BASE JUMPING

INFINITI TAKES ON THE ESTABLISHED ENTRY PREMIUM HATCH HIERARCHY… WITH UNEXPECTED RESULTS

WORDS BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS PHOTOS NATHAN JACOBS

2016 MAY have been a terrible year for democracy with the UK Brexit-ing herself out of the European Union and Trump blundering into the White House. But one carmaker bucked the trend with a bold symbol of internationalism.

Brandishing Japanese design, leveraging German engineering (using Mercedes-Benz’s front-drive architecture) and built in England for reasons probably only Brazilian Carlos Ghosn knows, the Infiniti Q30 represents hope for unity and cooperation.

But does Infiniti’s Audi A3 rival have what it needs to go against the premium small-car establishment? Or is this just a hot mess of identity confusion?

The thing is, the high-riding 1.6t GT opener from $38,900 is about $4500 less than the Benz GLA crossover it most closely aligns to, or just $500 more than the lowslung A180, so the latter is what we’re pitching Japan’s hopeful against. Suddenly, in SUV-crazy Australia, the sub-$40K premium hatch stoush is about to become very interesting.

While metallic paint is the test Infiniti’s only option, our A180 arrived wearing a $44,000 sticker, courtesy of an AMG-branded appearance package, fancy paint, LED headlights and a sunroof. But what a transformation. Sexy, sporty and squat, this base A180 could totally pull off an A45 badge kit.

Joining this extended family feud are two ferocious foes who have – like the A-Class back in late 2015 – undergone minor styling and spec makeovers (contained mainly to headlights, tail-lights, multimedia systems, and cabin materials), and major powertrain changes.

Has it really been 20 years since the original A3 hit our streets? If you ignore ’80s misfits such as the Alfa 33 and Volvo 360, it was Ingolstadt’s genius decision to dovetail development of its secret all-new premium hatch with sister-brand Volkswagen’s aspirational Golf that really begat this segment.

Three generations later, the German sisters sire off the MQB platform that helped the Wolfsburg version claim our 2013 COTY gong. With such impeccable provenance then, the A3 Sportback 1.0 TFSI that arrived with last November’s facelift scores an early showroom victory at just $35,900.

Which leads us to our final contestant as well as the oldest vehicle here, the 118i. Admittedly, the first BMW Compact did beat Audi’s original A3 to market by a couple of years back in the day, but debasing an E36 3 Series with a Manx cat-style stunted tail while destabilising its renowned dynamics with a cheapo rear suspension utterly missed the marque.

To Munich’s credit, no such anomalies have blighted two iterations of 1 Series over the last dozen years. The latest F20, launched in 2011 but updated in 2015, sees the 118i kick off from a tenner under $38,000. Ours wears a $46K sticker thanks to an Urban Line pack consisting of leather and sports wheel, 17-inch alloys, metallic paint, sunroof, front sensors, Lane Departure Warning and Autonomous Emergency Braking (the only model here not having AEB as standard).

What the BMW does deliver is the test’s only longitudinal rear-wheel-drive layout… and you know what? Pushing rather than pulling doesn’t come at the cost of interior packaging. And that’s no alternative fact.

Big diff hump or not, the proudly cab-backward 118 is old-school on-brand driver-focused solidity inside, underlined by a no-nonsense austerity, firm yet supportive front seats, and the now-sorted iDrive

interface. As with all the hatchbacks here, front legroom is vast if nobody’s sat behind, with the cushions capable of being positioned low enough for that bathtub feel – a bit of a Chris Bangle-era trait, betraying this 2011-vintage Bavarian’s advancing years.

Furthermore, the defining ‘Hofmeister kink’ in the 118i’s rear door actually aids entry/egress. Headroom is sufficient, the backrest well angled, and knee space is fine. On the flipside, that wide floor hump plays havoc with middle-occupant feet, greater thigh support would be welcome, and there’s a dearth of vents, storage, and individual reading lights. All for the driver, then.

Only the Audi obliges with all of the above, and then goes further by providing the largest, roomiest, brightest, easiest to access and most accommodating interior. It’s also the widest and airiest, the upshot of the six-window design silhouette. Here’s your ride if rear passenger space and amenities are paramount.

And that dashboard! Still modern and daring five years on, the A3’s fascia is functional art, like a Kitchen Aid blender, effortlessly meshing multi-faceted design.

Nothing seems wasted or excessive, much is sensual, and everything is cultured. For sheer showroom charisma, look no further.

