You will have heard the story a number of times by now – small luxury is the new big thing, and high-brow hatchbacks have been hitting the market once every few months. Clearly the time is ripe for a proper head-to-head showdown in this hot new segment, and who better to put in the ring than age-old rivals Mercedes-Benz and BMW?
The stunning Mercedes A-class may have made it here first, but the sporty BMW 1-series didn’t take too long to join the fray. And despite the fact that both these cars are of a similar size and price, and target the same kind of customer, as you’ll see, they are actually very different from one another. Choosing a definitive winner is not as easy as you might think. Continued..
Front to back
A key difference between these cars is the way their drivetrains are laid out. In true BMW fashion, the 1-series has a longitudinally mounted engine and rear-wheel drive (RWD), while the Mercedes uses a transversely mounted engine and front-wheel drive (FWD). Now it’s easy to dismiss this as just mechanicals working behind the scenes with no real consequence to their owners, but actually, it influences a lot of things.
The first of these things is styling, and we’ll start with the BMW. Because the engine sits in a ‘north-south’ direction (and BMW likes to push it back away from the nose for better weight distribution), the bonnet has to be long. Then, with limited room left to work with, the cabin has to be upright to have enough space, and the company says this also accentuates its sporty RWD layout. The result is an estate car-like cab-rearward profile, which does look a tad awkward. In fact, the styling overall can be a bit polarising. The pointy ‘shark nose’, thick shoulder line and squat haunches do look nice, but then the stretched sides and rather plain rear end let it down. It certainly gets your attention, but you wouldn’t call it beautiful.
The Mercedes-Benz A-class, on the other hand, is without doubt a stunner from just about every angle. Because of the transverse-engine, front-drive layout, the engine bay is compact, and this means the glasshouse can flow smoothly into the bonnet for a more cohesive look. The design is nothing but curves; it looks tightly skinned with interesting ridges along the doors and a coupé-like window line. And then there are the details – the delightfully complex headlamp cluster, the big star in the grille and the LED-heavy tail-lamps, to name a few. And although the handsome 18-inch wheels on our test car are a paid option, the standard 17-inch ones look great too. If this was a beauty contest, the Merc would win with its eyes closed. Continued..
From the cockpit
These cars are meant to be driven by their owners rather than by a chauffeur – and it’s pretty evident from both sets of front seats that here’s where all the attention has gone.
The BMW flaunts its driver-focussed credentials, angling the central console towards the driver for super ergonomics. Everything you need is within reach and visibility is great too, although perhaps the sports seats on this trim are a bit too supportive for larger frames. But the good thing is that there’s a phenomenal range of adjustments (even the side bolsters and thigh cushions are adjustable) to allow you to find a comfortable position. The quality of materials is really good, although some plastics aren’t up to the high standards you see in German cars these days. The small buttons leave the dash uncluttered, but they don’t feel great to grip. The more pressing issue, however, is that the BMW 1-series just doesn’t feel like a very special place to be – it’s functional, no doubt, but it fails to exude any sense of occasion.
The A 180 CDI’s cabin does a much better job of making you feel like you’ve spent your money well. Mercedes has made sure that every surface you have to look at and touch is perfect. There are a number of rich textures on the dash, including glossy black plastic, soft-touch leather and brushed aluminium finish. A particularly nice detail is the circular air-con vents, which feel really solid to operate and give you a satisfying ‘click’ when you twist them open. Because the gear selector is on the steering column, the central tunnel incorporates a number of cubbyholes, something the BMW’s cabin has very few of. One issue, though, is that the A-class’s cabin doesn’t feel expansive and airy because of its high dashboard, thick pillars and small windows. The fact that you don’t get a sunroof on the A 180 CDI doesn’t help.
In fact, the equipment levels are where the A-class loses out. It’s got the basics – nine airbags, the full lot of electronic safety aids, Bluetooth, aux and USB connectivity, gearshift paddles and automatic wipers. However, it forgoes some essentials that you’d expect from a luxury car. It misses out on parking sensors, leather seats and a sunroof, and only the driver’s seat is powered. There is Merc’s ‘Attention Assist’ drowsiness detector and an engine stop-start system, but wouldn’t you rather have had a pair of fully electric leather seats instead? Interestingly, you do get some of these things on the petrol A-class, which is offered in a higher Sport trim. BMW’s petrol 116i, on the other hand, is offered only in a bare-bones trim, which shows the sharp contrast in the way these companies have prioritised their model range.
