These TWO CARS, Audi A3 and BMW 125i, are more than just your average hatchbacks – they’re premium hot hatches. Sure, each of them has a powerful drivetrain, impressive dynamics 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 R351 500 and R356 480 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 its Valencia Orange colour scheme is very eye-catching. Our test unit also came with the optional Sport Line package, which means it has 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 the 17-inch ‘star spoke’ wheels provide a vivid contrast to the metallic paintwork. Styling-wise, the 125i 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, all panels stretched over the mechanicals of the newcomer 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 cabin very similar in architecture to that of the A1. The layout and positioning of the four air-con bezel vents may seem familiar to previous A3 owners, but the moulding and materials used in the surrounding facia architecture are of a better quality than before. 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 as intuitive as the BMW iDrive system. Surprisingly, the seats don’t feature any electric functionality from standard but neither do the seats in the BMW, which is quite disappointing considering their premium price tags.
Compared to its predecessor, the 1 Series offers a marked improvement in tactile quality and design. Although subjective, some may feel the new cabin still lacks the visual polish of the A3, however you cannot fault the BMW’s build quality. The introduction of red stitching on the BMW’s seats, steering wheel and door panels also help to lift its sombre demeanour and it does have the better sound system of the two rivals.
The A3 pictured here is the range-topping (for now) 1.8TFSI Quattro model, which gets four-wheel drive and 132kW/280Nm accessed via a six-speed S tronic transmission. The A3 felt brisk but not mind-blowingly quick, with a progressive power delivery that borders on that of a naturally aspirated engine. Unlike the Driving Experience Control switch of the BMW, the Audi Drive Select system shows little 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 sharper efficiency. The Audi’s underwhelming performance also reflected in our test results, recording a rather 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 feel is more progressive and linear in its response than the outgoing model, with 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 nomenclature is misleading as it is in fact 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 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 more granular, gruff tone at the top end of the rev range, which spurs you on to attack the horizon. The blown four-pot puts out 160kW and 310Nm of torque available from a lowly 1,350rpm. Torque is spread thickly across the rev range allowing it to accelerate briskly from 60-100kph in just 3.24 seconds -that’s almost a second quicker than the A3’s time. It certainly feels a faster machine and 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 on its 400m acceleration run. Both vehicles were impressively light on fuel considering the power outputs of their engines. In our real-world economy test, the BMW’s 7.31/100km average consumption proved marginally more frugal than the A3’s 7.71/100km.
A gripping tale
Around the track, the rear-drive BMW felt more involving to drive and more alive in the bends than the A3, particularly when its Sport or Sport+ modes were selected. Much of this can be attributed to the A3’s weighty quattro drivetrain which together with its power output affords the more nimble BMW a superior power-to-weight ratio of 121kW/tonne. The BMW’s steering feel and feedback also offers a better connection to the car’s front end of the two. The 125i’s 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 nicely and starts to relay decent amounts of feedback as velocity increases.
It’s confidence-inspiring 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 reassuring with no terminal understeer like some quattros of yesteryear. The more your drive it, the more you appreciate the A3’s fantastic traction. High adhesion levels allow you to link turns together with ever greater assurance. That said, the A3’s lateral grip is spoilt to a degree by its steering, which fails to evoke the same sense of connection due to its synthetic feel and over-assisted nature.
Too close to call
The choice between these two options depends largely on personal taste. Although subjective, the Audi’s refined exterior appeal is better received than the BMW, which despite its sportier trim, still manages to look awkward, dampening its general appeal. The interior gap however, is now far closer. While BMW has made great strides in quality and tactile feel, Audi has merely evolved. Dynamically the differences are more finite. The BMW 125i is the faster, more agile car and the more entertaining of the two to drive, relaying its athleticism with little fuss and shuffling through its eight-speed transmission with alacrity. The A3 by contrast, offers the more comfortable ride quality, greater refinement, better lateral traction and compliance. We could easily recommend either based on an individual’s tastes, wants and needs, but if we’re honest neither option blew us away or stood head and shoulders over its counterpart. The real test for both these will be when the German attack grows stronger later this season with the arrival of Mercedes Benz’s exciting A-Class and VW’s highly anticipated Golf 7. So we suggest you wait, if you can, before deciding on your next Bundesliga champion.