Similarly, the A180 also exudes a certain swagger and charm, but to an audience that might appreciate Lady Gaga more than, say, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.

Brash, bold and youthful in AMG Line guise, the Benz’s packaging is almost anti-Audi, down to the coupelike roof line and cosier rear quarters. Artificial seat materials gel well with the cold black running-shoe ambience, but that – and a cacophony of squeaks and rattles in our admittedly high-mileage test car – also sit awkwardly with the Three Pointed Star’s blue chip reputation. This isn’t your grandfather’s W123 230E.

Funky to behold, the tombstone-shaped front seats spoon your butt well enough, but completely ignore the upper back. Getting to the rear bench requires neckangling gymnastics, the low cushion offers scant support and the high waistline promotes a hemmed-in feel.

Considering how much MFA parts commonality exists between the two, the Q30 makes a better fist of things, beginning with its loftier hip point afforded by the extra ride height. The relatively plush front seats are easily more supportive (though the rears are identical), forward vision is better, and there’s a greater sense of spaciousness. The three-year head start the Q30 enjoyed has clearly been put to good use.

THE TURBO-TRIPLE A3 SUFFERS ALMOST NO PERFORMANCE DOWNGRADING DUE TO POWERTRAIN DOWNSIZING

WHERE’S LEXUS AND VOLVO?

Two conspicuous absentees are the Lexus CT200h and Volvo V40, but both fall short of the class leaders for the same reason – namely, a hard ride and poor packaging. The Japanese car is based on outgoing Toyota tech while the Swede is a throwback to the company’s Ford Focus. The good news for both new replacements are imminent. hatch class the shake-up it needs… y days, being based on the current F brands is that very promising all-ne Maybe they’ll give the premium hatc

MEET THE ALLIANCE

Using the MFA modular transverse architecture that also underpins the current Mercedes A/B/GLA small cars (Daimler and Renault/Nissan Alliance have small shares in each other), the Q30 (and its QX30 AWD twin) is actually based on the higher-riding GLA crossover, right down to powertrain, suspension and structural hard points. Only the successfully on-brand styling, some interior components, and chassis tuning (carried out in the UK where the Q30 is built) delineate the two.

Plus, the 1.6t GT is far from basic, being the best equipped, barring a glaring reverse camera omission.

All visible surfaces are soft to the touch, the finish is exemplary, and its cabin is the quietest. We’re no fans of the wilfully unintuitive multimedia system, though, and there’s no visual cohesion with the mixing of Mercedes- Benz and Nissan switchgear. This is like the lovechild between an A-Class and a Qashqai. Remember, Infiniti, your deadliest rival is the A3...

Oddly, considering that the same money buys a Holden Calais, there isn’t a single rear-seat centre armrest among this chi-chi hatchback quartet. Even the Holden Premier of half a century ago had one.

Thankfully, there has been no performance downgrading due to any powertrain downsizing, though only the A3 and Q30 – with their respective 1.0 TFSI and 1.6t designations – aren’t attempting to exaggerate the size of their donks. Unlike the A180 and 118i.

On paper, the Q30’s zingy 115kW/250Nm 1.6-litre turbo (nicked from the homely Benz B180) ought to be the strongest by some margin. And, sure enough, mated to Mercedes’ seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, it feels brisk at take-off following the now-inevitable DCT/turbo moment of hesitation, and then keeps on pulling hard, managing a reasonable 6.6sec from 80 to 120km/h. But its ho-hum 0-100km/h time of 9.5sec reflects the crossover’s hefty 1470kg mass.

In contrast, the A180 with a 90kW/200Nm tune of the Infiniti’s four-cylinder powertrain, blitzed up the strip: 9.2sec to 100km/h and an ever-widening gap thereafter. In fact, these figures are deceptive because the sparkling A180 felt considerably rortier and livelier across the entire rev range, and that’s probably due to a combination of lower weight (by about 80kg) and higher mileage (10,000km versus 3000km). The latter was probably also behind the Benz’s superior fuel efficiency (7.7L/100km versus the Q30’s 7.9).

The reverse situation applied to our box-fresh 118i. Its 100kW/220Nm 1.5-litre three-pot turbo lobbed in with just under 500km on the clock, and so felt extremely green. Still, tied to the foursome’s only torque-converter auto (and ZF’s brilliantly intuitive eight-speeder at that), the 1320kg BMW relies on a swell of mid-range urge and perfectly placed ratios to pile on speed quickly, and remarkably effortlessly.