The 1-series, meanwhile, is pretty generously kitted out. Although the car you see in the pictures is the top-of-the-line Sportline Plus trim, the more ‘spec-for-spec’ variant is the mid-level Sportline trim, which also does better than the A 180 CDI. The 118d Sportline also misses a few key items, like paddle shifters, xenon headlamps and, shockingly, Bluetooth connectivity. But otherwise, it has just about everything you’d want. Even though the focus is on the front seats, the 1-series gets rear air-con vents to help cool the cabin faster.
Both these cars are four-seaters at best, but if you really had to squeeze a fifth person in, you’d be better off in the Merc. Once again, the drivetrain layout has a part to play. With a thick transmission tunnel running through the 1-series’ cabin, asking someone to sit in the middle of the back seat would just be cruel. The FWD A-class doesn’t have this issue, but its heavily contoured bench doesn’t make it comfy for a third passenger either.
As for rear seat comfort, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The 1-series rear seat offers much better under-thigh support thanks to a long squab, and the large area gives you a good view out. However, the seatback is poorly designed – it’s a bit too upright and seriously lacks lower back support. Jump into the A-class and the first thing you notice is the firm bolstering for the small of your back. But the seat base is too short, and the tiny windows and large front seats really add to the sense of claustrophobia in the cabin.
Both cars are about the same on headroom and legroom, which is far from great. The fact is, these are compact cars and space on the inside, especially at the rear, is at a premium.
The BMW wins on boot space as well. Its 360-litre boot is a touch larger than the Merc’s 341 litres, and the opening is much wider too. The Merc is further burdened with its space-saver spare tyre, which takes up boot space rather than getting its own compartment. Still, at least Mercedes acknowledges that spare tyres are important on Indian roads, unlike BMW that stubbornly offers no spare and persists with run-flat tyres. Continued..
By the numbers
Under the long snout of the 118d is a 1995cc, twin-scroll turbo, four-cylinder engine. It is similar to the one in the 320d, but has been de-tuned for this considerably lighter car. The A-class’s engine is a familiar one too – it’s the 2143cc four-cylinder motor that’s in the C-, E- and even M-class. It’s gone through a sea change to get into the A-class though. It’s been turned through 90 degrees, detuned and drives the front wheels (this engine otherwise sits longitudinally and powers the rear wheels in Merc’s saloons). As for the transmissions, the 118d’s engine is mated to ZF’s brilliant eight-speed torque converter while the A-class comes with a seven-speed twin clutch unit that Merc calls the 7G-DCT. The BMW also has driving modes – Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport+ – that vary levels of throttle response, gearshift points and steering weight. What you get with these is adjustability. Want to park in a tight spot? Switch to Comfort and the steering becomes lighter. Want to have some fun behind the wheel? Sport and Sport+ will hold onto gears longer, add weight to the steering and make the engine more responsive to throttle inputs.
The Merc only gets settings for its transmission – Sport, that holds gears for longer and makes it more responsive to downshift requests; Manual, that gives you more control over gearshifts via the paddles, and Economy, that upshifts at the earliest to save fuel.
Now it’s not rocket science guessing which one is quicker. The 118d weighs a lot less than the A 180 CDI (it is 160kg lighter), and it is the BMW which has a lot more power and torque as well – 141bhp and 32.6kgm versus the Merc’s 107bhp and 25.5kgm. It’s not surprising then that the 118d is almost 2.5 seconds quicker to 100kph than the A 180 CDI. By 160kph, there’s eight seconds of clear air between them. This should give you a hint of how much more alive the 118d feels in the real world. The gearbox is always ready for action and, because it has more gears to play with, is willing to swap ratios the instant you ask for a downshift; and despite peak torque coming in at a higher 1750rpm (the Merc’s kicks in at 1400rpm), the engine simply feels stronger right through the rev-range. It’s also slightly more relaxed at higher speeds – at 100kph, the 118d’s motor, thanks to its taller eighth gear, spins at just 1500rpm while the A-class’s engine is a bit busier at the same speed.
Still, the A 180 CDI’s engine isn’t bad in isolation. It’s got pretty linear power delivery – there’s a gentle surge around 1500rpm, followed by strong thrust upto 4000rpm and the seven-speed, twin-clutch gearbox is quite a competent unit, with shifts that are seamless and very quick. It’s just that in this company, the heavier and less powerful A-class is clearly outclassed.
