’s why BMW sticks with rear-wheel drive in the first place. But not here. You sit much higher off the ground in the 1-series due to the taller suspension and it’s clearly softer and more absorbent. Also surprising is the way the car steers. The front end lacks sharpness, especially when compared to something like the new 3-series, and there’s a surprising lack of initial precision. So even at medium speeds, the BMW understeers a bit and doesn’t feel very special. The nicer steering, better weight distribution and overall poise only begin to shine as I push the car harder and get the inherent balance of the chassis to work for me. You have to push through a bit of understeer, but once the 1-series is ‘loaded up’ nicely, the car suddenly begins to point more naturally into corners.
In a sort of role reversal, the pliant, long travel suspension setup also gives the BMW a shockingly comfortable ride. The 1-series floats over even diabolic potholes with the poise and rubber-footed suppleness of, err, a Mercedes saloon, and the suspension is even whisper-quiet, with no thuds or whacks filtering in. There is a bit of body movement at higher speeds, but this is of little concern.
The A-class, on the other hand, on its lower profile tyres feels much stiffer. It rides hard over rough patches at low speeds and sharp-angled ridges can at times get a bit uncomfortable. In fact, the suspension only settles down as you go faster. We also found that the low-slung A-class grounded its belly on larger speed breakers if we were not careful.
Despite both these cars costing not much more than Rs 20-odd lakh, they are attractive to look at. In fact, I can’t really remember the last time we were on a shoot and got this much attention with anything but real exotics. The sporty, low-slung profile of the A-class, its chrome grille and the red paint help it stand out. “Which Mercedes is that?” ask plenty of people passing by; so on visual appeal, the Merc is full paisa vasool. The BMW is not as attractive-looking and some of the proportions are a bit odd too; but here, banded with go-faster stripes and the blacked-out ‘kidney grille’, it gets its fair share of attention as well.
The A-class delivers on the inside too. The styling is modern, crisp and minimalist; cabin quality, except for a few buttons, is top grade and the colour display, leather door pads and leathered powered seats make this car feel like it delivers more than you paid for.
The BMW, on the other hand, is totally stripped of goodies on the inside. Even essentials like powered seats and the elbow box cover are missing – criminal at this price. There’s no sign of leather in the cabin – not on the seats, door pads or even on the steering wheel. BMW’s i-Drive has also been savagely axed. What’s worse is the fact that you can’t opt for this equipment even if you are willing to pay for it, and there’s just this one version of the 116i on offer. At least the dials are clear on the BMW, the driver’s seat is supportive and the driving position is good.
Comfort on the 1-series’ rear seat is decent too. Yes, the backrest is too upright, but there’s sufficient legroom and the seat is nice and supportive. There’s much better room in the rear of the A-class, but you are sat low and the low roof makes the rear of the cabin feel dark and gloomy.
This way, or that
In the end it’s pretty clear; the BMW has the better engine and is more fun to drive; but the A-class isn’t too far behind. There’s a lot of driving pleasure to be had from behind the wheel of the Merc too – driving pleasure of a slightly different type maybe, but plenty of fun all the same. Yes, the A-class’s ride is hard, it costs a substantial Rs 3.5 lakhs more than the BMW and it should have been a bit quicker. But what clearly hands over the advantage to the Merc is the fact that the BMW is so poorly equipped, it feels nothing like a luxury car. The A-class, on the other hand, feels like a more compact version of a regular Merc. It drives well and is as well-equipped as a pukka luxury car should be, and that’s exactly what customers in this class want.