For such a tight unit, achieving 9.6sec to 100km/h is actually promising, as is the 6.9sec from 80-120km/h.

By the end this engine already felt freer and friskier.

A 3000km-old Mini Clubman with the same 1.5 lopped almost a second off both results during a comparo last year. The quartet’s thirstiest fuel consumption figure (8.0L/100km) should also improve with mileage.

Would it ever match the 85kW/200Nm 1.0-litre threecylinder turbo A3’s laudable 6.6L/100km though?

Unlikely, as the Audi was also barely run-in, and – believe us – this sweet yet stirring little firecracker was caned mercilessly. At just 1200kg, being the posse’s featherweight also assisted, as did an annoyingly lazy and intrusive idle-stop system that most owners would surely shutdown forever.

Possessing the slickest and most responsive dualclutch of the bunch helped the dinkiest powertrain

WITH ITS HOT-HATCH FLAVOUR, THE A-CLASS COULD PUT A MASSIVE GRIN ON EVEN THE GLUMMEST FACE

here achieve its 9.9sec sprint to 100km/h, and even saw seven-flat from 80-120km/h, so the base A3 Sportback is hardly compromised by its tiny heart. Like all the terrific little turbos assembled here, the A3 thrives on revs, forcefully punching above its weight and rarely getting caught off-boost. Past the occasional low-speed acceleration hiccup, we’d bet that few passengers would even pick that a trio of cylinders beat beyond the Audi’s (and BMW’s) well-insulated firewalls.

But we’d wager they’d soon tire of the Sportback’s equally boisterous ride.

The 1.0 TFSI is the first current-shape A3 petrol variant to downgrade to a torsion beam rear suspension (joining the near-invisible 1.6 TDI turbo-diesel). This is a retrograde step for two reasons.

Firstly, the Audi’s lower-speed comfort rating has taken a dive, with the rear axle now struggling to calmly absorb the sort of minor irregularities that the previous – and continuing on every other A3 – multi-link back end so ably coped with. And bigger bumps can cause the car to skip slightly. It’s as if the front and rear ends no longer work in unison. All semblance of settled suppleness vanishes the moment smooth road surfaces do. There also seems to be greater tyre and road noise.

Secondly, the more sophisticated rear end kinematics of multi-link A3s that helps direct the front end seamlessly through faster corners is absent, resulting in more isolated steering as well as duller, more inert handling. Sure, pressing on and shifting load onto its outside rear certainly aids the torsion-beam A3’s turn-in and balance, but that lithe athleticism central to the best MQB set-ups has vanished. Indeeed, hit a pothole and the whole thing will jolt off course like it’s just broken a stiletto mid-boogie. Has BMW’s sorry experience with the bean-counter-stripped E36 Compact amounted to nil?

Solution? Simply pay the extra $4000 and step up to the continuing 110kW A3 1.4 TFSI, restoring the independent multi-link back end. Problem solved.

A tetchy, at times pounding ride, also hurts the A180 on AMG Line 18s over anything other than gentle or glassy surfaces. But the Mercedes behaves like she’s dressed and ready for the track, with swift steering, agile handling, and rock-solid roadholding that can put a massive girl/boy-racer grin on the glummest face. There is a sub hot-hatch fervour to the A-Class’s dynamics that almost make you forgive just how harsh and vociferous its underpinnings can be.

Like the Audi, much of this pain can be avoided by choosing the enticing A200 from $44K, with heaps more oomph and the essential standard adaptive dampers.

We’re starting to see a pattern here.

Or… consider the Q30. Compared to the other two, it somehow suggests the sort of cocooning long-travel suspension comfort and softness associated with oldschool French cars (and the latest Peugeot 308), without the penalty of excessive body roll.

This is the first MFA vehicle we’ve tested with a cushy ride, and yet the A-Class’s core dynamic goodness essentially remains intact. Q30’s steering turns in with measured surety, backed up by accurate and planted handling. Jumping from the knuckled-down Benz to the

AS THE ONLY REAR-DRIVE HATCH ON OFFER, THE BMW NEEDS TO BE CELEBRATED FOR WHAT IT DELIVERS TO THE KEEN DRIVER

AUDI A3 1.0 TFSI

Five years on, the A3’s exquisite dash remains a class winner for aesthetics, quality, functionality and presentation. It sets the standard for sophisticated simplicity, gorgeous detailing, lovely surfacing, beautiful instrumentation, switchgear tactility and its aroma, which is rich and inviting. A3 also offers the quartet’s only rear air vents, and it has the best lighting at night, with a warm-white elegance providing pinpoint clarity. Central multimedia screen rises from inside the dashbaord. Cargo volume is 380 litres – impressive considering the Audi has the group’s only (space-saver) spare.

