Small cars don't have to be unpleasant. With the trend towards driving absurdly huge SUVs finally dying a much-deserved death, luxury carmakers have started looking to offer American customers vehicles that you might actually be able to parallel park. Not surprisingly, the most popular and best of these small luxury cars come from BMW and Audi. From BMW we have the 1-Series, while Audi takes a slightly different approach with the A3.
The two are very similarly priced in base trim, but as you might expect from the Germans, the details are very important. The body styles of these cars are different, with the 1-Series being a coupe and the A3 being a 5-door. I generally prefer Audi's styling to BMW's, but even if we were to compare the looks of the 1-Series to those of the aesthetically pleasing A3 Sedan that was unveiled in Geneva, the 1-Series is still a much better-looking car. The BMW's interior looks better as well, but sit in the seats and you will immediately realize that the leather Audi includes as standard is vastly superior to BMW's base trim leatherette.
It is here that those little details start to make a difference. Almost all of the options are either cheaper, better or both with the Audi. The cold weather packages serve as an excellent example of this. The 1-Series cold weather package costs $900 to the A3's $500, but still lacks the heated mirrors and washer nozzles found on the Audi. It does come with a ski bag, which the Audi does not, but the A3 makes up for this with a set of roof rails. The BMW's moonroof makes for one of the other good examples, the option is $50 less than it is in the Audi, but the A3 has a vastly superior two-piece panoramic sunroof, definitely worth more than the extra $50.
In addition to the BMW's good looks, it does have one other clear advantage over the Audi, and that is its rear-wheel-drive setup, which makes for better handling than the A3's front-drive setup. With all of the money you'll be saving in options you could upgrade to all-wheel-drive with the Audi. This gives the Audi an advantage in the snow, but it's important to remember that the Quattro system found in the A3 is different from the one found in bigger Audis. It uses the same system as the TT, which is called a Haldex system.
The A3 is essentially front-wheel-drive most of the time, with power being rerouted only once the front wheels start to slip, so understeer will still be a problem. If you don't mind spending the extra money, the BMW has a number of options that you won't find at any price on the Audi. Being able to order the 1-Series as a convertible would be an important one, as is the option to upgrade to a 300 horsepower engine, 100hp more than the Audi. European Audi customers have the option of an S or RS model, but Americans have only one engine choice.
The downside is that these options for the BMW could easily put you well over the $45,000 mark, and that is a significant increase from the $29,450 base price. The Audi is definitely better value for money, but if you don't mind spending a bit more to get a bit more, the BMW shouldn't be dismissed.