Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz used to be synonymous with big, luxurious sedans and sports cars.
But the world has evolved to meet the demands of a new generation of luxury car buyers that who want something different from their parents' generation.
Nowhere is that more evident than with this trio of compact SUVs - the Audi Q3, BMW X1 and Mercedes-Benz GLA.
The thought of these three proud German luxury marques building what amount to high-riding hatchbacks would have been laughable in the not-too-distant past.
This trio may have more ground clearance and chunkier bodies than their regular hatchback counterparts, but these are, ultimately, cars built with style and affordability as priorities.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t live up to the reputation for quality and luxury that have been earned over decades of producing some of the world’s best cars.
We’ve taken the entry-level model in each range, each of which drives only two wheels. That means the diesel-powered Mercedes-Benz GLA200 CDI and BMW X1 sDrive 18d go up against the petrol-powered Audi Q3 1.4 TFSI.
Which best fits the role of a prestige, city-sized SUV on a budget?
Mercedes-Benz GLA200 CDI
It may be the most expensive of the trio, starting at $47,900 (plus on-road costs), but the baby Benz comes loaded with the most standard equipment.
Included for the price are 18-inch alloy wheels (the largest), “Artico” artificial leather, dual-zone air-conditioning, bi-xenon headlights, satellite-navigation, Bluetooth and an automatic tailgate (the only one here).
The GLA is also the only one of this trio to get a reversing camera plus parking sensors front and rear. Not only that, it also gets Mercedes’ Active Parking Assist system, which can steer the car automatically into a parallel or on-end parking space.
And it gets nine airbags and a pre-crash warning system.
The GLA also boasts the most modern and luxurious looking interior. From the tablet-style infotainment screen that sits proud of the top of the dash to the metal-look plastic trim and the silver air vents, the GLA lives up to the premium expectations.
There’s also plenty of storage up front, including several lidded boxes in the centre console and reasonable door pockets.
The front seats are good too, being comfortable and offering good side support and adjustment.
The 60/40 split/fold rear seats are OK, but the rear is tight for space; both leg-room and shoulder-room for adults is limited, while the sunroof fitted to our test car compromised head-room.
The boot is a good size for such a small car, with 421 litres and a square load area.
On the road the GLA impresses with its composed manners, maintaining Mercedes’ reputation for comfortable, relaxing cars.
The engine lacks the same punch as the BMW and the Audi - even with a healthy 100kW and 300Nm - and can be noisy at times, but it still does a good enough job pulling the GLA along. In fact, while it is down on power and torque compared to the BMW it beat the X1 in our 0-100km/h acceleration test - albeit by the smallest of margins, 0.1 seconds - with an overall time of 11.0 seconds.
It also bested the X1 and Q3 in terms of fuel consumption. Officially it’s claimed to use an average of 4.6L/100km and during our test, which excluded any highway cruising, the GLA used 8.0L/100km. However, based on our previous experience a mixture of urban and highway driving has seen it use approximately 6.5L/100km.
The seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox does a good job shifting on the move, but like most of its kind it’s less smooth at low speeds. Another quibble is the clunky way the stop-start system fires up the engine at times.
On most road surfaces, and particularly in the urban environment, the suspension feels at home and makes the GLA a comfortable small car.
However, the combination of the 18-inch alloys with relatively low profile tyres means the ride quality can feel firm at times.
In the bends the GLA lacks the same agility of the A-Class hatch it is based upon but still feels relatively nimble for a small SUV. The steering is nicely weighted, giving good feedback in the country bends but equally easy to live with in the urban jungle - car parks, traffic, etc.
Mercedes-Benz GLA200 CDI pricing and specifications
Price: $47,900 plus on-roads
Engine: 2.1-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel
Power: 100kW at 3400-4000rpm
Torque: 300Nm at 1400-3000rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Safety: Nine airbags, Attention Assist, Collision Prevention Assist, not crash tested yet
Boot size: 421L
BMW X1 sDrive18d
The X1 is the oldest of this trio, first launched in 2010, but it remains highly competitive against its rivals.
At $46,300 (plus on-road ocsts) it’s $1600 cheaper than the GLA - but $4000 more than than the Q3 - and is still well equipped, even if not quite a match for the GLA.
Standard gear includes 17-inch alloy wheels, rear parking sensors, “Sensatec” fake leather, climate control air-conditioning, auto headlights, satellite-navigation, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming and USB input.
The interior does look a little dated compared to the GLA, as the design lacks the same flair as the Benz, partially because it’s dominated by dark plastics.
It is also a little light on storage. But the seats are the pick of this group, comfortable and supportive in all the right places.
In the back there’s a 40/20/40 split/fold set-up which allows more seating configurations and storage options.
The back seats are flat and unsupportive. But on the plus side there’s good headroom for adults and adequate leg and shoulder-room.
The boot measures 420 litres and has a nice, wide load area.
In typical BMW fashion the X1 excels dynamically, offering the most car-like handling of the trio.
The X1 sits flatter in the bends, the steering reacts sharply and is nicely weighted and the rear-wheel-drive layout (the other two are front-drive) adds to its driver focused dynamics.
Ride comfort is compromised by BMW’s run-flat tyres, which are heavier and have stiffer rubber in the sides, so it can get fussy and transmits more of the imperfections in the road through the cabin.
However, the suspension itself is very compliant and well controlled. The X1 recovers quickly over large bumps that unsettle the other two for longer and generally feels well sorted to the variety of Australian road conditions.