BMW 118i

Solid, austere dash architecture is reassuringly old-school BMW, down to the ’80s orange hue for illumination. iDrive is brilliantly intuitive, ventilation is ample, and multimedia graphics (including the GPS map and the group’s only standard digital radio) are first class. Front seats are supportive, if violently spring-loaded to raise/lower, while the manual handbrake is a welcome nostalgic throwback. Coarse-grained plastics only look cheap, while no digital speedo or rear air vents is penny-pinching. Boot space is 360 litres, while tyres are run-flats.

INFINITI Q30 GT

Messy stylistically (Infiniti calls it “dissymmetry”), yet Q30’s Benz-derived dash actually benefits from Nissan know-how, with better materials, fewer squeaks (bar the shared instrumentation), comfier seats (the only car here with driver’s lumbar adjust), and more standard kit like keyless entry.

AWOL reverse camera is an insane oversight, while the Nissan-sourced multimedia interface is infuriatingly fiddly. No rear vents or reading lights like A-Class, but loftier seat heights make Infiniti entry/egress better, and headroom is greater. Boot is biggest here at 430 litres. Tyre inflation kit ousts spare.

MERCEDES A180

Racy-looking dashboard is well off Audi’s pace, but as a premium semi-hot hatch, the ambience is on target and the driving position spot-on. My First GPS graphics within the non-touchscreen tablet are a long way from looking premium. Ergonomic drawbacks include annoying column-shift lever, distant and fiddly climate control, and ’70s retro-cool tombstone seats that look terrific but lack upper-back support, though cushion is well-sculptured. But beware everpresent cabin rattles (mainly B-pillar belt adjusters) are unfortunate companions. Boot capacity is an average 341 litres. Run-flat tyres mean there’s no spare.

REPULSIVE HISTORY

Infiniti is Nissan’s luxury brand, but the latter has been in bed with other European premium manufacturers before – most infamously with Alfa Romeo. That resulted in the 1983-87 Arna, based on the dismal N12 Pulsar. What could be more alluring than an Italianassembled Japanese hatch with an Alfasud powertrain and a Datsun rear axle? Though sales understandably tanked, some 53,000 were built before Fiat took ownership of Alfa Romeo in 1987.

AUDI A3 1.0 TFSI

$35,900/As tested $37,300** Drivetrain Engine in-line 3, dohc, 12v, turbo Layout front engine (east-west), front drive Capacity 999cc Power 85kW @ 5000-5500rpm Torque 200Nm @ 2000-3500rpm Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch Chassis Body steel, 5 doors, 5 seats L/W/H/W–B 4313/1785/1426/2637mm Front/rear track 1543/1514mm Weight 1275kg Boot capacity 380 litres Fuel/capacity 95 octane/50 litres Fuel consumption 6.6L/100km (test average) Suspension Front: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar Rear: torsion beam, coil springs, anti-roll bar Steering electric rack-and-pinion Turning Circle 10.9m (2.8 turns lock-to-lock) Front brakes ventilated discs (288mm) Rear brakes solid discs (272mm) Tyres Goodyear Efficient Grip Tyre size 205/55R16 91W Safety NCAP rating (AUS) Performance Power-to-weight: 67kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 6100/6200rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 95 Speed in gears 43km/h @ 6100rpm 72km/h @ 6100rpm 107km/h @ 6100rpm 146km/h @ 6100rpm 191km/h @ 6100rpm 206km/h @ 5300rpm* 190km/h @ 4100rpm* Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 1.5sec 0-40km/h: 2.8sec 0-60km/h: 4.5sec 0-80km/h: 6.9sec 0-100km/h: 9.9sec 0-120km/h: 14.0sec 0-140km/h: 19.7sec 0-160km/h: 29.4sec 0-400m: 17.2sec @ 132.2km/h Rolling acceleration: Drive 80-12Okm/h: 7.0sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 39.0m

Verdict 6.0/10 Economy; performance; quality; dashboard design; space; practicality Firm ride; inert handling; dull steering; slow idle-stop; tyre noise Track: Heathcote Dragstrip, dry. Temp: 23°C.

Driver: Nathan Ponchard * Manufacturer’s claim or estimated value. Warranty: 3yr/unlimited km.

Service interval: 12 months/15,000km.

