There are many views regarding what constitutes a premium product these days. The word is bandied about liberally in motoring evaluations. And a great number of manufacturers have sought to elevate the aura of their brands, infusing products with an impression that reaches higher than the bounds of its intended market.
But veneers of tactile quality and intelligent infotainment systems are only half the story. We must also consider the matter of perception. The medium-sized hatchback sphere might be crowded with contenders. But for this evaluation, we opted to focus on the offerings that are considered as the premium elite — from brands with traditionally prestigious cachets.
Naturally, the German Three come to mind first. But Swedish carmaker Volvo has proven its mettle as a true alternative, with a unique take on what a luxury product ought to be. We decided to forgo the inclusion of the Lexus CT, something of a nonentity in this category with few (if any) takers. Infiniti had also planned to play in the sphere this year. But given its sales performance, it opted to reconsider offering the compact Q30. We opted for middle-range derivatives here, with roughly similar power outputs, kit levels and pricing.
Audi A3 2.0 TFSI S-tronic
We begin with one of the pioneers of the category: the Audi A3. First launched in 1998, the current version is a far cry from its bubble-shaped progenitor.
Technically, it is the newest in this company, having been treated to a minor revision in November 2016. But the changes are minimal; extending to styling tweaks, additional derivatives and specification enhancements. Items such as cruise control are now standard. And Audi addressed its omission of USB outlets by offering not one, but two ports.
As with virtually all vehicles underpinned by the Volkswagen Group MQB platform, one can heap praise upon the road manners of the Audi A3 Sportback. Impeccable decorum over varying surfaces and assuring composure under duress defines the experience. And of course, you have the quality of the interior. It is by no means interesting to look at, but the inherent quality is possibly peerless.
This 2.0 TFSI (140kW and 320Nm) delivers ample shove, complemented by the S-tronic transmission. You could almost think of this as a gentlemanly Volkswagen Golf GTI. Especially since it sprints from standstill to 100km/h in only 0.3 seconds slower than its cousin, when equipped with a DSG gearbox.
Fast facts: Audi A3 2.0 TFSI S-tronic
Claimed Consumption: 5.7l/100km
0-100km/h: 6.8 seconds
Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport
The A-Class led the offensive by Mercedes-Benz to target youthful buyers. But perhaps Oscar Wilde was right when he said that youth is wasted on the young. Because the A-Class seemed to shun the quality and integrity many once associated with the brand. It must be said, however, that the model looks incredible: a sleek silhouette, interesting pleats and dazzling embellishments.
But the promising aesthetics are not commensurate with the drive. The A-Class has an unforgiving ride quality, turgid with a minimal degree of fluidity. The A250 Sport (155kW and 350Nm) is rapid in a straight line, however. In terms of output, this is the closest to the rest of the models here.The next step down is the A200 (115kW and 250Nm).
As expected, the alluring shape of the vehicle resulted in a compromise on practicality. If the BMW 1-Series is cramped, then the A-Class is downright claustrophobic. If styling is at the very top of your criteria list, then the Mercedes-Benz is worth a look. But in every other department, it falls terribly short. Which is disappointing from a manu-facturer that once claimed (believably) to engineer cars like no other.
Fast Facts: Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport
Claimed Consumption: 5.9l/100km
0-100km/h: 6.4 seconds
BMW 120i Steptronic
The notion of a BMW hatchback might have raised eyebrows when the 1-Series was launched in 2004. But remember, it had been done previously with the 3-Series Compact. The 1-Series proved to be a sales hit. When the follow-up arrived in 2011, it continued the trend, despite its peculiar looks and Volkswagen Polo-esque rear lights. But the life-cycle improvement model remedied these quirks in 2015.
It looks far more substantial. And when equipped with one of the additional styling packages on offer — and in the right hue — the 1-Series looks fetching. The 120i (135kW and 290Nm) is just enough with which to enjoy the virtues of rear-wheel drive. The crispness and agility of the BMW is something drivers will relish.
And it should be relished, since the successor is likely to do away with this traditional setup. Indeed, the 1-Series can be fun to pilot with exuberance. But packaging is of course the trade-off to its enthusiast-oriented setup. The interior is somewhat cramped. And the outlay required to make a 1-Series look as good as in the brochure can be steep.
But judging from the number of young, urban professionals who have sought ownership, cost is not a deterrent. And let us not forget the cool factor of BMW — as evidenced by numerous Sunday Times brand surveys.
Fast Facts: BMW 120i Steptronic
Claimed Consumption: 5.5l/100km
0-100km/h: 7.1 seconds
Volvo V40 T4 Inscription Geartronic
When Volvo launched the V40 in 2012 it was another step in the right direction. The range was augmented last year, with an assortment of tweaks. But we still admire the virtues we identified in the V40 nearly five years back. From those cosseting seats that ensconce the posterior, to the cushy texture of the driving experience, the left-field Volvo V40 proffers a soothing character.
You could even say that the feel-good nature of the Volvo is enough to overlook some of its shortcomings. These include a rather outdated digital interface — and the peculiarly cramped front passenger floor area. Shove your foot down and this T4 derivative (140kW and 300Nm) proves that the saintly V40 has a playful side too. It is no slouch. But the fact that it is marginally pricier than some of the equivalent Germans could be a disservice. Then again, be mindful that it is a little more generous with the standard fare, offsetting the amount you would have forked out for options anyway.
Fast Facts: Volvo V40 T4 Inscription Geartronic
From: R463 550
Claimed Consumption: 5.5l/100km
0-100km/h: 6.9 seconds
It is inevitable that brand affinity will play a role in your decision. Especially when it comes to manufacturers holding venerable status and pedigree. Stating that each product brings something unique to the category might diminish the conclusive assurance of an unequivocal winner.
But it is the truth: these offerings are skilled in their own ways. However, some are more equal. The Mercedes-Benz impresses with styling and boulevard appeal. But it disappoints in the areas of dynamics and quality.
The BMW 1-Series is fun to drive and has the snob factor of a covetable emblem. But it falls short in the packaging department.
The same goes for the Volvo, although it offers a cosseting experience and a truly suave personality.
As an all-rounder, the Audi A3 Sportback is victorious: it is the logical choice. It embodies, quite exquisitely, tenets of practicality, unrivalled build quality and peerless refinement. And virtues like these are likely to endure — despite the assertion that it is the blandest-looking car here.
Photography location provided by Melrose Arch. Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo test units provided by respective press offices. A special thanks to Melrose Arch Auto BMW for supplying the 120i demonstration model. Words by Brenwin Naidu, Lerato Matebese, Francois Oosthuizen and Gugu Masuku. Pics by Waldo Swiegers.