Audi A3 vs BMW 1-Series

Posted on 15 May, 2008

There’s another niche model in town – the ‘premium’ compact drop-top. Audi’s new A3 cabriolet and BMW’s 1-series convertible are leading the charge, but which is the better buy? We put the pair head-to-head…
Typical – you wait ages for a new premium convertible to turn up, and then two arrive at once! So what better way to greet the new Audi A3 Cabriolet and BMW 1-Series Convertible than by putting them head-to-head in an exclusive twin test?

It was only a matter of time before Audi and BMW entered the compact cabrio sector. With prices for drop-top versions of the larger A4 and 3-Series starting at £26,545 and £31,025 respectively, the German firms were in danger of abandoning the lower end of the market, handing the advantage to models such as the Volkswagen Eos and Vauxhall Astra TwinTop. But now Audi cabrio ownership starts at £20,745 for the new model, while BMW’s drop-top is available from £22,335. In order to keep costs down, both use fabric roofs and proven underpinnings – the A3 is based on the three-door hatchback, while the 1-Series Convertible follows on from the coupé launched last year.

Both of these four-seater soft-tops hit dealers within a month of each other. The BMW arrived two weeks ago, while the Audi will appear in showrooms on 10 May. Among a raft of tempting features, both have roofs that can be lowered on the move, while Audi’s lid claims to be one of the world’s fastest.

There are two petrol engines and two diesels available in the A3 from launch, and here we try the 197bhp 2.0T FSI with optional £1,400 S tronic twin-clutch gearbox. It’s up against a car costing just a few hundred pounds less, the BMW 125i SE, which employs a 3.0-litre six-cylinder 218bhp powerplant.

Both are very evenly matched on paper. Will that continue to be the case as we hit the roads of southern France?

These two cars are well matched in many areas. Both are similarly priced and are close in terms of performance, economy and running costs – they even have identically sized boots.

But in terms of philosophy and execution, the Audi A3 Cabriolet and BMW 1-Series Convertible are poles apart, and will consequently appeal to very different buyers. If you regularly carry four people and want a convertible to be easy to drive and live with, then you won’t be disappointed by the new A3. It offers the benefits of a hatchback with a quick, well constructed and insulated roof. In 2.0-litre turbo guise it’s also a strong performer, but it’s not that much fun to drive.

That’s where the BMW scores well. It has a stiffer chassis which resists shake better, while its rear-drive layout, sharp steering, firm brakes and refined suspension mean it’s more rewarding.

However, drop-tops are bought to look great and make a statement. With that in mind, both are excellent cars that we would have no trouble recommending. But our money would be spent on the BMW, as it comes across as better engineered and more upmarket.