Winner: BMW 125i M-Sport
European makes currently dominate the small car class over $35,000 and, for many buyers, it is their first step into the prestigious world of luxury car brands. The category represents a relatively small but highly competitive field of premium-grade compact cars. The BMW 125i M-Sport started out as defending champion and, after all facts and figure were closely analysed, the classy 125i retained its crown despite tough competition from Audi, Volvo, Mercedes, Renault and Alfa Romeo, with Lexus and Toyota flying the flag for the Asian brands.
The 1-Series follows BMW’s traditional, beautifully balanced driveline configuration with a front-mounted longitudinal engine, mid-ship transmission and rear-wheel drive, in a class packed with front-wheel-drive models. In recent times, BMW 1-series buyers have preferred to pay a little more for the extra power and better equipment in the mid-spec 125i M-Sport model, making it the top-selling version in the range.
There is a touch of sporting elegance and refinement about the 125i M-Sport five-door hatch, both in the way it looks and drives. The distinctive body styling and interior presentation are smart, BMW uses high-quality trim materials, and there is a pleasing attention to detail in the fit and finish. Continuing the slightly sporting character, the 1-series has a cockpit-style cabin layout. It’s a touch tighter on space than some of its peers and is probably best described as cosy rather than cramped. Well-contoured front seats, with a wide range of adjustments, provide great comfort and support.
The 125i hatch is a superb everyday drive, with the technically sophisticated 2.0-litre bi-turbo petrol engine delivering almost hot-hatch performance. Sharp, nimble handling, good steering feel and excellent cornering grip are backed up by a well-controlled ride that is firm but not harsh, making it an involving and enjoyable driver’s car under all conditions. A well-matched eight-speed automatic keeps the engine working in its most effective range and fuel consumption is relatively low, although it still lags slightly behind the hybrid models.
The 125i M-Sport five-door hatch provides the prestige small car buyer with an enjoyably dynamic, high-quality, well-rounded package for everyday use. Although not the cheapest in its class, the 125i M-Sport boasts a relatively high level of standard equipment for this class and its excellent suite of advanced safety features help it achieve a five-star ANCAP rating.
New car warranty is only a basic three-year cover, which is similar to many others in this class, but well below what many manufacturers are offering in other classes. The other area where the 125i falls a little behind is its relatively high depreciation should you intend to sell the car after five years.
Second place: Audi A3 Sportback 1.4 TSFi COD
Hot on the heels of the class-leading BMW125i hatch is Audi’s 1.4 TSFi COD five-door Sportback. As the top-selling variant in the extensive A3 line-up, the 1.4 TSFi COD Sportback sits just above the entry-level model.
The A3’s presentation is first class for this model segment, with high-quality materials and outstanding attention to detail in the trim and interior fittings. Well-placed controls fall naturally to hand and operate with a precise feel. For an upmarket car it is not overly endowed with standard equipment, but like most in its class, it has plenty of extra-cost options to dress it up further if you want.
As a compact five-door hatchback it is one of the roomier models in this category. Although not an exceptionally big car, the A3 uses its passenger space efficiently, seating comfort is among the best in class, and it has plenty of load-carrying versatility, with a respectable luggage compartment and flat-folding 60 /40 split rear seats.
The sophisticated 1.4-litre turbocharged engine, with Audi’s impressive COD (Cylinder On Demand) technology delivers an excellent blend of strong performance and thrifty fuel economy. The engine output is a useful 110kW, while 250Nm of torque developed from 1500rpm to 3500rpm provides plenty of driving flexibility. The COD system can drop from four to two cylinders in a seamless manner when minimal power is needed for cruising, which reduces fuel consumption. The extent of savings, naturally, will depend on the operating conditions and driving style.
Its handling might not be quite as sporty and dynamic as BMW’s 125i, but it has a secure, easy-going nature that makes it nimble around town and enjoyable on the open road, while the ride is among the more comfortable in the class.
Third place: Volvo V40 T4 Inscription
Volvo’s long-serving V40 T4 Inscription five-door hatchback brings a slightly different flavour to the small car over $35,000 class with its unique Swedish character. While the German brands are sportier driver’s cars, the Volvo V40 has a more conservative, comfortable riding focus with generous equipment levels and Volvo’s clinically efficient style of luxury, which still appeals to many buyers.
Volvo tends to run its model cycles longer than some manufacturers, but when you have the basics right a model will endure the test of time. Renowned for its approach to safety, Volvo was an early adopter of advanced technologies such as autonomous emergency braking. Although other manufacturers have caught up, the V40 still rates highly for safety. Blind-spot monitoring was added as a standard feature on the Inscription model in 2017.
The T4 model’s 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine is not quite class leading but delivers a pleasing balance of performance and fuel economy for everyday use. It isn’t as sharp as its German rivals dynamically and the cushioning ride can make it a touch floaty at times, but the handling is still secure.
The Volvo V40 T4 Inscription’s conservative nature may not appeal to everyone, but it is neatly styled, easy to drive, and rather than being a standout in one or two specific areas, it’s a consistently good all-round package.