The two cars you see here are more than just your average fast hatches they’re premium fast hatches. Sure, each of them has a powerful engine, impressive aesthetics and a proven pedigree to match but there’s a certain undeniable poise and exclusivity exhibited by both that affirms their status as front runners in the premium hatch segment well, at least until the revolutionary new Mercedes-Benz A-Class arrives in South Africa next month to take up the challenge. Going head-to-head in this comparison is the third-generation Audi A3 and redesigned BMW 125i that both feature 16-valve four-pot turbocharged lumps, auto transmissions and similar price tags at R351500 and R356480 respectively. On paper then, it’s a pretty evenly matched contest but which one does enough to come up trumps?
The BMW isn’t the prettiest hatch we’ve ever seen but it does look great in the Valencia Orange colour scheme. Our test unit also came with the optional Sport Line package, which means it has exclusive piano-black detailing on items such as the kidney grille, mirror housings, tail pipes, air intakes and rear bumper beading. These understated touches along with the17-inch ‘star spoke’ wheels provide a vivid contrast to the metallic paintwork. Styling-wise, the car looks slightly squashed in profile an optical illusion caused by the glasshouse that tapers towards the Hoffmeister kink at the rear but the pronounced shoulder-line together with classy frameless doors and faceted bonnet do add some credence to the overall package.
As far as looks are concerned you will struggle to spot the difference between the new A3 and its predecessor: a quick clue the fuel filler cover is square on the new model. As similar as the two may look, every panel stretched over the mechanicals of the new car are freshly pressed items and represent the contemporary face of Audi. The test A3 looked resplendent in Glacier White paint with a body-hugging S-Line body kit and complementing black panoramic roof. S-Line adds aggression to the A3’s appearance with sculpted front and rear bumpers that feature horizontally-positioned rectangular foglamps, contoured DTM-like slats and honeycomb inlays. Our A3 also sported 18-inch alloys cut from the same design as the ones found on the RS3 super hatch.
Climb aboard the A3 and you’re greeted by a familiar cabin layout. The positioning of the four air-con bezel vents have become a signature trait of the A3 but the moulding and materials used in the surrounding facia architecture are of a much higher quality than that of the previous versions. The most notable change lies in the evolution of the switchgear, particularly that of the climate control system that now has a more contemporary appearance. Other prominent tweaks include the newly designed S tronic gear lever that looks like a Shure microphone, a seven-inch pop-up LCD screen, a sporty flat-bottomed steering wheel and the inclusion of an electronic park brake. Being an S-line model, the A3 gets specially designed sports seats that come swathed in high-grade cowhide with perforated Alcantara inlays. The MMI controller is relatively simple to operate but isn’t nearly as intuitive as the BMW iDrive system. Surprisingly, the seats don’t feature any electric functionality but neither do the seats in the BMW, which is quite disappointing considering their price points and premium nature.
As upmarket as it may seem, things aren’t as refined when you sit inside the BMW. Yes, the facia is well pieced together but the overall appearance lacks the visual dynamism of the Audi. It’s all rather uninspiring I’m afraid. There are, however, a few effective touches such as the introduction of red stitching on the seats, steering wheel and door panels that lift the otherwise sombre ambience. On a positive note, it does have the better sound system of the two cars, but that’s perhaps a ploy to mask the obtrusive NVH levels that become appreciably annoying at highway speeds.
The A3 pictured here is the range-toping (for now) 1.8TFSI Quattro model, which gets four-wheel drive and 132kW/280Nm accessed via a six-speed S tronic transmission. It’s quick but not mind-blowingly so, with a progressive power delivery that borders on that of a naturally aspirated engine. Compared with the Driving Experience Control switch of the BMW, the Audi Drive Select system shows no real noticeable difference when toggling between the Comfort, Auto and Dynamic settings. The only way to ramp up the powertrain’s hostility is by placing the S tronic box into Sport mode, which then swops cogs with barbaric efficiency. However, our test results didn’t reflect this sentiment: the A3 managed to record a dismal 0-100kph sprint time of 7.9 seconds more than a second off the claimed figure of 6.7. The stopping power is encouraging though. The brake pedal is full of feel and linear in its response, the A3 needing only 2.57 seconds to come to a complete halt from 100kph, compared with the 2.72 seconds of the BMW.
The 125i carries misleading nomenclature as in actual fact it’s powered by the firm’s broadly employed N20 2.0-litre turbocharged engine. It’s a bullish thing and while it doesn’t deliver the turbocharged kick up the backside you’d expect, lifting off the throttle does reward with a resounding wooooosh as the dump valve vents excess air into the atmosphere. The BMW has a course, gravelly tone at the top end of the rev range, which spurs you on to attack the distant horizon. It certainly is a fast machine. The blown four-pot puts out 160kW and 310Nm of torque available from a lowly 1350rpm. The swelling of torque is spread thickly across the rev range allowing it to move briskly from 60-100kph in just 3.24 seconds that’s almost a second quicker than it takes in the A3. Put against the clock, the BMW mustered a 0-100kph dash of 6.7 seconds and a 14.95-seconds quarter-mile, decimating the A3’s 16.05-seconds 400m pass.
Both vehicles are also impressively light on juice considering their zippy engines, however, put through our real-world economy test it’s the BMW that comes up trumps marginally beating the A3’s 7.7l/100km with a read out of 7.3l.
As expected, the rear-drive BMW delivers the most fun in the bends, producing just enough punch to hang the tail out at will granted either Sport or Sport+ mode is selected. It’s all rather intuitive: turn the nose in, balance the throttle, counter-steer and hold the slide. Easy-peasy. The steering is pretty decent, too. Variable sport steering is standard fare and changes the amount of assistance depending on road speed, which means it’s quite light initially but weights-up and starts to relay decent amounts of feedback as velocity increases. There are several downsides though: the ride is very firm and transmits every surface anomaly through the body shell, which annoyingly increases NVH levels.
It’s empowering to be behind the wheel of the A3 because it’s a tar magnet in the twisty bits, sticking to the road surface like a tick to flesh. The running gear isn’t as playful as the BMW’s but the Quattro system is refreshingly direct with no terminal understeer like some four-wheel drive Audis of yesteryear. You only start to appreciate the A3’s fantastic handling abilities as you start linking turns together and push its levels of adhesion to the limit. That said, the A3’s huge reserves of grip are spoilt by the steering, which fails to evoke a reassuring sense of connection due to its synthetic feel and over-assisted nature.
A close call
Let’s run the facts again. The BMW 125i is the fastest car here. It’s also the more entertaining of the two to drive, capable of holding slides with little fuss and shuffling through its eight-speed box with alacrity. If this were a good old-fashioned hot hatch skirmish, the BMW would have walked this comparison but this isn’t a time trial… The BMW lacks the visual allure not only of the A3 but also that of its stable mates, with its predictable and bland interior a habitual BMW foible if ever there was and in this segment a car needs to not only perform adequately but look and feel the part, too. The A3 does this very, very well. It’s got a truly segment-leading cabin garnished with all the qualities you expect from a premium vehicle, a comfortable/smooth ride and it’s cheaper than the BMW. Sure, its performance levels are a little on the tepid side, but 0-100kph and quarter-mile times were never going to be the deciding factor alone for this comparison. In the end it’s the A3 that is the least taxing on body and mind. It’s also the most comfortable to live with every day and the one I’d park in my driveway.