The 2.0-litre turbo diesel boasts the most torque - 320Nm - and feels like it, even if it was fractionally slower than the GLA in our acceleration test. It has plenty of punch once that torque kicks in low in the rev range, from just 1750rpm.
It’s also significantly quieter than the GLA which adds to the premium feeling.
During our test it used 8.4L/100km, well above the claimed 4.9L/100km, but like the GLA we’ve previously had it using around 6.5L/100km during extended tests.
The eight-speed automatic gearbox is also the smoothest of the transmissions here, using its extra gears to make the best of the engine’s flexibility. Being a traditional torque converter transmission, rather than the dual-clutch system in the Benz and Audi, helps it feel smoother in traffic.
BMW X1 sDrive18d pricing and specifications
Price: $46,300 plus on-roads
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel
Power: 105kW at 4000rpm
Torque: 320Nm at 1750rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Safety: Six airbags, 5-star ANCAP crash rating
Boot size: 420L
Audi Q3 1.4 TFSI
Before we get to the 1.4 TFSI in detail it must be pointed out that Audi does offer the Q3 2.0 TDI, which uses a 2.0-litre turbo diesel and is priced from $47,500 (plus on-road costs), so is a more natural competitor to the GLA 200 CDI and X1 18d.
However, Audi has decided to offer the 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine in the Q3 to undercut its rivals by $4000 (X1) and $5600 (GLA), so, in keeping with the entry-level models, that is the car we’re testing.
The 1.4 TFSI and 2.0 TDI share much the same specifications though.
That means 17-inch alloy wheels, rear parking sensors, partial leather seats, dual-zone air-conditioning and auto lights.
You also get Bluetooth phone connectivity with audio streaming, but there is no USB port in the cabin - just Audi’s own input, which means if you want to charge your smartphone in the car you’ve got to pay an extra $100 for the unique Audi Media Interface cable.
The Audi also misses out on navigation, which can only be added as part of a $3790 Technik package (fitted to out test car) that also includes a reversing camera and colour screen. So its price advantage can be diminished significantly if you want to be a closer match to its rivals.
The interior of the Q3 does portray its place at the bottom of the range too. While still boasting the same interior design style that Audi is famous for it lacks the typical high-quality materials you expect from the brand.
There is a lot of grey plastic, some of it hard. Storage is also a bit light on with just a pair of cup holders, the door pockets and the console box for stowing your small items.
Another disappointment is the front seats, which are lacking some side support.
It’s better news in the back for the Q3. There’s good head-room and leg-room for adults, making it the most spacious of this trio.
The boot is the biggest on paper, at 460 litres, and it has a square load area like the GLA.
On the road the Q3 is a very different proposition to the GLA and X1, and not just because of its petrol engine.
Of course, the engine is a big part of it. With 110kW it’s the most powerful but with 250Nm it gives away plenty of pulling power to the GLA and X1; 50Nm and 70Nm respectively.
While it looks out-gunned on paper, in the real world the petrol engine feels more responsive than either diesel. The grunt comes on with more of a rush, making the Q3 feel sportier.
It actually comes on too strong at times. Our test was conducted in wet conditions and the Q3 struggled at times to transmit the power to the road via the front wheels.
In our acceleration test it was particularly noticeable, spinning the front wheels, which meant the slowest time - 11.6 seconds.
Not surprisingly it also used the most fuel on test, 10.1L/100km, up from its claimed 6.2L/100km. Again, our previous experience on longer drives suggests the Q3 1.4 TFSI can do better but the best we’ve seen was around 8.0L/100km; which is still significantly more than the diesels. And it requires premium unleaded petrol too.
The six-speed dual-clutch transmission remains a bugbear for Audi (and parent company Volkswagen) with its low-speed hesitation. But while it can’t match the BMW for smoothness in traffic it does shift smartly on the move.
While not quite a match for the X1 dynamically, the Q3 is definitely one of the sportiest SUVs of this size.
The Q3 feels well balanced in the bends with agile handling and a composed ride. The steering lacks the same level of feel as the BMW but it is nicely weighted for urban duties.
In some respects, with its punchy engine and engaging drive the Q3 feels like a high-riding hot hatch even though it looks the most like a traditional SUV in this group.
Audi Q3 1.4 TFSI pricing and specifications
Price: $42,300 plus on-roads
Engine: 1.4-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol
Power: 110kW at 5000rpm
Torque: 250Nm at 1750rpm
Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
Safety: Six airbags, 5-star ANCAP crash rating
Boot size: 460L
Picking a winner isn’t easy, because even putting aside the petrol/diesel argument the big German brands have each taken different approaches to the compact SUV market.
The X1 and GLA blur the lines between hatch and SUV whereas the Q3 takes a more traditional approach.
All three offer up what buyers want, so splitting them comes down to the details rather than any major problems.
Ultimately it’s the Q3 that finishes in third place but it has nothing to do with it being more traditional. It offers up the best space, is nice to drive and if you are happy to miss out on some of the luxuries, such as navigation, it has a significant price advantage.
Second place goes to the X1 which aside from a plain interior drives well, has a frugal engine and offers good value.
So the winner is the GLA which has the best combination for a comfortable ride, fuel-sipping engine and the most comprehensive list of standard equipment. It also looks and feels the most premium inside.
That makes the GLA the best example of this new generation of compact luxury SUVs.