On the sweeping roads we head to outside of Dubai, the Mercedes feels nervous. It’ll make a determined effort to go quickly off the line, but with James alongside me in the Golf I’m left behind before I’m out of second gear. As we traverse through golden dunes at pace, I’m quickly left behind as the A250 feels unsettled when pushed, the back end feeling light, as does the steering. There’s a numbness in feedback from the inputs I’m giving it, and when changing direction it takes too long to settle. This isn’t the dynamic experience that the exterior promises.
Jump in the GTI and it immediately feels like it’s ready to go. The throttle is sharp, the brakes more responsive. It doesn’t shout about it visually, but the GTI has an air of athleticism to it even when not being driven particularly hard.
However, the seat is considerably higher than in the Mercedes. This isn’t actually a problem, it’s not too lofty, but it’s a noticeable difference. In feel, when stationary, the GTI’s environment is more traditionally hatchback-ish than the Merc, more spacious and practically minded. It also doesn’t feel as upmarket. Don’t get me wrong, it feels solid in the way that all Volkswagens do, but it doesn’t feel as premium by way of materials used. The Mercedes is a clear step up in terms of segment. The Golf feels like a high-spec Volkswagen, while the A250 feels like a budget Mercedes, and they both meet at a similar point. That said, the VW is very nice – clearly a step forward from the previous generation. Once again, red stitching abounds and is clearly the feature of the moment to make one’s car feel sporty. There’s black leather effect on the dash rather than genuine cow-hide, although on our top-spec test car there are leather seats. They’re more ‘traditional’ seats than in the Merc, with separate head rests, but the sides are nicely bolstered.
Once settled in and acquainted with the controls, I instantly decide I prefer the GTI. It’s not a gradual contemplation of all the factors; straight away, within 20 seconds of going back over the same roads I’d traversed in the Merc, I’m more at home, more confident in what I can do with the Volkswagen. The steering is a big part of that – it’s more direct and gives more texture through the wheel, and the suspension soaks up bumps beautifully while still keeping excellent composure, settling almost immediately when flicking between bends. Even though I have only a few extra horsepower I drop James in the A250 easily, the engine striving for the limiter each time I squeeze on the juice, the turbo adding an extra dollop of power in an effort to achieve the next gear. There’s an eagerness, an enthusiasm to the Golf that’s infectious. I want to set it free, remove the leash and let it run. In the Merc I just wondered what was for dinner.
It sounds better too. The exhaust has been tuned to a deep burble and a bassy belch on each seamless gear change, while lifting off produces a faint hiss of turbo from under the bonnet. Lovely.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two cars, steering aside, is the braking performance at speed. The Golf spread its weight evenly when the anchors are thrown out, maintaining its cool and coming to a stop quickly, in a very controlled manner. By contrast, stamping on the A-Class’ large pedal at pace sends the back end into such a wriggle that I momentarily fear that I’m going to lose it. And this in a perfectly straight line. You can forget any thoughts of pushing boundaries into corners on the road, and I wouldn’t fancy taking it on track without a large run-off area.
The main difference between these two cars is the feel. The GTI feels like you’re having fun. The Mercedes insulates you from the outside world too much for the type of car it’s trying to be. Which is a shame, as it’s nicer than the Golf in every way apart from the driving; it lacks involvement. It’s competent, it’s comfortable, and it feels more premium. For those that want the look, and the badge, but don’t want to do more than cruise, it’s to be recommended. But it doesn’t put a smile on your face like the Volkswagen does.
The GTI has got all the compromises right. It’s very practical, it looks pretty good, it’s got loads of space inside and doesn’t feel like you’re getting into a cockpit. But it feels like it wants to go. You could take the kids to school and pop to the shops and still feel like you want to take the long and winding road home.
My wallet and I are breathing a large sigh of relief.
|Engine:||Inline 4-cyl / 1991cc / Turbo|
|Power:||208bhp @ 5500rpm|
|Torque:||258lb ft @ 1200-4000rpm|
|Transmission:||Seven-speed DCT, front wheel drive|
|Tyres:||225/45 R17 front and rear|
|Engine:||Inline 4-cyl / 1984cc / turbo|
|Power:||217bhp @ 4500-6300rpm|
|Torque:||258 lb ft @ 1500-4400rpm|
|Transmission:||Six-speed DSG, front wheel drive|
|Tyres:||225/45 R17 front and rear|