Glass’s 3-year resale: 50% AAMI insurance: $985 ** Includes leather trim ($1400) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

BMW 118i

$37,990/As tested $45,842** in-line 3, dohc, 12v, turbo front engine (north-south), rear drive 1499cc 100kW @ 4400rpm 220Nm @ 1250-4300rpm 8-speed automatic steel, 5 doors, 5 seats 4329/1765/1421/2690mm 1535/1569mm 1320kg 360 litres 95 octane/52 litres 8.0L/100km (test average) Front: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar Rear: multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar electric rack-and-pinion 10.9m (2.8 turns lock-to-lock) ventilated discs (284mm) solid discs (290mm) Bridgestone Potenza S001 225/45R17 91W (AUS) Performance Power-to-weight: 76kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 7000/6750rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 98 Speed in gears 51km/h @ 6750rpm 80km/h @ 6750rpm 119km/h @ 6750rpm 149km/h @ 6750rpm 195km/h @ 6750rpm 210km/h @ 5530rpm* 208km/h @ 4500rpm* 190km/h @ 3200rpm* Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 1.0sec 0-40km/h: 2.4sec 0-60km/h: 4.2sec 0-80km/h: 6.6sec 0-100km/h: 9.6sec 0-120km/h: 13.8sec 0-140km/h: 19.4sec 0-160km/h: 27.6sec 0-400m: 16.9sec @ 132.1km/h Rolling acceleration: Drive 80-12Okm/h: 6.9sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 39.1m 7.0/10 Keen steering; rear-drive handling purity; suave engine; front seats Springy ride; dated interior; lacks a digital speedo; road noise Track: Heathcote Dragstrip, dry. Temp: 22°C.

Driver: Nathan Ponchard * Manufacturer’s claim or estimated value. Warranty: 3yr/unlimited km.

Service interval: condition based. Glass’s 3-year resale: 59% AAMI insurance: $1088 ** Includes Urban Line ($1400), Chrome Line ($269), metallic paint ($1190), 17-inch alloys ($1231), sunroof ($2000), front sensors ($300), fine-wood ($385), driving assistant ($1077)

INFINITI Q30 GT

$38,900/As tested $40,100** in-line 4, dohc, 16v, turbo front engine (east-west), front drive 1595cc 115kW @ 5300rpm 250Nm @ 1240-4000rpm 7-speed dual-clutch steel, 5 doors, 5 seats 4425/1805/1495/2700mm 1572/1573mm 1470kg 430 litres 95 octane/50 litres 7.9L/100km (test average) Front: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar Rear: multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar electric rack-and-pinion 11.4m (2.6 turns lock-to-lock) ventilated discs (295mm) solid discs (295mm) Yokohama C-Drive 2 235/50R18 97V (AUS) Performance Power-to-weight: 78kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 6300/6300rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 98 Speed in gears 47km/h @ 6300rpm 74km/h @ 6300rpm 107km/h @ 6300rpm 151km/h @ 6300rpm 205km/h @ 6300rpm 215km/h @ 5060rpm* 200km/h @ 3800rpm* Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 1.4sec 0-40km/h: 2.7sec 0-60km/h: 4.4sec 0-80km/h: 6.7sec 0-100km/h: 9.5sec 0-120km/h: 13.3sec 0-140km/h: 18.3sec 0-160km/h: 26.4sec 0-400m: 17.0sec @ 134.8km/h Rolling acceleration: Drive 80-12Okm/h: 6.6sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 36.2m 7.0/10 Ride and seat comfort; strong brakes; ample equipment; long warranty No rear camera; divisive styling; incoherent dashboard design Track: Heathcote Dragstrip, dry. Temp: 21°C.

Driver: Nathan Ponchard * Manufacturer’s claim.

Warranty: 4yr/120,000km. Service interval: 12 months/25,000km. Glass’s 3-year resale: 48% AAMI insurance: $918 ** Includes metallic paint ($1200)