Then there’s the refinement. For once, it’s the BMW that’s quieter – there is some drone under acceleration but this soon disappears, and at middle to cruising speeds, you can barely hear it.
The Merc, on the other hand, is more audible at idle, louder under hard acceleration and it settles down only when you drive it at higher speeds on a steady throttle.
There’s more good news for the BMW at the fuel pumps, where it delivers slightly better fuel economy than the Mercedes. The 118d manages 11.5kpl in the city, to the A 180 CDI’s 11kpl, and the gap widens on the highway, with 18kpl for the Bimmer playing 15kpl for the Merc. Continued..
A question of sport
Our biggest grouse with the A-class is its thumpy low speed ride. It hates sharp bumps in particular and you can feel more of what’s going under the optional (and bigger) 18-inch wheels that our test car had. We did notice this trait even on the standard 17-inch wheels that come with the car. However, up the speeds, and the A-class’s ride improves considerably. At speed, the stiffer suspension setting really gets a chance to work. Straightline stability is fantastic as well and on a reasonably smooth road, the A-class has a flatter, more composed ride than the 1-series.
BMW has softened and raised the suspension of the 1-series for Indian conditions and at speed on the same surface as the Merc, the ride doesn’t feel as settled. There’s a fair amount of up and down movement, especially in the rear.
The upshot of this suspension set-up is the low speed ride, which is, quite frankly, amazing. Even on the run-flat tyres that BMW insists on using, it is far more capable at masking blemishes and ironing out the smaller bumps than the Merc.
The 118d’s suspension is quiet and the cabin’s generally better isolated from the outside than the Merc’s. Imagine that! In the A-class, you get, especially over coarse surfaces, an abnormal amount of tyre and suspension noise.
That aside, the A 180 CDI is quite impressive to drive. The fantastic grip and great body control will make you wish it had a tad more power to take advantage of the chassis’ high capability.
Still, it’s got all its weight hung over the nose and that’s where the BMW’s better weight distribution gives it the advantage. The 118d feels like all the weight is concentrated in the centre of the car, where you want it to be, and it only gets better as you drive it harder. It feels much more agile and eager to dive into corners, and when you really push it, there’s a bit of understeer. But if you’re really in the mood, you can switch off the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) and get the 118d to wag its tail.
And when you have to stop in a hurry, it’s the A-class’s more feelsome and direct brakes that are better. The 118d’s brakes feel a touch soft at first, and then there’s strong bite.
Onto more everyday things then. The 118d is easier to drive in traffic thanks to the better visibility it affords and the lighter steering. The A-class’s tiny rear window makes it difficult to look out of, especially when you are trying to back up. Also, nasty speed breakers pose a problem for the A-class, while the 1-series with its higher ground clearance tackles them more easily. Continued..
Show versus Go
These hatchbacks are not value propositions – certainly not the BMW. We’d ignore the Rs 29.9 lakh 118d Sportline Plus altogether, but then the lesser Rs 25.9 lakh Sportline is still almost Rs 2.5 lakh more expensive than the A 180 CDI. That’s quite a gap, but do you get what you pay for?
It’s down to style or substance. That’s really the toss up when choosing between these two cars, and we can see why there will be enough customers for either.
The Mercedes A-class looks fantastic and turns heads as easily as sportscars three times its price. There’s something special about the way it looks, and this carries on to the cabin, where everything looks and feels absolutely gorgeous. You feel like you’ve got your money’s worth, despite the omission of some vital equipment. The A 180 CDI performs quite well, it handles pretty decently and it certainly feels more premium than the BMW. And for many, that will be enough.
The 1-series may not have the same feel-good factor as the A-class, but from the moment you thumb the starter button, you realise it’s a much nicer car to drive in just about every way. It’s more responsive, quicker, agile and rides better. The 1-series misses out on the Merc’s ‘wow’ factor, but it’s more convincing from behind the wheel.
If you want to make a big first impression, go with the Mercedes. However, if you want to enjoy a car that you will be driving yourself, it just has to be the BMW. Given the fact that these cars are largely about enjoyment from behind the wheel, it’s the 118d, despite its rather wonky value proposition, that is our pick.