Battle of the German babies

Months ago, there was no such thing as a luxury hatchback on the street. Then, in May, Mercedes-Benz charted a new path by launching the A-Class. Such were expectations that even before the unveiling, the baby Mercedes had registered 400 bookings. Many thought the company from Stuttgart was getting desperate and was throwing everything it had to win back ground it had lost in India to its Bavarian rivals, BMW and Audi. Whatever the strategy behind the A-Class, it did change the automobile market. The Bavarian duo were forced to respond. And they did. BMW unleashed the power-packed 1-Series hatchback, while Audi quietly unpacked an entry-level variant of its compact SUV, the Q3S. So there you have it, a mouth-watering face-off among three high-end small cars. Which is the best of the babes?

At first sight
The A-Class has a metrosexual design that appeals to both men and women, and if there was one word, however overused, to describe it, then it would be "gorgeous". The AMG-ish front grille and bumper, the clean-cut silhoutte and a rakish LED outline for the headlamps - what more would you look for? It is easily the best-looking Mercedes after the SLS AMG. After this spectacle, the BMW 1-Series appears to have lost a trick or two with its usual Beemer design. Plus, somehow its aggressive front facia and long bonnet don't gel with the straightened rear design, giving it a strange look of a sedan whose boot has been ignorantly chopped off. Audi's clever strategy of an affordable SUV at a hatchback price range is brilliant. The Q3S looks exactly the same as the regular Q3, and so it is quite the head turner on the road.

Inner emotions
As expected, the build and finish in all three cars are top notch. But at this level it is not about what features are available, it's about how special the person behind the wheel feels. The 1-Series interiors are a replica of the 3-Series. The seats are a bit firmer than the other two cars', but the driving position is perfect. The Beemer provides the best view of the road as it doesn't have big, obtrusive A-pillars blocking the driver's vision. This is a boon given India's free-for-all traffic. At the rear, there is just about enough space for two adults, but it is not the most comfortable place to be in. The A-Class has slightly more knee room at the rear, and you don't feel like the walls are closing in. The meticulous planning of Mercedes has ensured that the A-Class's interiors look like the SLS AMG's. This again gives it a sporty and premium feel. The stylish SLS air vents are quite a masterstroke. The Audi feels pretty basic in comparison, with its all-grey look. The infotainment is sad when put alongside the top-of-the-line systems available in the two other hatches. Due to the down trimming of the Q3, even the climate control and the trade mark LED day-time running lights are missing. But what this SUV doesn't sacrifice is space. So rear passengers, raise a special toast to that!

BMW 1-SERIES Engine: 1,995cc diesel Power: 143bhp @4,000rpm Torque: 320Nm @1,750rpm Mileage (ARAI): 20.58 kmpl Gearbox: 8-speed auto Price: Rs 22.9 lakh (Ex-showroom, Delhi)* BMW 1-Series MERCEDES-BENZ A-CLASS Engine: 2143cc diesel Power: 109 bhp @ 5000 RPM Torque: 250 Nm @ 1400 RPM Mileage (ARAI): 20.06 kmpl Gears: 7-speed auto Price: Rs 23.39 (Ex-showroom, Delhi)* Mercedes-Benz  A-Class AUDI Q3 S EDITION Engine: 1968cc diesel Power: 140 bhp @ 4200 RPM Torque: 320 Nm @ 1750 RPM Gearbox: 6-speed manual Mileage: 17.7 kmpl (ARAI) Price: Rs 24.99 lakh (Ex-showroom, Delhi)* Audi Q3 S Edition
Life on the road
BMW cars are driver-oriented vehicles, and the 1-Series is no different. Step on the accelerator and the car just zooms. It is so responsive that you forget that it is a mere hatchback. This firecracker of a car entertains with its brilliant speed and yet is so stable that it gives you a lot of confidence while taking sharp turns. The eight-speed automatic transmission offers incomparable precision, and even though the 1-Series doesn't come with paddle shift, you really don't miss them. The chassis is razor sharp and the power-to-weight ratio is brilliant.

The A-Class is no slouch, but yes, it is the least powered among the trio. However, that said, the Mercedes is a different machine. It's all about linear power which makes it more than comfortable in real-world traffic. You will never feel the car pleading for more juice at any time. Its seven-speed auto gearbox in sports mode gives adequate punch, though there is a slight lag when shifting gears. But then you have the paddle shifters to make up for the lag. The Q3S might have a detuned 2.0-litre diesel heart, but it beats healthily at 140 BHP. Not to forget, it doesn't come with the Quattro technology, because of which it is 140 kg lighter. The six-speed manual is slick, but the actual power rushes in after 2000 rpm, so you will have to change gears on a regular basis.

Which one then?
This is a tricky question and we will have to say that it all depends on what you want. If speed is god and drifting is your religion, then you will worship the BMW 1-Series. But if you love the ruggedness of an SUV and feel luxury is an imposition, then surely the Audi Q3S is your adrenaline boost. But wait, if you use your head and not your heart, it is easy to see the only winner has to be the Mercedes-Benz A-Class. This hatchback makes you look and feel special. Everything about it is exclusive to it, nothing is borrowed from its existing brothers. It might not have the most powerful engine, but what it has is enough. And yes, we repeat, the A-Class makes you feel special.