MERCEDES-BENZ A180

$38,400/As tested $44,070** in-line 4, dohc, 16v, turbo front engine (east-west), front drive 1595cc 90kW @ 5000rpm 200Nm @ 1250-4000rpm 7-speed dual-clutch steel, 5 doors, 5 seats 4299/1780/1433/2699mm 1539/1539mm 1320kg 341 litres 95 octane/50 litres 7.6L/100km (test average) Front: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar Rear: multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar electric rack-and-pinion 11.0m (2.3 turns lock-to-lock) ventilated discs (276mm) solid discs (258mm) Bridgestone Turanza T001 225/40R18 92W (AUS) Performance Power-to-weight: 65kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 6300/6300rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 98 Speed in gears 47km/h @ 6300rpm 75km/h @ 6300rpm 109km/h @ 6300rpm 153km/h @ 6300rpm 202km/h @ 6100rpm* 195km/h @ 4500rpm* 185km/h @ 3450rpm* Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 1.2sec 0-40km/h: 2.5sec 0-60km/h: 4.1sec 0-80km/h: 6.4sec 0-100km/h: 9.2sec 0-120km/h: 12.9sec 0-140km/h: 17.6sec 0-160km/h: 24.6sec 0-400m: 16.7sec @ 137.0km/h Rolling acceleration: Drive 80-12Okm/h: 6.5sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 37.9m 6.5/10 Focused performance and design; handling; sportiness; fuel efficiency Harsh ride; squeaky cabin; noise intrusion; lack of seat support Track: Heathcote Dragstrip, dry. Temp: 22°C.

Driver: Nathan Ponchard * Manufacturer’s claim.

Warranty: 3yr/unlimited km. Service interval: 12 months/25,000km. Glass’s 3-year resale: 49% AAMI insurance: $1162 ** Includes metallic paint ($1190), Vision Package (LED lights, sunroof – $2490), AMG line ($1990)

lofty Infiniti invariably reveals some degree of lateral motion for occupants, but the point is the Q30 isn’t trying to be a pocket rocket. It says so right there with the GT grand-touring badge.

That the Japanese marque also smashed the panicstop 100km/h-0 brake test by a sizeable margin (pipping even the Benz and shaming the others) further boosted our admiration for the engineers who tuned this car on craggy UK roads. Bravo, Infiniti.

Which leaves the BMW. The only rear-drive hatch here needs to be reassessed and celebrated for what it delivers to the keen driver. Even in its lowliest guise, the BMW’s chassis gels on the right road to provide smooth, flowing, and involving handling. Its steering feels the most connected of the quartet, as well as the most fluid, encouraging the driver to push hard, and delivering dynamic reward as a result.

The 118i’s ride comfort is fundamentally okay, though this is also very dependent on occupant numbers and the state of the bitumen. With only the front seats occupied, and on optional 17-inch rubber, the BMW’s suspension is firm and springy, but also fairly compliant over more serious hits, smoothing out speed humps with surprising insouciance.

Add two more passengers and the BMW’s comfort levels deteriorate, sometimes taking on a hard, jostling and noisy attitude that can be tiresome. As with its Mercedes-Benz rival, we feel it necessary to either move up the range or dive into the options list. In this case, check $2200 worth of adaptive dampers.

At least the 118i’s ride is fixable. The A3 1.0 TFSI’s retrograde rear suspension undermines the occupant comfort and dilutes the driving pleasure that comes so naturally to higher-spec variants. Not very Vorsprung Durch Technik. Despite the turbo-triple’s relatively enticing price, there’s much better value higher up the range. A 1.4 TFSI might have even won this comparison, so don’t discount Audi’s pioneer.

In many ways, the A180 with AMG Line is the most successfully focused and switched-on car here, delivering on its styling promise with unapologetic sportiness and fun – on the right roads. But the jarring suspension, road noise, squeaky trim and somewhat contrived cabin aren’t worthy of this great marque. The next-generation A-Class isn’t far away, by the way.

Undoubtedly the surprise of this comparo, the Q30 1.6t GT is a real grower – the calming ying to its Daimler cousin’s aggressive yang. Representing a wellequipped, comfortable, effortless, refined and quality alternative, the Infiniti isn’t nearly as confused as its multicultural heritage – or divisive styling inside and out – suggests. Plus this is the only hatch here that doesn’t require extra expenditure to cure any ill manners. But as the newest set of wheels here, merely matching rather than bounding over the ageing Teutons simply isn’t enough.

So the oldest car wins, almost by default, because the 118i displays BMW-in-a-concentrate dynamics, performance, efficiency, solidity, and technology, and manages to feel the most special as a result.

Occasionally irritating ride and the odd spec issue can’t keep the most on-brand contender down, but nor is this a brilliant victory either.

In fact, good as these four entry-level premium hatchbacks are, we feel that all might struggle against at least three cheaper mainstream alternatives in their most competitive spec – Volkswagen Golf, Peugeot 308 and Holden’s impressive new Astra (see our Megatest, Wheels January).

See, democracy can prevail in 2017.